The far right is on a roll. Just a few years ago, liberals and conservatives would have considered its recent political victories a nightmare scenario. Right-wing extremists have won elections in the United States, Brazil, Hungary, India, and Poland. They pushed through the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom. In the most recent European Parliament elections, far-right parties captured the most votes in France, Italy, the United Kingdom, and Hungary.
Sure, Trump is being impeached, Brexit is a mess, and the far right in Austria and Italy have suffered recent setbacks. Still, looking at the bigger picture, it’s hard not to conclude that such extremists have acquired the sort of mainstream legitimacy across the planet that they haven’t enjoyed in nearly a century.
What’s worse, those electoral victories obscure an even deeper, potentially far more influential success—in the world of storytelling. The radical right has developed a global narrative that, by uniting virulent racists and commonplace conservatives, mass shooters and populist politicians, is already injecting fringe ideas into mainstream culture.
Admittedly, it’s not a story that has either universal appeal or will win any literary awards. Still, by telling it over and over again in different languages to a growing number of listeners, the far right is having a profound impact on global culture. In many places, it may already be winning the crucial battle for hearts and minds.
The radical right’s story is rooted in the most basic plot of all: us versus them. Its main nemesis is determined, so the tale goes, to storm the battlements of the “civilized world” and, in what’s called a “great replacement,” oust its innocent inhabitants. Since this isn’t the Middle Ages, the evil adversary isn’t deploying siege engines or an army of pillagers. Its tactics are more insidious: taking over institutions from the inside, infiltrating culture, and worst of all birthing lots of babies.
But who exactly are the pronouns in this story? The idea of “the great replacement” is based on the fantasy that “they” (especially migrants and Muslims) are intent on replacing “us” (whites, Christians). Some versions of the narrative have an anti-Semitic slant as well, with Jews lurking in the shadows of this fiendish plot. For racists, the Others, of course, have darker complexions. For Islamophobes, the outsiders practice the wrong religion.
If you’re not a member of the far right, if you don’t subscribe to its YouTube channels or follow its burgeoning Twitter accounts, you might have only scant acquaintance with this story. But once you start looking for it, the great replacement turns out to be omnipresent.
Between 2012 and 2019, for instance, 1.5 million tweets in English, French, and German referenced it. You could hear an echo of the phrase at the Unite the Right gathering in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, when neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other demonstrators chanted, “You will not replace us!” But the phrase really broke into the headlines in March 2019 when a mass shooter who opened fire at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, killing 51 people, titled the online manifesto he prepared for the occasion, “The Great Replacement.”
By now, it’s become alarmingly clear that an increasing number of people are taking this bizarre, historically deficient, and thoroughly warped story to heart.
Once Upon a Time
At first glance, the man who came up with the idea of the “great replacement” might not seem like your usual suspect. Renaud Camus was a radical student demonstrator in Paris in 1968, and in 1981 voted for socialist François Mitterrand for president of France. A noted poet and novelist, he published books on his gay identity that attracted accolades from the likes of intellectual Roland Barthes and poet Allen Ginsberg. By the early 2000s, however, Camus had begun to outline a new philosophy that distinguished between “faux” or false French (immigrants or their children) and real French (those who had lived in the country for many generations). In 2010, he published a book titled Le Grand Remplacement bemoaning the prospects of a France and a Europe transformed by immigration.
Camus’s work became the foundational text for a growing movement called Generation Identity, a modernized version of white nationalism that has influenced the alt-right in the United States, gained momentum on the Internet, and become a global phenomenon. The “identitarians” embraced Renaud Camus and spread his ideas in a virtual echo chamber all their own. “The playing field is not level,” points out Julia Ebner of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. The far right now has a striking “advantage in terms of algorithms of social media favorable for spreading conspiracy theories and potentially harmful and inciting content.”
And keep in mind that it’s not just explicit racists and Islamophobes who are pushing this meme. A softer version, embraced by mainstream conservatives, transposes the racial anxiety at the heart of the Great Replacement into a cultural key. “Our civilization,” it claims, is now at risk. French culture must be preserved. European civilization is being undermined. The American way of life is endangered. “Africa wants to kick down our door and Brussels is not defending us,” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said in 2018. “Europe is under invasion already and they are watching with their hands in the air.”
This isn’t a new story. It was so prevalent in the 1920s that F. Scott Fitzgerald lampooned the idea in his famed novel The Great Gatsby when he put such arguments in the mouth of one of his characters. “If we don’t look out the white race will be—will be utterly submerged,” Tom Buchanan says over dinner in the first chapter. “It’s up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or these other races will have control of things.”
Buchanan was then echoing arguments in well-known books like The Passing of the Great Race, by Madison Grant (1916), and Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy (1920). Such arguments would take firm root in Europe as well. Adolf Hitler, for instance, called Grant’s book “my bible.” The Nazis, of course, didn’t just impose immigration controls to ensure the supremacy of the white race. They took Gatsby, Grant, and Stoddard to their logical, genocidal conclusion.
In the wake of the defeat of Nazism, Italian fascism, and Japanese racism in World War II, a global consensus emerged, shared by capitalists and communists alike, that the extreme version of the replacement story had been consigned to the trash bin of history. In the West, the political center would eventually sign on to some variant of multiculturalism in which immigration became an integral part of civilization, not antithetical to it.
The end of the Cold War, however, brought an end to this consensus. Communism was effectively over and union membership declining. Liberal parties attracted to the Third Way politics of President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair were abandoning their working-class base. In the industrialized world, economic globalization was creating greater insecurity among the middle class and the working poor. In this context, multiculturalism and immigrants became easy targets for a rising white nationalism. In the 1990s, the growing popularity of previously fringe politicians like Jörg Haider in Austria, Jean-Marie Le Pen in France, and Vladimir Zhirinovsky in Russia paved the way for future parties and movements that would far more vigorously break the anti-fascist taboos of the past.
In the 1920s, the far right had found an effective way to attract adherents by blaming all the ills of the nation on “degenerate races.” This story of racial eugenics united both conservatives like President Calvin Coolidge and conspiracy theorists like Grant and Stoddard. “The demographic replacement is a similar master frame that can unite both clear extremists and conservatives who might be worried about demographic change,” warns Matthew Feldman of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right. “Once you add those two together you have potential majorities in many countries. They’ve found a winning formula. There’s nothing that I’ve seen that comes remotely close to countering that formula.”
Same Old Story
When war broke out in Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, it was the first time that bloodletting on that scale had taken place in Europe since the end of World War II. The subsequent fragmentation of the country would also prove a giant step backward for the project of European integration. Here was a multicultural state, the first in line among the former Communist nations of Eastern Europe for membership in the European Community (later, the European Union or EU), that a set of Balkan politicians would tear apart thanks to political expediency, nationalist ideology, and economic arrogance.
At the time, the widespread ethnic cleansing that took place during the Yugoslav wars was generally seen as either a throwback to an earlier era of genocide (ancient hatreds) or a final bout of violence accompanying the end of the Cold War (temporary antagonisms). It was, in either of these scenarios, entirely backward looking.
By now, the Yugoslav successor states have indeed put those wars behind them, with Slovenia and Croatia even joining the EU. But the desire for ethnic purity has not disappeared, not in the Balkans or in Europe as a whole. Only recently, for instance, new walls have appeared in the Balkans—between North Macedonia and Greece, Slovenia and Croatia, Hungary and Serbia—this time to maintain greater homogeneity by keeping out migrants and refugees from the Greater Middle East and North Africa. Meanwhile, the EU is paying Turkey billions of dollars to stop more desperate Syrian refugees from heading for Europe, while investing resources in Libya aimed at preventing migrants and refugees from making their way across the Mediterranean. Fleeing war and poverty, those migrants and refugees have only grown in number as European sentiment against them has reached new heights.
The European far right has risen in the slipstream of such xenophobia. Buoyed by its electoral success, the far right now wants to take a further giant step that might indeed return Europe to the days of ethnic cleansing—not just keeping out immigrants but expelling ones already there. This policy of “remigration” is the active corollary of the great replacement.
For decades, the European right rejected multiculturalism, insisting on the full assimilation of all immigrants. Now, it has given up on assimilation entirely. The platform of the German far-right party, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), for instance, reads: “Germany and Europe must put in place remigration programs on the largest possible scale.” Already the biggest opposition party in the German Bundestag, or parliament, the AfD similarly increased its representation in the European Parliament in 2019 and also surged dramatically in the states of the former East Germany in recent local elections. The AfD’s position on immigrants is particularly disturbing given that the Nazis, before they embarked on the Final Solution, promoted their own version of remigration by proposing to send Jews en masse to Madagascar.
Ideas like the great replacement and remigration, having percolated in the identitarian movement for close to two decades, have now circulated back to the states of the former Yugoslavia. The far right has found fertile ground in Serbia and in the Serbian regions of Bosnia. And mass murderers like Anders Breivik in Norway and the Christchurch shooter in New Zealand have drawn a straight line between their brutal acts and the ethnic cleansing supported by war criminals like Serbian politician Radovan Karadžić during the breakup of Yugoslavia. In this way, the proponents of the great replacement are keeping alive the spirit of the worst war Europe has experienced on its soil since World War II.
Tell Me Something Else
The obvious response to the far right’s great-replacement story, here and in Europe, is to promote more humane immigration and refugee policies and a more inclusive vision of society. But that story—along with celebrations of multiculturalism, nods to the Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor,/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”), and the endless repetition of the EU’s official motto of “unity in diversity”—has not proven sufficiently compelling to those around the world anxious about their own slipping status in society.
A better story is needed: a story that somehow captures the same “us” versus “them” dynamic.
How about this: Believe it or not, the great replacement is indeed actually happening, just not the way the far right imagines. We are about to be replaced by a desperate set of adversaries. This foe is crafty and able to get through nearly all our careful democratic defenses.
The difference with the far right’s narrative boils down to pronouns. The “us” in the counter-story I imagine is not a marginalized group of people. The us is all of us on a fast-heating planet.
As for the “them,” it’s tempting to follow the example of that other Camus—Nobel Prize–winning writer Albert Camus—when he equated fascists with rats in his novel The Plague. The far right and its mainstream collaborators, along with the energy extraction industry, the finance sector, and corrupt oligarchs, are certainly a form of pestilence, a “them” that needs to be countered. Since 1965, just 20 of the major fossil fuel companies have produced a third of the greenhouse gas emissions sent into the atmosphere. And now they’re aided by Donald Trump and his top environmental and energy officials, intent as they are on heating the planet to the boiling point for their own profits, as well as similar figures around the world.
But here’s the thing, we don’t have to work hard to dehumanize the adversaries they’re letting loose on all of us because they aren’t human at all.
The list of “them” would, for instance, begin with a buzzing mosquito. After all, as a result of rising global temperatures, disease-bearing mosquitoes are now spreading far beyond their normal range. That would include the mosquitoes responsible for transmitting the Zika, dengue, and chikungunya viruses. Dengue fever, present in only 10 countries in the 1970s, can now be found in 120 of them. And there is no question that, as the planet heats, malaria-bearing mosquitoes will return to the United States, after having been eradicated nearly 70 years ago. Climate change may also produce new types of mosquitoes that could be even more effective in transmitting disease.
Lest you think that the mosquito is hardly worth losing sleep over unless it’s buzzing around your tent at night, remember that this tiny creature may well be the deadliest adversary humankind has ever faced. In his new book The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator, Timothy Winegard argues that as a result of the illnesses they’ve transmitted, mosquitoes have killed 52 billion people, about half of everyone who has ever lived on the planet. This tiny creature, in other words, has proven a truly genocidal force.
It’s not just mosquitoes, of course. The “them” that we’re going to find ourselves up against will include disease-bearing ticks, rats, and a range of crop-devouring insects. Such creatures are all, in essence, standing on the sidelines and cheering climate change on. Their gain, our loss: It’s no more complicated than that.
We don’t need an evil space invader to unite the planet in a common fight. The adversary is just above our heads and right beneath our feet. In combating a pestilence that affects everyone, we can tell an inclusive story that can appeal even to former supporters of Donald Trump, Hungarian ruler Viktor Orbán, and others. The far right is all about drawing borders and excluding “undesirables.” They will always win at that game.
It’s time to flip the script. We are indeed in the fight of our lives. When it comes to the climate crisis, a great replacement does loom on the horizon. Humans and the civilization that goes with us may, it turns out, be all too replaceable. It’s time for everyone—and I mean everyone—to pull together, forget our superficial differences, and win this epic battle of us versus them.