When a killer expounds on his derangements, it poses a special challenge. We have to take his words seriously without, at the same time, taking them seriously; to understand their import without paying them respect. In the case of the mass murderer of Buffalo, New York — I see no reason to use his name — applying that distinction requires thinking more clearly about the politics of immigration.
Since the massacre on Saturday, Americans have been talking, as the shooter probably wanted, about the “great replacement theory.” The 200-proof version of the theory, to which he reportedly subscribed, is that Jews are trying to destroy the old white majority of the country via immigration, and they are doing it to create a political order more to their liking. It is a vile and stupid stew of racism and antisemitism, as should be obvious to almost everyone.
Public argument has dwelt less on the actual shooter than on such Republicans as Fox News host Tucker Carlson and U.S. Representative Elise Stefanik of New York, who stand accused of selling a diluted version of the same ideology. Carlson has said 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.” Stefanik claims that granting “amnesty to 11 MILLION illegal immigrants will overthrow our current electorate and create a permanent liberal majority in Washington.”
Their defenders say they are merely observing a real phenomenon among Democrats, and then condemning it. The kernels of truth in what these Republicans say are that immigration has aided the Democratic Party over the last generation, and that Democrats have noticed and applauded it. When Democrats boasted (and sympathetic analysts predicted) that they were leading a “coalition of the ascendant,” a growing immigrant population that leaned left was one of the things they were talking about.
And as Democrats have grown convinced that immigration is key to the party’s future, their positions on immigration policy have moved further and further left. Democrats would have to be unusually immune to the temptation to seek advantage for there to be no connection between those two trends. (How many of the people who doubt this connection can see perfectly well that many Republicans have adopted their immigration views in part based on how they fear immigrants will vote?)
Any theory built on this connection will, however, become less and less plausible as it grows more conspiratorial. In the real world, people have supported liberal immigration policies for a long list of reasons. Some people think these policies strengthen the U.S. economy; some people associate them with tolerance; some people want the same opportunities they have found here for their cousins. Even the purely political motives of Democratic politicians and strategists are mixed. Granting citizenship to illegal immigrants is a way to win their votes, but it is also a way to win the votes of their friends and relatives who already have it.
The major laws governing immigration policy were passed with large bipartisan majorities in 1965, 1986 and 1990, at a time when neither party saw the issue as a dividing line between them. To the extent that the limits on immigration have not been enforced since these laws were passed, it has had more to do with business opposition than with anyone’s desire to change the country’s political demography.
To suggest that Democrats support amnesty and high immigration levels simply because they want a new electorate, or that this desire is the reason for the flaws of today’s immigration system, is to oversimplify to the point of falsity. No plan has been put in place to replace today’s voters, and especially its white working-class conservative voters, and it would be dangerous for the country’s civic health to maintain otherwise even if we had no armed lunatics in our midst. What Carlson and Stefanik are saying is irresponsible as well as wrong.
Recent political history should discredit the theory even further, for two reasons. One is that the Democrats’ belief that immigration would contribute to a large and lasting majority has instead almost certainly put one further out of reach. If Hillary Clinton had felt the same imperative to win the votes of white voters without college degrees that her husband did in the 1990s, or moderated on immigration, she might well have won the additional states she needed in the 2016 election. The coalition of the ascendant hasn’t ascended.
The second is that Republicans have been making significant gains among non-white Americans. “Replacement theory” has come to the fore of the conversation just as its most solid empirical pillar is disintegrating. Let’s not underestimate just how delusional, as well as evil, the murderer in Buffalo is.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the editor of National Review and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.