What Is the Great Replacement?

On Saturday, a gunman opened fired in a Walmart store in El Paso, killing 22 people and injuring more than two dozen others.

The authorities said the suspect, Patrick Crusius, a 21-year-old white man, wrote a hate-filled, anti-immigrant manifesto that appeared online minutes before the massacre. Echoing the man accused of fatally shooting dozens of people at two mosques in New Zealand in March, the El Paso gunman’s manifesto mentioned the “great replacement,” a conspiracy theory that warns of white genocide.

The man often said to be behind the great replacement theory is Renaud Camus, a French writer who in 2017 was profiled by Thomas Chatterton Williams, a journalist and author who has written extensively about race.

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Even before the rampage in El Paso, Mr. Chatterton Williams argued that the rallying cry of the white nationalists who marched on Charlottesville, Va., in 2017 — “You will not replace us” — could be traced to Mr. Camus and other French theorists like him.

I asked Mr. Chatterton Williams, who lives in Paris, about the French origins of the grand replacement theory and its proliferation in the United States. His latest book, “Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race,” comes out in October.

Our interview has been edited and for length and clarity.

“The great replacement is very simple,” Mr. Camus has said. “You have one people, and in the space of a generation you have a different people.” He also stresses that the specific identity of the new population is less important than the act of replacement itself. This lets him claim that he would be equally devastated if the Japanese were to be replaced by the Chinese. The idea is not new, though. Charles de Gaulle and Enoch Powell, the right-wing British politician, both famously and publicly fretted over reverse colonization. What Mr. Camus did was to take a familiar concept and rebrand it in a catchy way.

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What has changed immensely in America since 2017, the first year of the Trump administration, is the relentless demonization of nonwhite immigrants, economic migrants and asylum seekers from the highest levels of institutional authority. Many of these American white nationalists likely still haven’t heard of Renaud Camus, but the term he has introduced into the international white nationalist discourse has proved infectious and taken on a life of its own. The New Zealand shooter used it, too.

One very clever move these identitarians make — and, it has to be said, this is an exploitable opening provided to them in part by the progressive left — is to cynically proclaim their “whiteness” as just another form of diversity that is in danger of erasure. This is why you see in the El Paso manifesto a disdain for “shameless race-mixers” who “destroy genetic diversity.”

The manifesto acknowledges the impossibility and even the immorality of trying to send all nonwhites away and instead supports the idea of separate territories for racial groups. This allows the writer to avoid saying that whites are superior, but rather that they must be preserved just like everyone else. The reason this is clever is because many more people can be persuaded by such seemingly egalitarian logic than by hysterical-seeming terms like “white genocide.”

I highly doubt that these publications are gaining significantly greater numbers of readers, but their right-wing goal of reshaping the wider discourse is clearly having an effect. We are discussing replacement theory in the mainstream media now and this delights them.

Richard Spencer and others fantasize about a white ethno-state — this is the Northwest Territorial Imperative, or Northwest Imperative, that would stretch from Montana to Oregon and Washington State. (Northern California, Northwestern Colorado, Northern Utah, Alaska, British Columbia and Alberta are sometimes also included.) The idea is for white supremacist groups and sympathetic whites to relocate there and declare the space an Aryan homeland.

“The Turner Diaries” is not a reference I’ve ever heard mentioned in France, but it was published only five years after Jean Raspail’s “The Camp of the Saints,” which fantasizes about the destruction of Western civilization by means of a mass migration from India. Steve Bannon, President Trump’s former chief strategist, has, of course, famously referenced this text.

I think this is simply rhetorically pragmatic because the purpose is to popularize a viewpoint and attract as many sympathetic onlookers as possible. Today, open racism will only ever be a truly marginal position. It repels too many who could potentially otherwise be reached.