How a dangerous right-wing conspiracy theory became part of the midterm election season

This week, the nation marked the fourth anniversary of the Tree of Life massacre that left 11 people dead at a Pittsburgh synagogue. The suspected white gunman had a history of posting antisemitic slurs on social media associated with what’s known as the “great replacement” conspiracy theory. This same dangerous theory, which promotes the baseless idea that there is a plot to weaken the influence of white people in America, has also been peddled by some mainstream Republican candidates during the 2022 midterm election season. To help further explain just how dangerous the conspiracy theory is, where it came from and how it made its way into mainstream politics, Yahoo News spoke with Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism; Marilyn Mayo, senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism; and Michael Edison Hayden, senior investigative reporter at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Video transcript


MARJORIE TAYOR GREENE: Joe Biden's 5 million illegal aliens are on the verge of replacing you, replacing your jobs, and replacing your kids in school, and coming from all over the world. They're also replacing your culture.

JD VANCE: The Democratic leadership, the people he answers to in Washington DC, they're very explicit about that. They say that they want more and more immigration because if that happens, they'll ensure that Republicans are never able to win another national election.


HEIDI BEIRICH: The great replacement, I call it a conspiracy theory, is a white supremacist idea that there is a plot, either orchestrated by elites, or globalists, or sometimes Jews in an anti-Semitic version, to replace white populations in what they consider their home countries with people of color. And the key thing is this is viewed as an orchestrated plot. So there's something being done specifically by these terrible forces to basically wipe out white people in what they consider their countries.


MARILYN MAYO: This idea has been around for quite some time,, but the most recent iteration really comes from a French writer named Renaud Camus, who wrote a book and before that, an essay called, "The Great Replacement." He was writing about Europe and about immigrants from Africa and Arab countries replacing white Europeans. And of course, white nationalists around the world were very much influenced by this essay.


The great replacement theory has inspired a number of extremist murderers. And we've seen a rash of horrendous extremists mass murders in the last few years. Anders Breivik in Norway, who has inspired a lot of the people who came after him, because he killed 77 people because he was opposed to immigration and wrote a manifesto about that, about being opposed to immigrants coming into Norway, and Europe, et cetera.

The people who came after him very specifically, and I'm talking about Brenton Tarrant, and I'm talking about Patrick Crusius, as well as the shooter in Buffalo, they all mention the great replacement specifically. And actually said that this was a motivation for the act that they were carrying out.


TUCKER CARLSON: 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. But they become hysterical, because that's what's happening actually. Let's just say it, that's true.

HEIDI BEIRICH: Tucker Carlson of Fox News has brought up the replacement many, many times, and essentially endorsed that it is actually happening. And after the Buffalo mass shooting where the shooter was inspired by the great replacement theory, Tucker Carlson tried to blame Democrats for engaging in replacement.

TUCKER CARLSON: The great replacement? Yeah, it's not a conspiracy theory, it's their electoral strategy. And we know that because they say it all the time.

MARILYN MAYO: It's been weaponized in many ways because it's being talked about by these pundits and politicians in basically in the context of these people are coming over and they're going to take your position, your job, or something away from you. And therefore, you need to fear these people.

- Congressman, what is your opinion of the great replacement theory?

TIM RYAN: I think it's nonsense. I think it is grounded in some of the most racial, divisive-- racially divisive writings in the history of the world. And this is who he's running around with, talking about replacement theory. There's no big grand conspiracy. This is a country who's been enriched by immigrants.

JD VANCE: You are so desperate for political power that you'll accuse me, the father of three beautiful biracial babies, of engaging in racism. We are sick of it. You can believe in a border without being a racist.

HEIDI BEIRICH: I think the way that the great replacement has become so mainstream in terms of an electoral strategy for candidates goes back to Trump making the decision to take on Latinos, take on immigrants right from that first day when he announced his run. And by doing that, they injected a racial issue around immigration into campaigns.

And so now, conservatives are using this as a way to mobilize their base, by demonizing immigrants, by using the great replacement to argue that there's some sort of plot involved with people coming here. And to get their base riled up on a racial issue to come out and vote.


MICHAEL EDISON HAYDEN: Our polling found that close to 70% of Republicans believe that this kind of great replacement theory is being orchestrated by liberal elites, essentially that elites are stepping in to try to change the demographics of the United States either gain a political advantage, or to weaken white people and white people's political power in the United States.

This has been a trend that is, while disappointing, is also not at all surprising given the kind of rhetoric that we've seen from people with massive audiences starting really in 2015 and coming here. The normalization of that rhetoric is really undeniable.