Most Americans probably encountered the insidious notion of "replacement theory" for the first time in the wake of the horrific mass murder of 10 African Americans in Buffalo, New York in May. The shooter targeted a Black neighborhood for reasons detailed in a crude 180-page "manifesto" posted online shortly before his attack, which emphasized a fear that white Americans were being deliberately replaced by political, economic, and cultural elites.
But anyone closely following the French presidential contest in April would likely have heard of this theory, or something approximating it, much earlier. The first round of that contest included Éric Zemmour, a far-right candidate and television pundit regarded as a popularizer of the so-called “great replacement” theory. This theory is partly attributed to a French writer, Renaud Camus, who maintained that previous generations of European immigrants had been drawn by “love” for France, but newer arrivals since the 1970s—mostly from France’s former colonies—didn’t come “as friends,” but as conquerors and colonizers, motivated by revenge and a desire to punish France.
Some formulations of this theory are less conspiratorial, but no less virulent, claiming that, whether by design or accident, the population growth of immigrants and their descendants, Muslims, and non-white peoples are threatening French identity, institutions and culture by replacing "legacy" (read: white and Christian) French people in the polity, gradually transforming French society.
But even one of the more centrist candidates in the April contest, Valérie Pécresse, shockingly invoked the “great replacement” in a major campaign speech. The fact that this formerly-fringe conspiracy theory was promulgated by high-profile mainstream politicians in that contest was seen as a troubling development in France.
Unfortunately, America is no stranger to such sentiments. Nativist movements in the 19th century, epitomized by the Know-Nothing Party, were horrified by the surge of Catholic immigrants from Ireland and Germany. Decrying “papists,” they expressed deep fears that Catholic immigrants might extend the reach and influence of the Vatican over American political communities. These fears were prominent even in the election of 1960, a century later, as many voters openly wondered whether, as president, John F. Kennedy would be able to make decisions independent of the Catholic Church. To assuage such fears, Kennedy gave a major campaign speech about religion and politics while also attacking the bigotry which underpinned these critiques.
Although there are many prominent and recent expressions of replacement theory among the political fringe (including the notorious “Jews will not replace us” chants at the “Unite the Right” event in Charlottesville, VA in 2017), expressions of "replacement theory" are not uncommon among our political and media elites:
There are three important features that remain overlooked or misunderstood amidst the recent uptick in coverage and commentary on replacement theory in the wake of the Buffalo massacre.
The first important fact to understand is that the premise of replacement theory—that one group is being replaced or displaced by another—is generalizable and ancient, not new and specific. Replacement theory is and not restricted to white or Christian (or Protestant) supremacist movements. In fact, perhaps the earliest expression of replacement theory is found in Exodus, the second book of the Bible. The first chapter of Exodus explained that the new Egyptian Pharaoh greatly feared the growth and strength of the Hebrew population within the empire, complaining that the “Israelites have become far too numerous for us,” and thereby embarked on a campaign of enslavement. Regardless of whether this is a historical account, it perfectly encapsulates the idea, and the consequences.
Nor are more contemporary expressions of replacement theory always connected with white or Christian nationalism, as has often been suggested or implied by the recent media stories. To take just two recent examples, in India and Myanmar (predominantly Hindu and Buddhist and non-white countries), various politicians and prominent figures have stoked fears that Muslims are trying to “take over.” Indeed, the expression of another group "taking over" is one of the key tropes found in all expressions of replacement theory. Prominent expression of these fears have been precursors to communal violence and even genocide in both India and Myanmar.
This is the second important point to understand: When members of a social group are told by political elites or media that their cultural unit or social group is under attack, they can be readily motivated to violence and are more likely to justify violence "in defense" of their group. We may think that the only things worth fighting for are our physical safety or material conditions, such as protecting our property or livelihoods. If anything, history has taught us the opposite. From the ancient Peloponnesian wars to the Crusades to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, wars are tightly bound up with conceptions of group identity—a need to protect, defend or preserve one’s cultural, linguistic, or religious unit. More on this in a moment.
When a particular social group feels under attack because of their identity, this is called an “identity threat.” When a group is threatened or attacked in some way, the targeted identity becomes more salient and more central to the lives of their members. When policymakers enact anti-LGBTQ legislation, then LGBTQ persons are not only more likely to feel an identity threat, but also feel that their sexual orientation and/or gender identity is more central to their being and sense of self. The attack on Ukraine by Russian forces may have paradoxically helped cement Ukrainian national identity and deepened solidarity through resistance.
This dynamic is not unusual, and in fact this is how marginalized identities are often formed. Many marginalized social group identities are created, formed or strengthened in reaction to forms of broad social oppression. Asian-American and AAPI identity may have deepened in response to a spate of violence targeting Asian-Americans since the onset of the pandemic. Members of a group under threat will often organize in solidarity to protect their interests, well-being and safety.
But identity threats work equally, and perhaps even more powerfully, on members of non-marginalized groups. This is the third, and perhaps most important thing to understand about replacement theory: members of dominant groups may be the most likely to engage in violence when they feel a sense of "falling" or cultural displacement. Thus, identity threat in the case of historically dominant groups is not just a threat to identity, it is a status threat—a threat to the status of that group.
Political scientists call this “dominance syndrome.” In conditions of rapid demographic or cultural change, previously dominant social groups often experience a "fear of falling." This is exceptionally dangerous when stoked by media and politicians, because this fear is easily weaponized and manipulated by demagogues. When members of dominant social groups feel that their position in society is under attack or they are losing power, influence or respect in society, they may undermine political stability by supporting radical, anti-establishment political parties or leadership and public safety by being more inclined to support or resort to violence to maintain that power, influence and control.
Thus, in the Jim Crow south, the white power structure often responded to civil rights protests not only with a more strident defense of segregation, but with increasing state violence and extrajudicial murders. Similarly, in South Africa, growing resistance to the Apartheid state was met with greater repression.
The dynamic that status threats can easily trigger violence works at the level of nations as well. This insight is the basis for the so-called “Thucydides Trap,” the observation that hegemonic powers tend to go to war against rising powers. Thus, in the Peloponnesian wars, Athens and Sparta warred not over territory or trade routes, but a fear of waning prestige, power and dominance. And Putin’s conquest ambitions are about reuniting the “Russky Mir” or Russian speaking world (which is why he targeted eastern Ukraine), and rebuilding the lost prestige of the Soviet Union and overcoming the psychic trauma and humiliation of its dissolution. The main point is that the greatest danger is not always from the most powerful, but from those who feel that they are losing power, prestige or have been humiliated.
A few years ago, an American political scientist persuasively argued that “status threat”—or fear of cultural displacement—was the primary explanatory variable for Trump’s victory in 2016, and not economic conditions per se. The evidence showed that Trump’s greatest support was not among the lower-income people, as would be suggested if his appeal was primarily economic or in places that had the greatest increase in diversity or demographic change, as would be expected if it was raw animus that undergirded his appeal. Rather, Trump’s greatest support was among relatively affluent people in counties that had lost manufacturing jobs or suffered relative economic decline. Thus, it was the "fear of falling" among relatively well-off people that appeared to undergird Trump’s support.
The key to understanding many of our current political dysfunctions—and not just in the United States—is that the fight for inclusion and equity is generally accompanied by the ontological anxiety of identity threat, the fear of falling and cultural displacement among groups that were traditionally dominant. This is fertile ground for conspiracies like replacement theory and political backlash to equity and inclusion. This is why members of materially well-off social groups can, paradoxically, behave like aggrieved victims. This also explains the frustrating reality that both members of marginalized groups and traditionally dominant groups can simultaneously feel a lack of belonging in society.
This is something we must confront and work on if we are to build a society of greater belonging. In the meantime, politicians and other leaders must take heed. Replacement theory is an ancient trope, not a recent one. And it is not a byproduct of white supremacy, but rather an expression of status threats and fuel for violence. When multiple groups feel simultaneously under siege, societies can fracture and that violence can spiral outward, touching everyone. Replacement theory is a danger to all of us, and its exponents are playing with fire, fanning the flames of hatred and stoking the potential for more violence.