Understanding the ‘Great Replacement’, a conspiracy theory which forms the ‘ideological glue’ of the far right

In any political movement a lingua franca emerges which unites its members. There is nothing unique about this. And the far right is no different. In articles, videos, and memes spread by its adherents, certain terms are used as signifiers to others. And to the uninitiated these terms sound relatively mundane.

But look a little deeper and the terms have a more sinister meaning. In some cases they are shorthand for vast conspiracy theories which posit that global elites are intent on destroying the so-called white race. This is a conspiracy theory that has motivated far-right terrorists who have gone on to murder innocent people.

This particular conspiracy theory is known as the “Great Replacement”.

The “ideological glue” of the far right

Earlier this year the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) published a report on the term. It points out that there is nothing new in the promotion of conspiracy theories which argue that white people are slowing being wiped out. In fact, it argues that such thinking ends up

providing the ideological glue which ties together an increasingly cohesive, networked and transnational extreme-right.

The “Great Replacement” is no different then. It is a descriptor of the supposedly global conspiracy to “replace” the white population, especially in Europe. This is being achieved, so the argument goes, “at an ethnic and cultural level, through migration and the growth of minority communities”.

It’s highlighted by the ISD that specific “ethnic and religious groups” are “singled out” as the enemies of white people. These groups are, it writes, “primarily Muslims”.

And the ISD opines that the “Great Replacement” theory has come to “represent an evolution” of older white supremacist conspiracy theories around “white genocide”. Only now it declares that this and similar ideas have reached “a more worrying and potentially dangerous realm” in the use of the “Great Replacement” theory by the far right.

From dystopia to apocalypse

According to the ISD the term relies on “five prevalent crisis narratives”, as identified by an expert in extremism. These narratives are: Conspiracy, dystopia, impurity, existential threat, and apocalypse.

Adherents of the “Great Replacement” assert “that progressive politicians, the media and globalists are working concertedly, actively and purposively to destroy native Europeans and their culture(s)”. Muslims, the ISD writes, are seen as “implicit in these plans because of the perception that they innately desire to destroy Western civilisation”.

When it comes to the dystopian element, its adherents believe in the idea of “migration as the cause of downfall and degradation in society”. Governments, technology companies, and the mass media are seen as the architects of the future dystopia. To that end, believers in the theory home in on what they believe is censorship of the far right by

the government and social media companies to suggest an Orwellian system is being created to permanently silence proponents of the Great Replacement theory.

The dystopian aspect also involves drawing attention to “perceived increases in crime and violence, urban decay and economic deprivation in diverse communities”.

When it comes to impurity, proponents of the theory “stress the impurity of migrants”. They place particular emphasis on Muslim people due to the belief that they are “the source of the supposed decay of Europe”. And they promote this in the public sphere with reference to various crime and economic statistics that are flawed or misrepresented.

Believers also focus in on the existential threat and resultant apocalypse which the theory suggests. Quite simply, the “Great Replacement” posits that migration itself is an existential threat to Europe and white people. As the ISD notes, the theory imparts the idea “that migration threatens the physical wellbeing of native citizens”. From here, advocates of the “Great Replacement”

use this existential threat to demonstrate that assimilation and cohabitation are impossible and only resolvable through extreme action such as forced segregation, deportation or even genocide.

Inspiring violence

As for the term itself it originated in the 2011 book, Le Grand Remplacement (The Great Replacement), by French philosopher Renaud Camus. Since then use of the term has steadily grown. This has been in part thanks to Camus himself.

In spite of its almost mundane origins, the ISD also found that:

The Great Replacement theory contains the seeds to inspire extreme and violent action

Given this, it is not surprising that the “Great Replacement” featured in the manifestos of the Christchurch and El Paso terrorists. In the case of the latter, he wrote about the “cultural and ethnic replacement” of his fellow Americans. While the Christchurch terrorist railed against “the complete racial and cultural replacement” of white people in Europe.

It also isn’t surprising given the sheer popularity of the term. The ISD went on to note that in recent years the “Great Replacement” has become one of the most common terms used by the far right. Between April 2012 and April 2019 it found 1.5 million tweets in English, French, and Germany, which referenced it. In fact, as the report highlights:

The volume of tweets steadily increased in the seven years leading up to the Christchurch attack, with the number of tweets mentioning the theory nearly tripling in four years from just over 120,000 in 2014 to just over 330,000 in 2018.

Although memes and an “extremist subculture” on the internet have helped in its spread, the dominant social media platforms have not lost their importance. The likes of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube “remain important avenues” for spreading the idea “as they provide the opportunity to reach and radicalise new audiences”.

Perhaps exemplifying this is that there’s also an overlap between those who reference the theory and who also hold other right-wing or far-right views. According to a poll carried out YouGov-Cambridge Centre for Public Opinion Research,

30% of people who voted to leave the European Union in the referendum in 2016 believed in the Great Replacement theory (as opposed to 6% of remain voters).

This appears to be in line with the ISD’s own view about politicians referring to the “Great Replacement” and associated terms. By using this language politicians are involved in a process of “courting voters sympathetic to more extreme viewpoints”. And this signifies

the extent to which fringe groups are able to influence mainstream political and public discourse around key wedge issues like migration

The Irish Context

The theory is common amongst the far right in Ireland. This is not surprising. Nor is the fact that such ideas appear to be making inroads into mainstream political discourse here.

Although it may be a conspiracy theory, it is a dangerous one in that it can inspire violence. The ISD report is blunt in its assessment, stating:

it is clear that the theory lends itself to calls for radical action against minority communities – including ethnic cleansing, violence and terrorism.

Ireland is not immune from this. Events over the last 12 months have shown as much. But the authorities, media, and politicians in Ireland have been slow to realise the threat.

Until they realise the scale of the threat that’s festering just below the surface, the far right will continue to be able to organise, recruit, and attack. Perhaps that realisation will only come when someone is murdered because they aren’t white enough.

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons – Library of Congress

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