In the broadest sense, the so-called “replacement theory” – the idea that American elites conspire to replace so-called real Americans with immigrants from poor countries – is just one description of the American way, steeped in tradition, codified by law, promoted by successive generations of American leaders, from Washington and Lincoln to Kennedy and Reagan.
There have been four, arguably five, major replacements in American history.
The first was the worst and most cruel: the destruction – through war, massacre, abuse and mass expulsion – of Native Americans by European migrants. The same far-right True Believers who now cry out about their own alleged replacement by non-natives tend to be most outraged when reminded that at least some of their ancestors were the replacements themselves. .
The second was a religious replacement for Protestants, who now make up less than half of all Americans. It began at least in 1655, when the Dutch West India Company rejected a petition by Peter Stuyvesant to expel Jews from New Amsterdam. (To do so, the society wrote, would be “somewhat unreasonable and unjust.”) It accelerated in the 19th and 20th centuries, primarily through the mass migration of Catholics from Europe and, later, Latin America. . It continues with the arrival of Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and others, accompanied by a more general loss of faith.
The third was the ethnic replacement of the English. With their arrival in North America came indentured servants from Ireland and continental Europe, then immigrants from Germany, France and Ireland, later from places ever further east. Willa Cather’s “My Ántonia,” the American prairie classic, is the story of settlers from Bohemia and other central European locations, who quickly became the backbone of the American Midwest.
Non-Europeans had a harder time. The descendants of enslaved captives from Africa, the only replacements who came against their will, faced years of resistance even after emancipation. And the first major federal law to restrict immigration was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
The fourth replacement was WASP Elites. “Stealth Yacoob or Ysaac, still reeking of the ghetto, snarling strange Yiddish at customs officers,” was how Henry Adams, John Quincy’s grandson, sneeringly described the immigrants he saw in New York. . In a generation, these Yacoobs and Ysaacs would be Goldmans, Frankfurters, Salks, Rickovers and Bellows. Judging by enrollment numbers at Brooklyn Tech or elite universities, the next generation of elites will also be made up of immigrants or their children, many of them South or East Asian.
The fifth is the most controversial but also the most routine and least exceptional: the alleged replacement of the domestic-born white working class with a foreign-born non-white working class. In this account, Washington politics, from the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act to the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement to current border law enforcement failures , is part of a larger conspiracy to give corporate America cheap labor and ready votes for Democratic politicians.
This is both nothing new and nothing at all. The United States has, since its inception, repeatedly “replaced” its working class with migrants, not as an act of substitution, still less as a sinister conspiracy, but as the natural result of upward mobility, demands of a growing economy and the benefits of a growing population. The idea that NAFTA simply scared away jobs in the United States is at odds with the fact that labor force participation in the United States peaked in the years immediately following. the signing of the agreement.
What all of this says is that the replacement phenomenon, writ large, is America from the start, sometimes by force, most of the time by choice. What the far right calls “replacement” is best described as renewal.
The first immigration bill was passed by the first Congress and signed into law by the first president. America’s heartland was almost certainly more linguistically diverse in the 1890s than it is today – and adult immigrants often never learned to speak more than rudimentary English. People who consider themselves ordinary Americans today, people with surnames like Stefanik, Gaetz or Anton, would, because of their faith or ethnicity, have been viewed by earlier generations of nativists as rude and unassimilable, dirty and disloyal.
All of this is in keeping with our traditional self-understanding as a country in which a sense of common destiny bound by ideals matters more than common origins bound by blood. It is also necessary for any form of conservatism that wants to draw a line against blood and soil nationalism or white identity politics. You cannot defend the ideal of “E pluribus unum” by suppressing pluribus. To subscribe to “replacement theory” – the sinister, conspiratorial kind that is now gripping parts of the right – is to weaponize America against itself.
I write this in the wake of Saturday’s massacre in Buffalo, the alleged perpetrator of which wrote a racist and anti-Semitic diatribe about the replacement theory. It is generally a mistake to judge an idea based on the behavior of a disturbed believer. It is also unnecessary. The danger with the replacement theory in its current form is not that a handful of its proponents are insane, but that too many of them are sane.