Below is my column in the Hill on the new Democratic campaign to link criticism of illegal immigration to domestic terrorism. The effort is to make the Great Replacement Theory (GRT) a new catchphrase against political and media opponents. However, the effort to make GRT the new CRT is not gaining traction. The reason is that GRT sweeps broadly to include commentary on both the left and right.
Here is the column:
For more than a year, liberals have struggled to deal with conservative and parental outrage over critical race theory (CRT) being taught in public schools. This week, a new campaign seemed to emerge: Forget CRT, and fear GRT instead.
The “Great Replacement Theory” was the focus of a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday, in which Democrats alleged that Republicans — and Fox News in particular — are “radicalizing” domestic terrorists with rhetoric opposing illegal immigration. (I testified at the hearing and, for full disclosure, I’m a Fox News contributor.)
Not only did Democratic senators tie GRT to the shooter in Buffalo, N.Y., but they compared the use of GRT to the rhetoric leading to genocide in other countries. Committee chairman Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said the Buffalo shooting illustrated how “the ‘Great Replacement’ conspiracy theory … has fueled hateful acts of racist violence” and domestic terrorism.
The Buffalo shooter, Payton Gendron, left a rambling manifesto that raved about blacks, Jews, immigrants and the media, including attacks on Fox and other media personalities.
One committee witness, political science professor Robert A. Pape, claimed that Jan. 6 rioters were actually motivated by the replacement theory and that former President Donald Trump not only stressed GRT but that he is “more powerful today as a result of January 6th than he would have been without January 6th.”
There is no question that immigration conspiracy theories are all the rage with the alt right. Moreover, for decades, immigrants have been attacked by racists and extremists as diluting or destroying our country. My Sicilian mother used to describe going to bed as a child, seeing burning crosses near her home as a warning to her family and other immigrants in her small Ohio coal-mining town.
Now, Democrats are seeking, through the Domestic Terrorism Protection Act, to force the government to prioritize the investigation of white supremacists for domestic terrorism. Many of the provisions of the act are constitutional, but that prioritization runs afoul of our constitutional principle of the separation of powers.
The clear effort to link GRT to terrorism and, by extension, anyone who raises replacement objections — in other words, to use ideology as a basis for investigation — risks threatening free-speech rights. We have a long history of such abuses. For example, during the infamous Palmer Raids of 1919 and 1920, socialists, communists and anarchists were arrested due to their ideology alone.
The other problem is how one defines GRT. Immigration, both legal and illegal, has long been discussed in terms of how it changes the country’s demographics. Changing demographics has a political dimension which has been discussed on both the left and the right; last year, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) celebrated such changes and how “the demographics will weigh in politically.” Sen. Durbin said last year that “The demographics of America are not on the side of the Republican Party. The new voters in this country are moving away from them, and instead they’re moving to be independents or even vote on the other side.”
Liberal media sites like Politico also have discussed how new immigrants “would transform the nation’s political landscape for a generation or more — pumping as many as 11 million new Hispanic voters into the electorate a decade from now in ways that, if current trends hold, would produce an electoral bonanza for Democrats and cripple Republican prospects.”
These are obvious, appropriate observations — but they also make it more difficult to declare that any such references are not just racist but are encouraging terrorists.
With CRT, there is a tendency to over-extend the term to cover and delegitimize all race-based lesson plans. The same is true with GRT. Ironically, both terms are denounced as seeking to demonize opposing views, but they often are used for the same purpose in reverse.
Senators have every right to condemn those they believe are vilifying immigrants. The free speech concern occurs when senators call for “disrupting the pathways to radicalization” and for legislative action to deter such “radicalization” in the news or social media. Even a Democratic witness, former FBI agent Michael German, repeatedly cautioned against using ideology as a key element to determine who should be investigated. That decision should be based on risk, not ideology, he said.
Democrats raise legitimate concerns over extreme rhetoric on social media and how it radicalizes individuals. The solution, though, should not be limiting speech or investigating people based on their ideology.
As German explained, when he worked undercover he dealt with many ardent extremists, including white supremacists, who were nonviolent. The same is true for extreme groups on the left. I have been a vocal critic of antifa, one of our most violent anti-free speech movements, yet I opposed Republican moves to treat antifa as a terrorist organization for the same reasons.
The push to rally around opposition to GRT is notably occurring at a time when, according to the New York Times, Democrats seek to “recast the midterm message.” House Democrats, for example, hired a former ABC News executive to help stage this week’s primetime hearings on the Jan. 6 riot. We are now less than five months away from midterm elections that a CNN pollster predicts will be a historic disaster for Democrats. The New York Times reported that “Democrats argue the hearings will give them a platform for making a broader case about why they deserve to stay in power.” And, on MSNBC recently, Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Pa.) agreed with John Heilemann that Democrats must “scare the crap out of [voters] and get them to come out.”
That approach would miss an opportunity for real compromise and real progress on violent extremism or gun violence. We do not need to “scare the crap” out of citizens — they are scared enough.
There were moments between the scares in Tuesday’s hearing when common ground seemed possible. In one of those, Garnell Whitfield Jr., whose mother, Ruth Whitfield, was among the 10 people shot and killed in Buffalo, gave a powerful, moving account of the deep loss of so many victims.
Tagging opposing media or opponents as fellow travelers with terrorists will do little to stop such terrible losses, however. It is even unlikely to stop electoral losses.
It may be too much to hope in an election year that we can unite around our constitutional values — but if we cannot build on our shared values, perhaps we can build on our shared suffering to put politics aside.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.