“Replacement theory” is the product of a strategy by wealthy White nationalists to enter the mainstream. It is based on ideas – honed over decades in the racist publications and conferences they funded – that stayed mostly on the margins until 2014, when through a strange twist of events it crashed into the internet’s biggest meme factories.
Since then, it has been the stated motivation of mass murderers, and it is why White supremacists were chanting, “Jews will not replace us,” at the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. More recently, it has crept in modified form into American politics. And in the past week, it emerged as the clear inspiration for the 180-page online document attributed to the White 18-year-old accused in America’s latest racist gun massacre.
Elements of replacement theory have been around a long time. The term was popularized by French writer Renaud Camus with his 2011 essay, “Le Grand Remplacement,” which posited White Europeans were being replaced by Muslim immigration.
To White nationalists now, replacement theory – according to hundreds of posts, interviews, and podcasts – goes like this: Jews, whom Camus did not mention, evolved to be clever; people in the entire Southern Hemisphere evolved to be less smart and have more sex; women evolved to be compliant and conformist. And here’s how this bizarre theory plays out: Jews trick White women into having babies with people of color, and they trick White men into becoming transgender, all in service of making the population less White and easier to control. Sometimes they claim Jews are in cahoots with “the elite,” but that’s often just code for Jews.
The goals of adherents to this conspiracy theory are vague, often represented by idealized images of White families with square-jawed husbands and well-behaved wives, or simply blonde women in wheatfields – literally, just pictures of women in fields. Some want to stop immigration to the United States or expel from it people of color, Jews, liberals or transgender people. But there is also just an overwhelming sense of nihilism. A post on the online forum 4chan after the Buffalo shooting reads: “This world is Hell. I hope we live to see more of it burn.”
Fascism has been making some big moves in the past decade in the US and Europe. Understanding how replacement theory grew and spread helps explain why.
An effort to cast off the ‘trash’ label
In the 2000s, White nationalists were frustrated with being portrayed as “White trash,” so their focus turned to trying to develop an upscale, academic veneer to their racism. An important vehicle for that was the Charles Martel Society, created in 2001 by textile heir Bill Regnery, who died last year. The group has been highly secretive. “I don’t know how you’re getting information regarding that,” White nationalist lawyer Bill Johnson told me last year of CMS. “I’ve been told not to say anything regarding that.”
The Charles Martel Society is a secret society of White nationalists who consider themselves intellectuals. “CMS is in many ways the heart,” said Matt Heimbach said, who cofounded the Traditionalist Worker Party and in 2020 said he left White nationalism and is a Marxist-Leninist. Other groups have different messages: the National Policy Institute, fronted by Richard Spencer and designed to “elevate the consciousness of whites”; the Occidental Quarterly, run by CMS member Kevin MacDonald and presenting itself as a scholarly journal; American Third Position, later rebranded as the American Freedom Party, led by Johnson with “a platform that is predicated on the preservation of our traditional European roots.”
“All the different fronts have a specific purpose to bring in slightly different groups of people,” Heimbach said. “But at the heart of it, it’s all, like, the same 30 dudes.” Through this network, White nationalists produced books and pseudoacademic journals purporting to show White people evolved to have higher IQs and commit less crime than people of color and Jews, who evolved to trick White people into supporting diversity.
These false claims were not just wild ravings; they had a public policy objective. The argument was that racial inequality is the product of evolution as dictated by nature – not by the rules and norms of society made by people – so government efforts to reduce inequality are doomed to fail. People could not override biology, unless they were Jewish, in which case the bounds appear, according to this propaganda, limitless.
It was eugenics, a discredited concept that is most closely associated with Nazis and was the basis for forced sterilization of people of color and the disabled in several US states into the 1970s. But White nationalists, including Regnery, preferred softer euphemisms, like “group differences” or “human biodiversity,” their public writings and group emails show – as if opposition to interracial families was part of the same noble spirit behind efforts to save the rainforests.
“We were going to be academically correct. Because we had science, everybody would have to agree with us, because science,” said Matt Parrott, who has publicly been a White nationalist since 2009 and cofounded the Traditionalist Worker Party with Heimbach. The thinking was, “We’ve just got to be more professional and academic and not be trashy racists.” The CMS crowd got together at conferences, and, according to National Policy Institute frontman Richard Spencer, the message was always the same: “IQ scores, crime stats, vote Republican.”
Republicans mostly kept their distance, with occasional incidents like a senator’s aide’s resignation after the revelation of his neo-Confederate past, or senators returning donations from a White nationalist group after a mass shooting, or a governor issuing a statement clarifying his position on a segregationist group or a presidential candidate denying reading or writing racist newsletters that bore his name. “Elected officials view our views as a kiss of death,” Johnson told me.
Word spreads in a dark online alley
Then in 2014, Gamergate happened, which nearly every White nationalist I’ve spoken with said dramatically changed the White power movement. Gamergate is complicated, but the important part here is imageboard 8chan welcomed trolls angry at calls for more diversity in video games. There, and on 4chan, they mingled with neo-Nazis, and a massive wave of young people entered what had been an old man’s world of White nationalism. Parrott was 27 when he became an open White nationalist and said over five years he went from being the youngest guy in the room to the oldest guy in the room.
The alleged Buffalo shooter seems to have followed a similar path, the document he posted online indicates. He went to 4chan for forums about guns and the outdoors but found the /pol/ – for “politically incorrect” – forum, where neo-Nazis dominate the discourse. “There I learned through infographics, s**tposts, and memes that the White race is dying out,” his document says. “I never even saw this information until I found these sites.”
The energy and malleability of these 4chan people was apparent to many, including Steve Bannon, who in 2014 was running the news site Breitbart. Bannon, who would go on to become a top counselor to President Donald Trump, told the author Joshua Green for his 2017 book, “You can activate that army. They come in through Gamergate or whatever, and then get turned onto politics and Trump.” Bannon was not available to comment for this story, a spokesperson said.
But after Charlottesville, Bannon said: “I was of the opinion that you should condemn both the racist and the neo-Nazis because they’re getting a free ride … off Donald Trump,” he told CBS’ “60 Minutes.” “They’re getting a free ride. Because it’s a small group, it’s a vicious group. They add no value.” A few weeks earlier, he’d said, “Ethno-nationalism – it’s losers. It’s a fringe element,” according to British newspaper The Evening Standard.
Some of the movement’s fledgling members might have started out as “ironic” racists, trying to troll people with the worst they could imagine. But over time, it stuck. In 2016, Spencer told me young guys would come up to him and say they’d initially researched scientific racism just to be better online trolls but in the process convinced themselves of White supremacy. Spencer, then still enamored with the new wave of internet racists, marveled, “It started as a joke, and then became real.”
The trolls did not match the old professional racists’ stuffy style, but they found use in their pseudoscientific graphics. Day after day, they posted the same charts and graphs purporting to show stark racial differences, stripped of all context. The culture of one-upmanship, combined with limitless space on the internet, meant some posts about replacement theory were breathtaking both in their contempt for human life and their exhaustive detail.
In 2015, Dylann Roof murdered nine people in a historically Black church in Charlestown, South Carolina. Roof did not explicitly mention 4chan and neither does the psychological evaluation of Roof entered into evidence at his sentencing. But the evaluation offers a window into this process. It says during the “critical years between ages of 14 and 18,” Roof was reading racist information on the internet but did not have real-life conversations with people who could counter those claims. Roof “explained that the more extreme views he encountered online were off-putting at first, but he got more and more accustomed to them as he continued reading.”
When Roof’s own document explaining his motivations was posted online, Regnery emailed other White nationalists that he was “flabbergasted” by his intelligence. “Based on Roof’s essay he is the kind of youth we could have invited to a meeting,” Regnery wrote.
The document posted by the alleged Buffalo shooter includes the same charts that have circulated on 4chan for years, and part of it is copied from other mass shooters’ documents. At least one of the charts cites as a source an old White nationalist publication. Another part makes the false claim that “Jews are spreading ideas such as critical race theory and White shame/guilt to brainwash Whites into hating themselves and their people.” Again, this lie is central to the value of replacement theory as propaganda: anything presented as a well-meaning effort to make society more equitable is actually a nefarious plot to hurt White people.
Before the Buffalo shooting, Spencer had read a book with a similar thesis to “Le Grand Remplacement” also by Camus – whose name doesn’t come up much on White nationalist forums – and since then has read the accused shooter’s document, he said. When an idea like replacement theory “goes into the realm of 4chan, it becomes mimetic in the sense that it’s trying to reproduce itself and evolve. It’s a gene. And in order to reproduce itself and reach more people, it goes into more salacious forms. … It just descends into this horrible place in order to reproduce,” he said. Spencer does not want to be involved in the White nationalist movement, he said, but still thinks “race is real.”
How the old guard lost control
Of course, for outsiders, the pillars of replacement theory are a big pill to swallow. The White power movement knows this. At the 2017 Unite the Right rally, marchers initially chanted, “You will not replace us.” This was an intentional political tactic. “As far as optics with the potential to reach normies goes, I thought this slogan was perfect,” read an essay posted after the event at the White nationalist website, Counter Currents. The slogan positioned the marchers “as standing on the defensive against an outside assault which others have initiated against us.”
He’d had some success, he said, until “my successful red-pilling of that whole crowd of normies was cut short when someone shared video making it clear that the marchers were in fact yelling, ‘Jews will not replace us.’” The softened version of the chant would have made for an easier path to radicalization, he wrote: “I could have later explained more carefully the role Jews have tended to play in American immigration policy. And they wouldn’t have been scared away.”
The older White nationalists had been happy the internet brought in more young people, according to interviews with Heimbach, Parrott and Spencer, until efforts to speak their language led to enormous public blowback and violence. In 2018, Regnery reprimanded Spencer over the state of the White power movement, according to emails seen by CNN. Since the high point of the 2016 election, Regnery wrote to Spencer and other White nationalists, the alt-right had taken a “descent into banality.” He cataloged 10 embarrassments, failures and feuds. Several were the product of catering to the internet crowd.
When in 2016, Spencer heiled Trump as though he were Hitler, it was “the perfect gaffe that turned a signature event from victory to retreat,” he wrote. “A handful of twentysomething males were beguiled by a heady mixture of rhetoric and testosterone to strike a tableau worth 1,000 incriminating charges.” In Charlottesville, they’d been “made to look like Hells Angels in khaki, Polo and loafers.” These actions, Regnery said, had “made it easy for the Silicon Valley social media commissars to deplatform the movement.”
And yet, within a of couple years, a softened version of replacement theory started showing up in mainstream places. It replaces Jews with elites. Instead of stoking fears about interracial sex, it’s immigration and riots. And the goal is more concrete: political power. So, in the watered-down version of replacement theory, liberal elites are filling the country with immigrants and making it easier to vote so they can gain more power in Washington, DC.
When Fox News host Tucker Carlson talks about replacement theory, he suggests the voting population – not the overall population – is being replaced, though the supposed motivation is the same: bringing in people who are easier to control. “I know that the left and all the little gatekeepers on Twitter become literally hysterical if you use the term ‘replacement,’ if you suggest that 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,” he said in April 2021. “But they become hysterical because that’s what’s happening, actually. Let’s just say it: That’s true.”
After the Buffalo shooting Carlson said, “You’ve heard a lot about the great replacement theory recently … We’re still not sure exactly what it is. … Here’s what we do know for a fact: There is a strong political component to the Democratic Party’s immigration policy. We’re not guessing this. We know this and we know it because they have said so.”
A few days after Carlson’s April 2021 statements, Republican Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania said “many Americans” believed “we’re replacing national-born Americans, native-born Americans to permanently transform the landscape of this very nation.” That September, the campaign of Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York posted a Facebook ad that claimed, “Radical Democrats are planning their most aggressive move yet: a PERMANENT ELECTION INSURRECTION … Their plan to grant amnesty to 11 MILLION illegal immigrants will overthrow our current electorate and create a permanent liberal majority in Washington.” Last month on Fox News, when asked why President Joe Biden allowed “virtually an open border,” Brandon Judd, president of the union that represents US Border Patrol agents, said, “I believe that they’re trying to change the demographics of the electorate; that’s what I believe they’re doing.”
Perry’s spokesman this week told CNN “any attempts by partisan hacks and their media enablers to label Congressman Perry a racist or an acolyte of any racist theories or beliefs are dangerous, dishonest, and downright disgusting.” Stefanik’s office referred me to a statement her senior adviser made this week: “The shooting was an act of evil and the criminal should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Despite sickening and false reporting, Congresswoman Stefanik has never advocated for any racist position or made a racist statement.” As for the border union chief, “neither Mr. Judd or the National Border Patrol Council had even heard of the replacement theory” when he made those comments, an agency spokesman said, adding Judd supports legal immigration. “However, changing the demographics of the electorate is something that has been spoken of many, many times in the past by the left.”
So, what do adherents to any or all these ideas want to happen? For those advancing the laundered version of replacement theory, there are policy solutions: more restrictions on immigration and voting – and what do you know, these measures could end up keeping many of them in power. For those who believe in the explicit White supremacist takes, the options are vague or distant, like dividing America into regions for different ethnicities. For the anonymous users on 4chan, from which the alleged Buffalo shooter seems to have drawn so much inspiration, the choices are darker.
Explicit violent threats on 4chan are often shot down as “fedposting,” or motivated by a desire to create evidence for federal law enforcement. But mass murderers become icons. A group of trolls named themselves “Bowl Patrol,” after Roof’s haircut. When I read the manifesto of the Christchurch shooter in 2019, my first thought was he wanted to become a brand recognized by racist teenagers – to become a meme. He succeeded. The Buffalo shooter’s racist writings makes many references to Christchurch, and he imitated that shooter in some ways he carried out his assault. He likely knew, just like the Christchurch shooter, he could not affect White birthrates – but he could become a meme.