In this article:
- The Great Replacement and Hostility to Diversity
- Beliefs about Gender Roles and Gender Identity
- Anti-government Beliefs and Faith in Institutions
- Partisanship and Violence
In late April, the Southern Poverty Law Center and Tulchin Research conducted a poll of 1,500 Americans to examine the extent to which the extremist beliefs and narratives that mobilize the hard right have been absorbed by the wider American public.
We found that the ideas underpinning the white nationalist “great replacement” narrative recently cited by an alleged white supremacist terrorist in Buffalo, New York, have become thoroughly mainstream on the political right. Nearly 7 in 10 Republicans surveyed agree to at least some extent that demographic changes in the United States are deliberately driven by liberal and progressive politicians attempting to gain political power by “replacing more conservative white voters.” Across the political spectrum, we found substantial support for threatening or acting violently against perceived political opponents.
We also uncovered a widespread feeling — especially among right-leaning Americans — that transgender people and “gender ideology” pose a threat to children and society at large. These anti-LGBTQ, misogynistic and racist narratives have been promoted by many Republican politicians and other powerful right-wing figures, helping the ideas infiltrate the mainstream and contributing to an increasingly volatile and dangerous political environment.
The SPLC survey was not designed to simply measure prejudice or bigotry. Instead, we set out to examine to what degree people in certain groups feel threatened or persecuted by members of a defined “outgroup.” The belief that one group of people is inherently harmful to your own is foundational to extremism, as is the idea that the well-being and survival of the “in group” depends on taking hostile action against those who supposedly threaten it. The man allegedly responsible for the shooting at a supermarket in Buffalo, for example, argued that Jews, immigrants and Latinos, in addition to the Black people he targeted, posed an existential threat to the white race, leading him to conclude that “fighting is the only way.” Hostile actions against an outgroup can take the forms of violence like terrorist attacks, but it can also include conduct like abusive language or discriminatory and dehumanizing legislation.
In addition to extremist narratives, our survey looked at levels of partisanship, tolerance for antidemocratic actions, and expressions of approval for different kinds of political violence. What we found was a great deal of hostility for people on the other side of the political aisle. A majority of both Republicans and Democrats believe their political opponents pose a threat to the country and want to harm their political opponents. That kind of animosity could fuel partisan violence — a possibility that our results suggest we should take seriously. When we asked respondents if they approved of threatening or assassinating a politician, for example, roughly one in five said they at least somewhat approved.
While levels of support for threats and violence generally do not differ substantially among partisans, Republicans are more likely to agree that “some violence may be necessary to get the country back on track.” The mood, overall, is pessimistic: 44% of Americans agree that the “U.S. seems headed toward a civil war in the near future,” including 53% of Republicans and 39% of Democrats.
On the right, our poll suggests a pervasive sense not only that America has lost touch with “traditional values,” but that societal changes pose a danger to society and, in some cases, white Americans in particular. Right-leaning Americans are more likely to view movements aimed at building an equitable society, including feminism and the Black Lives Matter movement, as threatening. Many believe that elements of today’s political environment — including the 2020 racial justice protests and demographic changes — unfairly malign or threaten white people. This is combined with pervasive distrust of democratic institutions and feelings that more conservative Americans are being persecuted by the government and the political left. Each side has radically different visions of America: on the right, a large faction is invested in pushing back against pluralism and equity, while the left largely embraces those values.
Our survey shows that the hard right could make greater political gains and, in the process, further erode our democracy and create conditions — through activism, policy and violence — that would disproportionately harm communities that continue to be marginalized in our society. No political outcomes are inevitable. But our results show that a substantial effort, on the part of activists, institutions, and government, will be required if we hope to secure a multiracial democracy and prevent partisan violence.
The Great Replacement and Hostility to Diversity
The great replacement narrative provides the central framework for the global white supremacist movement. The racist conspiracy says there is a systematic, global effort to replace white, European people with nonwhite, foreign populations. The ultimate goal of those responsible — Democrats, leftists, “multiculturalists” and, at times, Jews — is to reduce white political power and, ultimately, to eradicate the white race. The theory has motivated multiple terror attacks, including the 2018 attack at the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Tree of Life Synagogue, the 2019 attacks at two Christchurch, New Zealand, mosques and an El Paso, Texas, Walmart, and, most recently, an attack targeting Black people at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York.
As America’s demographics have shifted, the narrative of white replacement has become ingrained in the rhetoric of right-wing pundits and an increasingly extreme wing of the Republican Party. “This administration wants complete open borders. And you have to ask yourself, why?” U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin asked during a Fox News segment in April. “Is it really [that] they want to remake the demographics of America to ensure that they stay in power forever?” His statement echoed others made recently by U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, U.S. Senate candidates J.D. Vance and Blake Masters, and, most consistently, Tucker Carlson. A recent investigation by The New York Times found that the Fox News host has amplified the narrative that Democrats are deliberately forcing demographic change in more than 400 of the 1,150 episodes of his show they analyzed.
In a telling show of how deeply the great replacement myth has embedded itself within the GOP, many Republicans and right-wing figures doubled down on the narrative in the aftermath of the Buffalo shooting. U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, the No. 3 House Republican leader, tweeted two days after the attack that “Democrats desperately want wide open borders and mass amnesty for illegals allowing them to vote,” and later that Democratic policies “have created chaos at the southern border and has endangered every American community.” Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich espoused a version of replacement theory while attempting to downplay the racism at its core: “There is a legitimate cultural — not racial — fight to be had about the degree to which the Left seeks to erode American culture and the historic model of assimilation by allowing our legal immigration system to be totally overwhelmed.”
We found that a plurality of Americans has a positive view of the country’s changing demographics. But the same is not true for Republicans, a majority of whom viewed those changes not only negatively, but as a threat to white Americans. And a large majority — 67% — believe the country’s demographic changes are being orchestrated by “liberal leaders actively trying to leverage political power by replacing more conservative white voters.”
Republican responses were in stark contrast to those of self-identified Democrats, 64% of whom say they find the county’s increasing diversity to be at least a somewhat positive development, 25% who say demographic changes represent a threat to white Americans, and 35% who say those changes are being orchestrated by liberals.
Even though the percentage of respondents who view demographic changes negatively rose slightly since we first asked about people’s views on the issue in August 2020, a far lower percentage of Americans say they are “concerned” about immigration – 50% as compared to 64%. The decline is perhaps a result of President Trump — who relentlessly stoked anti-immigrant hysteria — no longer being in office. But that decline could also, in part, mean that those on the right are less concerned with immigration specifically than they are with the supposed progressive and liberal plot to use immigrants to erode the power of more conservative whites. That especial animus toward politicians on the left could explain why our poll showed higher numbers of Republicans agreeing with replacement theory than others that recently asked similar questions — our poll specifically identified “progressive and liberal leaders” as the perpetrators of this replacement, while a December 2021 poll from The Associated Press and NORC asked whether a “certain group of people in this country” were trying to replace “native-born Americans with immigrants.” They found that just under 50% of Republicans agreed.
Significantly, on the right, the belief that the left is using immigration to erode the political power of conservative white voters is correlated with other conspiratorial beliefs. Over three-quarters of those who believe the 2020 presidential election was “fraudulent, rigged and illegitimate” also at least somewhat agree that liberals are replacing conservative white voters, while 75% of those who believe the government is using the Jan. 6 insurrection to justify the political persecution of conservative Americans also agree with the replacement conspiracy.
Republicans are also most likely to have a negative view of the Black Lives Matter movement and the 2020 racial justice protests. Three-quarters of Republicans says they at least somewhat agree that Black Lives Matter activists are a threat to the country, compared to 34% of Democrats.
Most Republicans see the 2020 racial justice protests not just in a negative light, but as an attack on white people. When presented with three descriptions of the 2020 racial justice protests — one that said they drew necessary attention to the ongoing and shameful problem of racial inequality, a second that said that while they drew attention to the problem of racial inequality they were ultimately “counterproductive and violent,” and a third that said they were destructive and an “overreaction that has unfairly made white people the enemy in America” — a majority of Republicans agreed with the third statement. Older people were also more likely to agree that the protests made white people into the “enemy,” even among Republican respondents.
Beliefs about Gender Roles and Gender Identity
While an overwhelming majority of Americans believe that women in the workplace strengthen our economy (82%) and say they would be comfortable with a woman as president (75%), our survey also found that a majority of men under 50 on the right, and a near majority of their Democratic counterparts, say feminism has “done more harm than good.” Republicans — and, again, younger men especially — are also likely to view transgender people in a negative or threatening light. Taken together, these results suggest that a sizable proportion of men across the political spectrum, as well as large numbers of right-leaning women, perceive the progress made toward transgender rights and gender equality as potential threats.
While Republican men are most likely to see feminism as a net negative for society, those feelings are highest among younger Republican men — 62% of whom say it has done more harm than good. But 46% of younger Democratic men agree, compared to less than a quarter of young Democratic women. Across the political spectrum, men under 50 are in even greater agreement that “men should be respected and valued more in our society” — a belief held by 65% of younger Republican men and 60% of younger men who are Democrats.
In recent months, especially, the hard right of the GOP has carried out a sustained attack on the rights of transgender people, introducing anti-trans legislation largely aimed at banning gender-affirming care and preventing children from participating in sports on teams that conform to their gender identity. Often, lawmakers and anti-trans activists sell their efforts under the guise that they are “protecting children”—a fearmongering claim that has no basis in reality, but one that has long been used by the anti-LGBTQ movement to deny equal rights to people of all sexual orientations and gender identities.
A majority of Americans agree that transgender discrimination is a problem that needs to be addressed (52%). However, our survey results also make it clear that the fearmongering rhetoric of the hard right has impacted the opinions of many Americans and, especially, those on the right. When we asked respondents if they believed transgender people are a threat to children, 30% overall agreed — including 23% of Democrats, 39% of Republicans, and 27% of independents. The number of people who agreed that transgender people “are trying to indoctrinate children into their lifestyle” was far higher, but only among Republicans and independents — 63% and 39%, respectively, who agreed.
We also asked respondents whether they believed that “gender ideology has corrupted American culture.” The term “gender ideology” is widespread on the right, and generally refers to a belief that LGBTQ people are a threat to children and families and that men and women should adhere to “traditional” notions of masculinity and femininity. The term is used regularly on Fox News and by hard-right figures like Donald Trump, who recently said at a rally, “With their extremist sex and gender ideology, the Democrat Party is waging war on reality, war on science, war on children, war on women.” Overall, 49% of people said they believe gender ideology has corrupted American culture, including 34% of Democrats, 72% of Republicans, and 45% of Independents.
Anti-government Beliefs and Faith in Institutions
A central tenet of the anti-government movement holds that the government has become tyrannical and is, therefore, the enemy of “the people.” Our survey found widespread agreement with that belief. And while faith in many institutions and officials remains high in some cases, we found limited confidence in others. These feelings can be exploited by anti-government extremists to create a political atmosphere where events like the Jan. 6 insurrection are possible.
Just over half of people overall agree that the government “has become tyrannical,” including 70% of Republicans and 78% of those who consider themselves “very conservative.” Only 29% of Republicans say they have even a fair amount of trust in the Federal government, compared to 60% of Democrats. Significantly more Republicans have faith in their state and local governments — 51% and 59% — while Democrats’ level of confidence remains steady across those institutions.
Forty-nine percent of Republicans believe the 2020 election was “fraudulent, rigged and illegitimate,” and only 36% of the same group says they have even a fair amount of faith in elections officials. Just over half of Republicans believe the Jan. 6 insurrection was mostly made up of Americans “protesting against election fraud and an unfair and illegitimate change in political leadership” — a belief that is highest among Republican men under 50 (60% agree).
Those on the right also tend to believe that the government is using Jan. 6 to “justify the political persecution of conservative Americans” — 67% of Trump voters, as compared to 19% of Biden voters. This narrative is widely pushed by groups like the Proud Boys and hard-right politicians, who have referred to those facing criminal charges related to the insurrection as “political prisoners.”
The belief that the government might try to take people’s guns — a conspiracy widely pushed by the anti-government movement — is shared by more than half of gun owners, including 62% of gun owners who are Republicans and 35% of those who are Democrats. Over 4 in 10 gun-owning Republicans say they own a gun “in case I may need to use it to protect myself against the government.”
Partisanship and Violence
Our survey found that Republicans and Democrats are not only extremely distrustful of each other, but that majorities believe that people on the other side of the aisle are immoral and “want to harm people who disagree with them.” Sixty-three percent of Republicans say Democrats are a threat to the country, while 67% of Democrats believe the same about the opposing party. While each side views the other as similarly threatening, Republicans rank “extremists in the Democratic Party” as the most pressing threat facing the country, while Democrats believe the top three threats, in descending order, are Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump and extremists in the Republican Party.
Those on the right appear more likely to approve of political violence. When asked whether they believed that “some violence might be necessary to protect the country from radical extremists,” 41% of Republicans agreed, compared to 34% of Democrats and 29% of independents. Over half of Republicans say the country seems headed toward a civil war in the near future, compared to 39% of Democrats.
While most Americans reject antidemocratic actions and political violence, a substantial minority — and, sometimes, a majority — do not. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the Republican response to the 2020 election, 60% approve of “allowing citizens to monitor voters and polling places to prevent election fraud, even if it is considered voter intimidation.” Fewer than 4 in 10 Democrats agree.
When we asked people if they would approve of specific violent action, approval declined but was still worryingly substantial. When we asked, for example, whether people approved of threatening a politician who is “harming the country or our democracy,” 24% approved. When we asked if people approved of assassinating a politician described in the same way, 1 in 5 approved. Levels of approval for both scenarios were slightly higher for Democrats than Republicans, driven largely by the approval of younger Democratic men. In perhaps a telling sign of the deep antagonism partisans feel for one another, more people approve of threatening or assassinating politicians they deem harmful than approve of destroying public or private property as a form of protest.
Not all of those who say they approve of violent actions are willing or able to commit them personally. The decision to carry out political violence depends on a multitude of factors, including opportunity, means and the broader political environment. But we do currently live in a moment when political leaders are leaning into violent rhetoric, meaning the social sanctions against violence could be eroding and, in the process, creating an atmosphere more conducive to acts of political violence.
Our guard should be up, especially after receiving yet another stark reminder of the immense pain and violence that can come when far-right ideas are allowed to fester.
From April 18-25, 2022, Tulchin Research conducted a nationwide survey of 1,500 adults ages 18+ which was conducted via online panel. The margin of error for the full 1,500 sample of adults is +/- 2.53%.
Photo at top: People attend a vigil on May 17, 2022, near the Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo, New York, where a racially motivated mass shooting took place May 14. (Credit: Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)