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For thirty years, Americans have been wrestling with a still-unresolved question about the Internet. Did it simply expose ideas and sentiments that were already there to the view of a reading public that had previously been protected by a bristling wall of editors, publishers, and other gatekeepers? Did online media simply show us the truth about the real distribution of authoritarian, racist or sectarian views in American society? Or did the structure of online media allow a miniscule fringe of extremists to project their views outward to larger publics and to recruit more followers, right up to seizing the Republican Party over the last decade?
As with all such oppositions, the answer is plainly “both”. And in some other sense “neither”. Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies, for example, sketches out a pathway into extreme views that begins as a sort of rhetorical maneuver within very particular online spaces, an almost-bemused and trollish way to get attention through provocations against conventional wisdom, but eventually the trolls get so attached to particular kinds of provocations (in part because they so reliably cause so much turmoil and reaction) that they start to really believe in what they’re saying.
There are views which were and I think still are “fringe” which have gotten more attention because of the openness of social media and online publication. The Flat Earth Society is probably numerically smaller in terms of actual membership than it was in its various forms between 1956 and 1980 (it’s hard to tell exactly for a number of reasons) but its existence is probably known to far more people than it would have been in the 1980s and 1990s, because it is such a reliable foil for so many people (“can you believe anybody believes this?”) but also because it has numerous unspecified alignments and overlaps with many other fringe beliefs and organizations that in a pre-Internet age wouldn’t have connected or been in meaningful dialogue with one another.
On the other side of things, though, there’s a lot of reason to think that the public culture that thinks of itself as mainstream sensible American values and viewpoints has had to reckon with just how much of the country thinks otherwise and has thought otherwise for quite some time. In 1980, polite society—both “liberal” and “conservative”—could complacently afford to think of The John Birch Society, Bob Avakian’s Revolutionary Communist Party or Lyndon LaRouche’s supporters as entry-point markers of a miniscule outer fringe of American opinion whose adherents might have mimeographed newsletters, a New York bookstore, or streetcorners and folding tables outside of supermarkets, but had no real relevance to or derivations from mainstream American thought. Goldwater and McGovern had tested the limits of ‘extremism’ on either end and the consensus had held.
You can still see the archaeological fragments of this complacency in how pundits and politicians scramble to label the concept of “replacement theory” and how it motivated an 18-year old to murder random Black strangers in Buffalo as an insane, extreme, marginal idea that was only available to the shooter due to the ungoverned and irresponsible character of online media and tools. If it weren’t for the Internet, we’re being told, this kid wouldn’t have had 4chan and 8chan, he wouldn’t have been able to read the New Zealand shooter’s manifesto, and so on. Some might go so far as to say “And even Tucker Carlson wouldn’t be feeding ‘replacement theory’ because it never would have made it into mainstream thought, even the content of Republican propaganda in more conventional old media is being fed by Internet extremism”.
This at least is historically wrong. “Replacement theory” is just a new name for a very old and historically powerful idea in American history that at times has been a dominant mainstream concept that was well-integrated into public policy and major civic institutions. It’s a rebranding of the kind of nativism that coalesced first around hostility to Irish immigration in the 1840s and then shaped electoral politics and policies aiming to restrict residential and political rights of people already in the United States as well as new immigration throughout the 19th Century and into the 20th, up to the Immigration Act of 1924.
In the early 20th Century, the basic idea of “replacement theory” also shaped the American form of eugenics. After the Second World War, mainstream American thought tried to rebrand eugenics as a characteristically Nazi idea, but in terms of public policy and mainstream doctrine, the United States was the definitive heart of eugenics. The Nazi Party looked to the U.S. as its inspiration in this regard. Eugenics was first and foremost in the U.S. was first and foremost about “race hygiene”, a belief that white people needed to become more physically fit, more protected from disease and disability, and to increase their numbers through pro-natalist social support systems (both private and public) so that they were not demographically overwhelmed by non-white populations in the US. It led to many US states pursuing forced sterilization, a policy upheld by an 8-1 Supreme Court ruling in 1927, as well as various forms of indirect euthanasia in mental asylums. Many existing laws banning interracial marriage or sexual relations received new emphasis by law enforcement agencies. The blood tests that became a standard part of marriage licenses were inspired by eugenics.
After the Second World War, both eugenicist thought and nativism shifted emphasis but remained visible and influential. A great deal of post-1945 attention to population growth, including from ostensibly liberal or environmentalist groups, focused intensely on advocacy for regulating or restricting births in non-white communities both in the U.S. and abroad. Numerous cases of non-consensual sterilization of Black, Native American and Latina women were reported through the 1960s and 1970s. The quotas of the 1924 Immigration Act were set aside in 1965, but racially divergent treatment of both legal and undocumented arrivals continued nevertheless. (A significant new flow of undocumented Irish immigrants in the 1980s, for example, was subject to far less legal scrutiny by the federal government than that of arrivals from Mexico and Central America.)
Moreover, after 1945, there was a significant strain of American popular culture that was overtly devoted to envisioning, fomenting and planning for “race war” that often centered on demographic fears. Even work which did not mean in any sense to support or affirm fears of demographic and political replacement was at least referencing it or invoking it in some fashion—say, in the racial undercurrent of Planet of the Apes. Militia groups and acts of white supremacist terror like the Oklahoma City bombing have been inspired by or referenced to demographic fears continuously since the 1960s.
There is nothing about what happened in Buffalo that is “fringe” in this sense, and there is nothing about this episode of terrorism that required the Internet. “Replacement theory” is just the latest slurried sediment of a cask of policy, ideology and domination that has been fermenting since the colonial era of American history—it’s a common ideological preoccupation of settler societies generally, which fear being replaced in part because their entire logic is built on displacing and replacing the lands and societies of other people who were there before them. Tucker Carlson may be an odious disfiguring boil full of these ideas, the Republican Party may have become a malignancy shaped by “replacement theory”, but this is a deeper illness of the American body politic.
To me the really sad thing is that an opposing conception of health and strength has become so mealy-mouthed and reactive in recent years after having become a much more animating and expressive part of national politics for a time. If you want to stand against the malign and murderous uses of “replacement theory”, then don’t wish it into the cornfield by insisting that it is a fringe idea. Embrace replacement. By that I mean, embrace the vigorous democratic ideal that this nation is made up of whomever is in it and that this is by its nature always in motion, always changeable. That the United States will endure by being open to its myriad futures. If American constitutional democracy can live up to its ideals and its core propositions rather than persistently fall short of its promises, then that fulfillment in part has to trust that the ideas are bigger than and more durable than any particular group of people who find themselves in America and of America. That’s the test. If the ideas really are good (especially if they’re actually practiced rather than substantially ignored) then the future America, whomever it is built from, will still embrace the ideas. America doesn’t need any group, ethnicity, race, language, culture or people. America is the outcome of all groups, ethnicities, races, languages, cultures or peoples who reside within it, under its laws and within its best spirit. Of course we will be replaced, all of us, by the future. So should we be. “We the People” is at its heart a singing evocation of replacement: the People are anyone and everyone.
And perhaps embrace replacement one other way. Nobody gets evicted, nobody gets deported, nobody gets exiled, but what we need replaced over time are the people who reject being replaced by a future that we do not and should not try to control. The future that We the People have every right to dream of is a future without killers who shoot shoppers, who murder people in their churches, who blow up office buildings, who hunt joggers, who drag innocent men behind their pick-up trucks. A future without glassy-eyed demagogues on television or in legislatures who call out to the killers and remind them of the legacies of sterilization and enforcement and lynching and riot, who promise them that they are and should be the exclusive owners of the land and the sole inheritors of an unchanging future.