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Great Erasure Theory

Osita Nwanevu
13 min read
Mitt Romney at a 2008 campaign stop
Brian Rawson-Ketchum

Hey all. It’s been a bit, but I’ve gotten a difficult section of the book squared away, so I’ll hopefully get back to posting on a regular schedule pretty soon. Expect another post in a couple of days. Let’s hop to it.


I’ve been reading a bit unhealthily in the wake of the Buffalo shooting. I found myself scrolling through Glenn Beck’s take on Great Replacement Theory the other day, for instance:

The left-wing media has been working overtime this week, to paint all Republicans has subscribers to replacement theory.
However, I don't think I've ever heard it, as a -- as a plot to take over America, by breeding. Unless you're talking about, you know, Margaret Sanger [...] My gosh. White people, and especially Republican white people. You're in trouble. You're in trouble. First of all, you're in trouble, because, you know, there are going to be people of other colors, that eventually will rule the world. Yeah. Yeah. How do you like them apples?
Panic, right? You're being replaced. So no serious conservative that I know, no conservative that I know, believes in replacement theory. You know, we're generally not sitting around in the dark smoke-filled star chamber, talking about how to solve replacement theory. Maybe it's just me. I'm attending all the wrong star chamber series. But I'm pretty sure, I haven't missed any.
I think most conservative-leaning Americans may have never even heard of replacement theory, until the media.

I’ve long said that Beck’s influence on the direction the right has taken probably rivals Trump’s. And “Great Replacement Theory” is another area where that holds especially true. Here’s Beck in 2013, for instance, making the argument he now says he’s never heard of about an immigration reform bill that would ultimately fail.

What's going to happen in the next few weeks, possibly by July 4th, the Senate will pass the amnesty bill. At the same time the House is going to pass a Trojan horse bill that will sound good and that will secure the borders. The problem with that is they're both going to be sent to conference committee, where amnesty is going to be added to the Trojan horse bill. The Senate will vote yes on final passage and send it to the House. Led by Nancy Pelosi, the House Democrats will all vote for the bill because it will assure permanent Democratic political majority, and a few Republican committee chairs will provide the final votes needed for passage. That way the president will have amnesty for illegals and the country will be fast‑tracked to permanent progressivism.

I also tweeted recently that Great Replacement Theory amounts to a generic Rush Limbaugh rant circa 2012. I meant that quite literally. Here’s an episode of Limbaugh from that November:

If it were true that the primary reason that people (illegal immigrants) were coming here is to work, then Democrat Party would be the ones building the fence on the border. Why do you think the Democrats welcome them? Why do you think the Democrats want amnesty? They know that they’ve got them as voters.
[...] Look, some of you may be bothered by my little joke about if immigration was about work, the Democrats would be down there building the fence to stop it, but I mean, we are in the middle of some fundamental shifts in this country. And we are, if not outnumbered, we’re on the way, folks. I wasn’t just trying to use scare tactics yesterday. It used to be — in fact, you go back to Reagan, Reagan voted amnesty in 1986, Simpson-Mazzoli was the name of the bill. Three million illegals were given amnesty, three million. That was said to be the end of it. We’re gonna get really tough on it. Of course, that didn’t happen.

Obviously, I’m not pointing these examples out, and I could list others, because I think the right might be shamed into recognizing that they’re responsible for Buffalo. They know and they don’t care. I’m pointing them out because I think they help push against a habit of mind I’ve noticed and written about in conventional political discourse. The press, by design probably, remembers nothing. And while I’ve found the turn to deep historical analysis in liberal and progressive commentary incredibly important and valuable in a lot of ways, what it’s produced is a discursive environment where people are encouraged to believe everything that really matters happened either generations ago or practically yesterday. We might call this idea “great erasure theory” ⁠— the way we scrub away everything that happened in the recent past. And the fact that there’s no middle distance is good, ultimately, for the bulk of people most directly responsible for the current moment. Tucker Carlson and 4channers have blood on their hands. In a grander sense, so does Lothrop Stoddard. But we won’t have a real handle on why people are being driven to violence on immigration if we don’t have a real handle on the last 15 years of immigration politics.

Immigration discourse from the middle of the Bush administration onward has been shaped by three claims often explicitly stated or implied in the press. The first claim is that there has been a perilous and unmanageable torrent of undocumented immigrants into the United States over the last 30 or so years. The second claim is that support for restricting immigration is rising among the American people as a whole and among Republicans in particular. The third claim is that political elites, and Democrats in particular, have refused to respond to the first two claims. All of these claims are false.

On the first, the number of undocumented immigrants in the United States is thought to have peaked, after years of genuinely steady increase, at around 12.2 million in 2007 according to figures from the Pew Research Center. By the time Donald Trump took office in 2017, the overall undocumented population had already decreased by nearly 2 million from its size then, and there were 600,000 fewer undocumented immigrants in the American labor force. Some of that’s attributable to immigration policies that contradict the third claim, which we’ll get to in a bit. But immigration trends are also shaped by economic conditions, and the Great Recession slowed the inflow to a crawl. There is no immigration problem in the United States beyond the fact that we’ve made the lives of the undocumented a living hell. Beyond immigration as a moral cause, there’s a broad consensus that the undocumented are a net benefit to the economy, and research has shown that the communities that have expressed the most hostility to immigrants and the most support for Trump ⁠— putatively, many insist, on economic grounds ⁠— have been the least exposed to immigration.

The second claim stands in contradiction of all available polling data. 20 years ago, according to Gallup’s numbers, 49 percent of Americans supported decreasing immigration. A year ago, 31 percent of Americans did, below the 33 percent of Americans who favor increasing immigration. And while there’s been an unsurprising uptick in the number of Republicans who say they’re unsatisfied with immigration policy under Biden ⁠— partisanship at work ⁠— that general pro-immigration trend has held within the GOP ⁠— even under Trump. According to Pew, the proportion of Republicans who believe becoming majority-minority would be bad for America fell 18 points, from 39 percent to 21 percent, between 2016 and 2019. Between 2016 and 2020, the proportion of Republicans who believe being born in the United States is an important part of being a truly American fell 14 points, from 60 to 46 percent.

The facts on the third claim are already familiar to progressives and immigration advocates. The Obama administration deported 3 million immigrants; in his first term alone, Obama deported 60 percent more people than Donald Trump did in his four years as president. While Obama did make moves to liberalize and reform the immigration system, most notably DACA in 2012 and its expansion in 2014, the Democratic Party spent much of the administration the way it’s spent most of the last 20 years ⁠— jerking the the undocumented around in terror of an immigration backlash. Under Biden, deportations have slowed, but the administration’s belated move to lift Trump’s Title 42 expulsions has been decried by a number of Democrats, and immigration reform isn’t even on the table in Congress.

Although it was the Republican House that ultimately killed the immigration reform push Beck was frothing about in 2013, Democrats weren’t serious about putting reform on the table during Obama’s first term either. They came closest in 2010, when the DREAM Act was put to a vote in the Senate. Five Democrats killed it. That was progress ⁠— in 2007, nearly a third of Senate Democrats voted to block the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act. Democratic ambivalence on the issue was reflected by the party’s major figures. In 2007, Hillary Clinton came out against granting drivers’ licenses to the undocumented; in The Audacity of Hope, Obama had empathized briefly with restrictionists. “When I see Mexican flags waved at pro-immigration demonstrations, I sometimes feel a flush of patriotic resentment,” he wrote. “When I’m forced to use a translator to communicate with the guy fixing my car, I feel a certain frustration.” And, as the conservatives now insisting that Democrats have always welcomed the undocumented used to point out in Trump's defense, most in the party had supported the construction of physical barriers at the U.S.-Mexico border and other border security measures.

It is true that many politicos have talked openly in the past about how the diversification of the country might spell doom for the GOP and boost Democrats, especially after the 2012 election. The book Brown is The New White ⁠— published, hilariously, nine months before Trump’s victory in 2016 ⁠— comes easily to mind. As the RNC’s post-2012 autopsy illustrates, elite Republicans came to believe this stuff themselves:

The nation’s demographic changes add to the urgency of recognizing how precarious our position has become. America is changing demographically, and unless Republicans are able to grow our appeal the way GOP governors have done, the changes tilt the playing field even more in the Democratic direction. In 1980, exit polls tell us that the electorate was 88 percent white. In 2012, it was 72 percent white. Hispanics made up 7 percent of the electorate in 2000, 8 percent in 2004, 9 percent in 2008 and 10 percent in 2012. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, in 2050, whites will be 47 percent of the country while Hispanics will grow to 29 percent and Asians to 9 percent. If we want ethnic minority voters to support Republicans, we have to engage them and show our sincerity.

But it is flatly untrue that the Democratic Party, as a matter of policy, has actually sought to increase undocumented immigration in order to secure its electoral position. As best as I can tell and remember, even those who wrote about the political implications of America becoming majority-minority were writing about it as a foregone conclusion rather than something Democrats would have to bring about intentionally.

It’s worth remembering, too, why that talk ramped up after 2012 to begin with: it’s basically Mitt Romney’s fault. Since his run in the 2008 race, Romney ⁠— Moderate Mitt, The Last Reasonable Republican, our anti-Trump Tribune of Tolerance and Civility, a Beacon of Light and Hope, Our Saint and Our Savior, blessed be His name ⁠— had been trying to capitalize on immigration restrictionism on the far right, and had been criticized by then-moderates on the issue like Newt Gingrich and Mike Huckabee for pushing it into the GOP mainstream. As this New Yorker piece on the 2008 Republican primary shows, the very language we’ve come to take for granted from the right on immigration was popularized by Romney:

[Romney] has quickly and easily adopted the negative code words of the anti-immigration movement—“sanctuary cities,” “amnesty”—and has tried to attach them to Giuliani and Huckabee. In doing so, he became the first top-tier candidate to seize the Tancredo mantle. My own sense, from talking to Huckabee, a Southern populist, and McCain, a border-state senator, is that they are genuinely appalled by Romney’s tactics, not only because of the damage to their campaigns but also because of the damage they believe he’s doing to the Party’s image. Romney’s communications director, Matt Rhoades, said, “Both Senator McCain and Governor Huckabee have decided that to win in 2008, Republicans need to be more like the Democrats when it comes to illegal immigration. That’s the wrong course. McCain-Kennedy”—Edward Kennedy was a sponsor of the initial legislation—“was the wrong course. Governor Huckabee’s plan to give tuition breaks to illegal immigrants was the wrong course. America doesn’t need two politicians with records on illegal immigration that are in tune with Senator Clinton.”
“He’s clearly distorted my record as well as my position,” Huckabee told me. “But I’m not interested in getting in a war with him to see which of us can be the meanest son of a gun running for President.” He went on, “My experience has been—not just in politics but in any realm of life—when people keep saying something over and over, and louder and louder, it’s to compensate that they don’t want you to know that’s really never what they believed.” Nevertheless, last week, Huckabee, too, found his inner Tancredo: he announced the Secure America Plan, which included tough language about enforcement and pressuring illegal immigrants to return home. This leaves McCain as the only Republican candidate who hasn’t folded in the face of Romney’s attacks. At the press lunch in Virginia, after McCain had discussed his warm relations with several candidates, a reporter asked about Romney. “I’ve never known him,” McCain said icily. “I’ve never had a relationship with him.”

Romney carried that approach into the 2012 campaign, where he famously backed “self-deportation” for the undocumented. And many analysts took it as a given that his immigration stances had cost him and the party. The RNC autopsy, again:

If Hispanic Americans perceive that a GOP nominee or candidate does not want them in the United States (i.e. self-deportation), they will not pay attention to our next sentence. It does not matter what we say about education, jobs or the economy; if Hispanics think we do not want them here, they will close their ears to our policies. In the last election, Governor Romney received just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote. Other minority communities, including Asian and Pacific Islander Americans, also view the Party as unwelcoming. President Bush got 44 percent of the Asian vote in 2004; our presidential nominee received only 26 percent in 2012. As one conservative, Tea-Party leader, Dick Armey, told us, “You can’t call someone ugly and expect them to go to the prom with you. We’ve chased the Hispanic voter out of his natural home.”

Trump’s success demolished those critiques, but we should keep a clear head about why he won ⁠— again, it is not actually the case that the Republican Party as a whole has been moving right on immigration. Rather, nativism was big specifically among the Republican primary voters Trump prevailed with ⁠— and, as we tend to forget, might have easily lost if the field of non-Trump candidates in 2016 had been smaller. Trump was elected because primary voters who cared more about immigration than the party at large chose him, because negative partisanship pulled Republicans who didn’t care terribly about immigration behind him, and because he eked out a narrow Electoral College victory with the support of white working class voters who also cared more about immigration than voters tend to on average.

But that’s not the story the press tends to tell. The notion that the mass public is crying out for relief from an immigration crisis has been pushed not only by the right’s demagogues and propagandists but by centrist Democratic strategists and the likes of the brain trust over at The Atlantic; before they took what we’re now calling Great Replacement Theory over to conservative media, Glenn Beck and Lou Dobbs were saying many of the same things as primetime hosts on CNN. More broadly, immigration can be understood as another area where our inability to confront the central fact of American politics ⁠— that the United States is not a democracy ⁠— has had destabilizing consequences. It isn’t just 4channers who’ve been encouraged to believe that America has an authentic white conservative majority; as with Trump’s defeat in 2020, the perceived thwarting of that false majority’s will on immigration will surely drive more people to violence in the years ahead. We should blame Carlson and Stoddard as much as they’re due. But we should also recognize that the future we’re in for has been shaped too by our tendency to misremember the near-past and by our misdiagnoses of the present.

Reasons to Be Cheerful

There were some satisfying defeats for Democratic centrists in this week’s primaries. In These Times’ Nick Vachon on Summer Lee in PA-12:

If she wins the general election in the deep-blue district, Lee, who In These Times interviewed in 2018 after she won the Democratic nomination for the 34th Pennsylvania state house district, would become the first Black woman and the first democratic socialist to represent Pennsylvania in Congress. She is running on a platform of enacting policies such as Medicare for All, a Green New Deal and carceral reform while calling for ending the filibuster in the Senate, expanding the number of Supreme Court justices and ending cash bail.
[...] Polling from early April showed Lee with a 25-point lead over the second-place candidate, millionaire Pittsburgh lawyer Steve Irwin. But by the end of the month, according to reporting from Jewish Insider, private polling found that the aggressive negative campaign waged against Lee had been successful — Irwin had erased her lead, leaving the two candidates in a statistical dead heat. As of Wednesday evening, Lee was leading Irwin 41.7 percent to 41.3 percent, with 99 percent of the vote reported.
In total, pro-Israel groups spent at least $2.5 million on the race, almost all of it attacking Lee. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s political wing, the United Democracy Project (UDP), spent more than $2 million running attack ads and a direct mail campaign. Despite being funded by a pro-Israel group, none of the UDP’s ads or mailers mentioned Middle Eastern politics, Israel or Palestine. Instead, the ads questioned Lee’s Democratic Party credentials, highlighted her 2020 criticism of then-candidate Joe Biden, and cast her as a threat to the party.

And here’s the Philadelphia Inquirer on Fetterman trouncing Lamb:

Lamb, a 37-year-old Western Pennsylvania congressman, promised voters he was the most electable candidate for a general election. But Democratic voters overwhelmingly rejected that argument, choosing Lt. Gov. John Fetterman more than 2-1 over Lamb, citing myriad reasons — including electability.
Lamb, who largely ran in the style of President Joe Biden, claiming his nomination would be the safest way to ensure a Democratic win, didn’t fit the mood of the moment two years later, voters and experts said. Fetterman’s humble, gruff vibe and potential appeal to progressives and disaffected Democrats was the electability pitch that ultimately prevailed.
Lamb “looks like he was manufactured in a lab to run for the Senate in 1996,” said Alison Dagnes, a political science professor at Shippensburg University. “People hate politicians. There’s so much shade thrown against politicians these days,” she said, which left Lamb, who might have been the conventional image of electability in the past, struggling to gain traction.

A Song

“Wake Up Everybody” ⁠— Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes feat. Teddy Pendergrass (1975)