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The Great Replacement Theory is a crude, racist lie… and it’s winning

Its misguided logic underpins the ideas of far right movements. Now, it’s started to influence the fringes of conservativism as well

The ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Photo: Zach D Roberts/NurPhoto

On May 14, Payton Gendron shot 10 fellow Americans, almost all of them black, in Buffalo, New York. The 18-year old live-streamed the shooting on a channel followed by video game players. Before embarking on his racist murder spree, he issued a 180-page manifesto whose guiding idea is the Great Replacement Theory.

Gendron believes immigration is a form of genocide against the “white race”; that the collaborators with this occupation are liberals, lawyers and above all feminists – whose fight for reproductive rights depresses the white birth rate.

Behind it all are “cultural Marxists” – inspired by the Frankfurt School of Social Research – who have plotted to undermine capitalism by undermining patriarchy and racial hierarchies.

He outlined his desire not only to terrify black people, and deter migrants, but to “create an atmosphere of fear and change in which drastic, powerful and revolutionary action can occur”. This is the mythical “Day X”, in which modernity and enlightenment end with a global war that produces monocultural ethno-states.

You don’t need to read the manifesto or watch the video to know that here, in words, thoughts and actions, is the complete ideology of modern fascism.

It spreads through networks. The monitoring group Unicorn Riot recorded at least 80 interactions by a person likely to be Gendron with white supremacist and gun-obsessed Discord channels. So it did not need a mesmerising leader to radicalise Gendron, nor the kind of Tavern culture that did the job for the Sturmabteilung in the 1930s. The online sewer of bulletin boards and gaming channels allowed him to radicalise himself.

The fascist mass shooter has become, in our century, a recognisable human stereotype. Always male, frequently suffering from social and personal failure, always eloquent and verbose in their calls for genocide.

If they were isolated at the extremes it would be bad enough. But the logic of “Great Replacement” underpins not only the ideas of far-right movements: it has begun to structure the thinking of right-wing populist parties and the fringes of conservatism as well.

Formulated in 2010 by the French author Renaud Camus, the GRT is in fact a rehash of the theories of the pre-1914 Aryan supremacist Houston Stewart Chamberlain.

Chamberlain claimed that Jews had “rushed into Europe like an enemy” and would soon overwhelm all Europe’s peoples, leaving themselves the only “pure” race and the rest “a herd of pseudo-Hebraic mestizos [mixed-race], a people beyond all doubt degenerate physically, mentally and morally”.

The Buffalo shooter did not need to go to the extreme edges of the internet to find a modern version of the theory. He could have watched it on Fox News. In April 2021 Tucker Carlson, the most popular TV host in America, told viewers:

“The Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate, the voters now casting ballots, with new people, more obedient voters, from the third world… Let’s just say it: That’s true.”

The theory – then and now – is of course rubbish, as many far-right activists find to their shock when they take a DNA test.

I am white. Yet according to my DNA test, I am 27% Ashkenazy Jewish from one side of the family, and the other side left North Africa recently enough for my great-grandmother, who had dark skin and jet black hair, to believe she was of Roma descent.

The DNA of every human being alive is the product of historic mass migrations: the “white race”, for which the supremacists claim hierarchical privileges, is a fiction.

What fascists like Gendron really object to is modernity. Not just the socially liberal modernity of the 21st century but the modernity that began with Galileo and Spinoza. That is why their most mesmeric philosophical guru, Putin favourite Aleksandr Dugin, once fantasised about reversing history. If we can reverse Russia from communism to capitalism, wrote Dugin, why can’t we reverse back to feudalism, slave society, or even the primordial hunter-gather state?

What can we do in the face of recurrent fascist violence? We can control guns. We can demand the shutdown of internet platforms promoting violence. We can actively police the far right. But the nihilism of the mass shooters, and their supporters, is the product of a deeper fear that will not easily go away.

They fear complexity, heterogeneity. They fear the image of the woman liberated from her reproductive biology. As the psychiatrist Wilhelm Reich observed, they fear freedom – especially the freedom of people who the ideology tells them are not supposed to be free: black people, women, refugees, LGBTQ+ people.

By the time it has populated the imaginations of young men who don’t really care if they live or die, the Great Replacement Theory is uncontrollable. Our task is to counter it at source: in schools, among teenage gamers, in the right-wing university circles where it is whispered, on the billionaire-owned TV channels where it is laundered.

If you feel helpless in the face of the ethnonationalist hate being propagated, find a teenager in your circle, and ask them if they’ve heard about the Great Replacement, or “white genocide”. It may surprise you how many have. Next ask yourself: could I arm them with enough science, logic, morality and intellectual courage to win the argument in the schoolyard or the university bar? It may surprise you how hard the argument is to win.

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