For decades, a network of Washington, D.C., nativist groups and their political allies have advanced ideas resembling a “great replacement” spurred on by immigration, as seen in materials associated with the suspect alleged to be responsible for the mass shooting at a Buffalo, New York, supermarket on May 14.
The Buffalo suspect cited immigration as a key driver of alleged white displacement in the U.S. in a document circulated online before he allegedly killed 10 people in an act of white supremacist violence. A network of anti-immigrant groups and their political allies have worked to keep this once-fringe “great replacement” conspiracy theory alive by pushing a version of it focused on immigration.
The late John Tanton, a white nationalist who is widely credited as the architect of the modern-day anti-immigrant movement, did much in his lifetime to popularize the conspiracy. Tanton documented his own fears of demographic change brought on by immigration. In one memo, dated Oct. 26, 1986, he asked: “As Whites see their power and control over their lives declining, will they simply go quietly into the night? Or will there be an explosion?”
Tanton died in 2019, but his legacy lives on through a network of organizations he helped set in motion to carry out his nativist vision.
Tanton’s flagship organization is the Washington, D.C.-based Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), an anti-immigrant group designated by SPLC as a hate group. FAIR’s president Dan Stein, a close confidant of Tanton, told the Albany Times Union in 1991 that “it’s almost like [immigrants are] getting into competitive breeding.”
“You have to take into account the various fertility rates in designing limits on immigration,” he added. Such thinking is often central to strains of replacement conspiracies.
The ‘Great Replacement Network’
FAIR is listed among other nativist and right-wing entities in a 2022 report on the great replacement conspiracy theory from the advocacy organization Define American. The report’s authors analyzed anti-immigrant videos and messaging on YouTube and found that “23 videos [represent] the most watched anti-immigration videos on YouTube as of this writing (November 2021).” The report adds that most videos have over 4 million views and that cumulatively they have amassed over 100 million views on YouTube.
“The most common characteristic [among the videos] is a shared narrative called the ‘Great Replacement Theory,’” the report notes. Define American calls this collection of channels the “Great Replacement Network,” or GRN.
The report states: “GRN videos commonly draw on demographic data to insinuate that immigrants will soon outnumber existing residents, overwhelm natural resources, create unfavorable economic conditions, and negatively impact the culture. The GRN also regularly draws on the same personalities to support their arguments, creating a unified narrative around the Great Replacement.”
Two groups from the Tanton network, FAIR and NumbersUSA, feature in the report. NumbersUSA serves as the grassroots and political arm of the Tanton network.
The report cites a viral video with 6.5 million views on YouTube produced by NumbersUSA titled “Immigration, World Poverty, and Gumballs.” The video, now over a decade old, features NumbersUSA president Roy Beck using gumballs in a demonstration to sound the alarm about mass immigration. Define American summarizes the central message of the video: “There are too many poor people in the world, and they all want to come here and take our resources. They want to come here to take over our country. Immigration will destroy us.”
Shauna Siggelkow, one of the report’s authors, told Hatewatch that she believes Beck’s gumball video sums up the great replacement theory.
“I think that it’s the perfect virtual representation of the great replacement theory,” Siggelkow said. “That you have limited resources, in this case in the United States, which is a majority-white country, and all of these gumballs represent immigrants of color trying to flood in. We know that that is one of the central talking points of the great replacement.”
Five of the videos examined by Define American were produced by FAIR. One from 2016, only 30 seconds long, shows clips of terrorist attacks in the U.S. to make the fear-driven case that “mass immigration is too dangerous for America.” Another video uses animation akin to what might be a children’s cartoon or educational video. However, the central message of the video is to end family reunification programs, or “chain migration” as nativist figures dub them – a message long pushed by the Tanton network. The report notes that in these animations, “Statistics and facts are used out of context, in a visually appealing way, to draw false conclusions and shape public opinion.”
Siggelkow pointed to the mass shootings that appear to have been inspired by ideas of a great replacement to say this theory has played out on “a very visceral and violent level.”
“I think we’re only just beginning to see the impact of this theory as a society,” she said, adding that the theory is a “threat to not just marginalized communities, but probably to our democracy overall.”
One of the videos analyzed in the report is a 2007 clip from Glenn Beck’s former Fox News program. Beck interviews former Center for Immigration Studies fellow Michael Cutler about the Zeta gang at the U.S.-Mexican border. The video, while not as influential as others analyzed, according to the report, features claims that the U.S. border is rife with cartel and gang violence and is vulnerable to terrorists. Cutler states in the video, “If we have no control over the borders, we have no control of our national security.”
Center for Immigration Studies, or CIS, is a Washington, D.C.-based anti-immigrant think tank originally founded by Tanton in 1985. The organization is known for producing reports warning of the dangers of mass immigration and making claims of high levels of criminality of immigrants that have been debunked elsewhere. SPLC has designated CIS as a hate group because of its anti-immigrant bias and circulation of white nationalist content, including from the hate website VDARE.
In messages posted on the web platform Discord, the alleged Buffalo shooter cited a 2009 report from CIS on crime and immigration. The report was featured in a list cobbled together to argue, erroneously, that immigrants are driving up crime in Western nations.
Immigrant criminality is a pernicious and enduring myth. In fact, a 2020 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America found that “undocumented immigrants have lower felony arrest rates than both legal immigrants and, especially, native-born U.S. citizens.”
Even CIS’s own report concludes, “The overall picture of immigrants and crime remains confused due to a lack of good data and contrary information.” When asked about the report showing up in the Discord chats promoting great replacement ideas, Mark Krikorian, CIS’s executive director, told Hatewatch via email he figured the alleged mass shooter never “bothered to read the report,” noting how it concludes.
Jessica Vaughan and Steven Camarota, two CIS staffers who authored the 2009 report cited by the Buffalo suspect, are regularly invited to testify before Congress.
Some CIS staffers have invoked fear around the nation’s changing demographics. In 2014, CIS fellow Stephen Steinlight urged against passing comprehensive immigration reform, claiming Hispanic immigrants will “destroy social cohesion” and bring about a one-party state like that of Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party.
“We can expect a disaster,” Steinlight reportedly said in an interview with The Washington Times. “In sum, we’ll witness the unmaking of America.”
CIS was cited in another manifesto said to be attributed to the far-right extremist known for murdering 77 people in Norway in 2011. A figure pulled from a CIS study about the cost of undocumented immigrants to taxpayers was mentioned in the Norwegian extremist’s sprawling 1,500-word manifesto. In his own online writings, the Buffalo suspect appears to have cribbed heavily from the white supremacist who murdered 51 Muslim worshippers in Christchurch, New Zealand, who disseminated a document steeped in these replacement conspiracies.
Following another great replacement-inspired terror attack at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, in 2019 that killed 23 people, Dan Stein of FAIR issued a statement on social media denouncing the attack. The suspected shooter expressed similar anti-immigrant ideology as FAIR and CIS in a manifesto, though he did not specifically mention the groups.
The Washington Post noted in a 2019 article that “Stein’s decision to rapidly issue a statement condemning the El Paso massacre – the group did not comment on the weekend’s other mass shooting, in Dayton, Ohio – reflects a sense of alarm among FAIR and the small cohort of other restrictionist groups about potential political fallout from the massacres.”
Krikorian of CIS also denounced the El Paso shooting. On the issue of the alleged shooter trafficking in similar anti-immigrant ideology, Krikorian told the Post, “If you have a guy who is going to be angry about immigration, have a killer offering reasons for shooting up immigrants, how could he not use reasons that have already been articulated by legitimate sources?”
He also remarked while the manifesto did not cite his group, it was “remarkably well-written for a 21-year-old loner.”
Permeating the mainstream
Other political figures in the Tanton orbit have also parroted nativist talking points about the perils of immigration. Former Iowa Rep. Steve King was an ally to Tanton network while in Congress. In 2017, King drew criticism for rhetoric akin to the great replacement theory by claiming, “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”
King was viewed as an immigration hardliner within the Republican party. However, fears of immigrants invading and replacing the U.S. population have seemingly become commonplace among political figures and within the Republican base.
A poll conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center and Tulchin Research found that nearly 7 in 10 Republicans surveyed agree to at least some extent that demographic changes in the U.S. are deliberately driven by liberal and progressive politicians attempting to gain political power by “replacing more conservative white voters.”
On May 16, two days after the Buffalo shooting, Elise Stefanik, the third-ranking GOP member in the House of Representatives, posted a version of replacement theory on Twitter.
“Democrats desperately want wide open borders and mass amnesty for illegals allowing them to vote,” she tweeted. “Like the vast majority of Americans, Republicans want to secure our borders and protect election integrity.”
Stefanik doubled down on her comments, telling right-wing commentator Ben Shapiro, “There’s nothing racist about opposing mass amnesty.”
Stefanik is not the only lawmaker to promote a version of the great replacement theory. In a July 17, 2021, Twitter post, Arizona state Sen. Wendy Rogers wrote, “We are being replaced and invaded” in response to an article about migrant apprehensions at the Southern border. An ethics investigation was launched into Rogers after she suggested the Buffalo mass shooting was a false flag operation carried out by the federal government.
The research organization Global Project Against Hate and Extremism compiled over a dozen political figures who have pushed rhetoric akin to the great replacement theory.
Brandon Judd, the president of the National Border Patrol Council, pushed a version of the great replacement while appearing on Fox News in April.
“I believe that they’re trying to change the demographics of the electorate; that’s what I believe they’re doing,” he said on the program.
Judd represents 18,000 agents as president of the Border Patrol Council, according to USA Today.
The immigration advocacy organization America’s Voice has been tracking anti-immigrant messaging in Republican political advertisements. The organization found 22 ads had mentioned “the National Border Patrol Council, with 18 of those using Brandon Judd’s name, image, or likeness.”
Zack Mueller, political director at America’s Voice, told Hatewatch via email that “some Republican candidates who haven’t explicitly engaged in these racist conspiracy theories embrace the support of those who do,” such as Judd.
“Despite that, or maybe because of it, Republicans have increasingly sought Judd and his union’s political endorsement to validate their nativist credentials for their base,” Mueller wrote.
America’s Voice’s GOP ad tracker found 1,313 ads mentioning immigration, as of publication. Fifty-five ads have invoked ideas of an immigration invasion, while 89 have featured rhetoric about migrants swarming and flooding the Southern border.
“We should also recognize that this extreme rhetoric is part of a larger volume of political messaging from the Republicans that seeks to stoke racialized fears and anxieties around crime, jobs, and identity with xenophobic dog-whistling,” Mueller added.
After the tragic shooting in Buffalo, Mueller noted that some political figures in the Republican party have “made a conscious choice to double down on ‘invasion’ and replacement theory rhetoric.”
“They knew full well the dangers of amplifying these conspiracy theories,” Mueller said. “That much was crystal clear after the events in El Paso, and the numerous other racist mass murders associated with these ideas.”
Editor's note: This story was updated to reflect that 23 people died in the 2019 El Paso shooting, not 22.
Photo illustration by SPLC