Over the last few years, a number of journalists went columbusing around the web and found that racists in the West believe that seeing more darker-skinned people and racially ambiguous kids isn’t just a consequence of a hyper-connected, fast-paced world and rising costs of child care, but a sinister plan by the Jews to eliminate white society and culture. Naturally, you might want to soothe yourself by thinking it’s just a fringe belief of a few extremists. It’s not. Just look at constant right-wing complaints about the “Islamification of Europe” on social media and ominous Fox News rants about “changes in demographics no one voted for” repeated ad nauseum.
Consider an email sent to Buzzfeed News reporter Salvador Hernandez which basically lays it out in a much less grammatically eloquent form, justifying the actions of the El Paso shooter by calling him “a young man who probably couldn’t get a job because all the illegal Mexicans took all the jobs” and declaring that he must have been “scared for his future and the future of his family and America changing into the United States of Mexico” before rambling about the supposed total absence of Hispanics and other foreigners during America’s formative wars and construction projects. All of which is, of course, ahistorical nonsense.
A cursory search shows that Hispanic-Americans fought in every major national conflict since 1860, meaning that millions of them were around to defend the nation from enemies foreign and domestic. Just about any credible historical account shows us that tens of millions of immigrants didn’t just appear overnight, but have been vital to making America what it is, their descendants readily integrating into its culture and society at a net gain to the country despite nativist panics. Hernandez told me that oddly, he usually doesn’t get such emails unless he writes something immigration-related, and when he does, the furious missives come in bunches.
Basically, if you remind racists that immigrants are still coming into Western nations, they panic that the evil foreigners will outbreed them, then establish a socialist New World Order doling out freebies so a malicious cabal of Jews can control the public through government handouts. It’s been debunked many times, but as all beliefs based on primal fears instead of having a factual basis, it’s been holding on for decades now with no end in sight. You can try explaining exactly why current demographic trends mean little 25 years out until you’re blue in the face and have no luck changing the adherents’ opinions.
That said, the followers of replacement theory do have something right. For tens of millions, things really are changing for the worse and the white working class is in the middle of what can only be called a catastrophic reversal of fortune, especially in rural America. It’s this accelerating deterioration of infrastructure, job opportunities, healthcare, environment, and politics giving rise to a whole host of social pathologies and conspiracy ideation that gave us President Donald Trump, a resurgence of white supremacism, and the monetization of dirty divide-and-conquer politics outlined by the GOP’s Southern Strategy. This has been pushed along by a rotating cast of malicious demagogues, pundits, and trolls swarming around those left behind by the careless and haphazard transition to a post-industrial economy like hungry vultures picking at a carcass.
Why So Many Rally Behind The Replacement Theory
Small towns and farms have a mythical status in the United States thanks to heavy courting by politicians and national folklore. Rural frontiersmen and their families built the country from an untamed wilderness — well, after smallpox and other diseases carried from Europe wiped out close to 90% of the native population — with their farms and dusty outposts and, of course, a whole vault full of movies in which city slickers discover the true meaning of life after being marooned in, or exiled to flyover country. And for a time, there were plenty of prosperous little towns with humming factories and mines, and bustling main drags.
Unfortunately for residents of rural America, those times are long gone. Instead of tending to their family farms, they’re trying to coexist with massive conglomerates that make nearly all the food we eat and fighting the next generation of automation in agriculture. The factories on which they relied for work left and the politicians they voted into office at every level of government have no workable plans to bring them back. Even worse, manufacturers promising to invest in these areas are reaping tax incentives in return for empty promises. Money that could have been used to improve basic services is being surrendered for jobs in hopes of windfall tax revenues that will never come.
Living in rural America today exposes you to a whole parade of unsustainable horribles when compared to urban hubs, which are booming by every possible economic indicator. No matter how many times right-wing pundits argue the opposite, Red America is being left in the dust while taking federal aid made up of tax receipts from blue states and suffering from massive brain drain to cities. There’s simply no other way to put it. A peaceful, quiet, reliable life has been replaced by hollowed-out industrial shells, robots, suicide, debt, and opioid addiction. In short, rural communities are dying, and not slowly.
So if you look at this sad state of affairs and add in a big dollop of racism, along with employers using undocumented immigrants with few, if any, consequences instead of native-born citizens to bolster their profit margins, and you can see why there are so many Americans buying into the theory that they’re being replaced and driven into extinction. From their vantage point, that’s exactly what’s happening and they can’t, or don’t want to, understand why cities are thriving and growing. They see immigrants in meatpacking plants and on construction sites, and living in vast urban hubs, and quickly latch on to the most paranoid, conspiratorial explanation possible.
But the alternative is to admit that by backing the tax cuts, deregulation, and anti-labor laws that made this hollowing out of middle America possible and continue to supercharge it, by faithfully voting for Republican lawmakers because something something socialism, they’re driving their own towns and farms into extinction. Meanwhile, decades of underinvestment in anything other than the predominant industry of their areas while they demanded politicians bring back their old jobs, created a dearth of infrastructure for new industries to move in and help revive them. Just the fact that all these trends accelerated under GOP control of every branch of government at every level for those most affected should be a giant, flashing, neon warning sign that the rural, older, conservative whites are, in effect, replacing themselves.
A Cautionary Tale Of Implementing Nationalist Policies
Of course, there will be objections to this line of logic. How can a country in which more than one in 10 people are foreign-born, one that calls itself “a nation of immigrants” even as it tries to slam the doors shut on new people and ideas, ever separate the effects of centuries of waves of immigration from the effects of its policies? The answer? By looking at the state of affairs on a control country that adopted the same political stances and even implemented everything on the nationalist wish list except abolishing a national healthcare system resembling those used by almost every civilized nation on the planet.
Imagine a country that would rather build armies of robots than admit any more immigrants than it absolutely has to, is over 90% culturally and ethnically homogenous, and chose a center-right government to more or less stay the course. A country in which feminism isn’t really a thing, an encounter with minorities who aren’t tourists passing by is rare, the patriarchy reigns supreme, and no one raises an eyebrow about cultural appropriation when a cartoon featuring Merlin as a main character, or an all-ethic majority adaptation of Sherlock Holmes comes on TV. A country in which the government helps prop up failing industries and tries to resist automation for many workers even when it would be economically beneficial to allow it.
This country is Japan. While it’s polite, clean, peaceful, and warm on the surface, its economy and social concerns are less of a model and more of a warning sign for others. Its population is declining because its citizens are too busy working to even think about children, child care costs are rising, career trajectories are at a standstill, and for women, getting married and having kids often means the loss of personal autonomy, which is why they’re opting out of married life more and more. Nearly half of the adult population is functionally asexual, more than half a million are essentially shut-ins, and politicians are terrified that the economy is on the verge of contracting after failing to meaningfully grow for the last quarter-century.
And the picture is even more grim in the Japanese countryside. One of the first things you notice if you travel through it is just how breathtakingly beautiful it is. Ornate tapestries of rolling green hills surrounding dormant volcanic peaks shrouded in clouds and occasionally interrupted by the intricate terraces of rice paddies weren’t just artists’ flights of fancy. That’s simply what rural Japan looks like. But if you ignore the beauty and look at the stats, Japanese small towns are also dying so quickly that half of all Japanese municipalities will no longer exist by 2040 at the current rate. There are no minorities in sight and plenty of protectionist laws on the books, yet you see the same graying elders waving goodbye to their children as they leave for major cities on the coasts.
The only bright spot is that as citizens abandoned rural life for cities, the country has kept pace with changes in housing demand, building enough units to keep the market relatively flat in stark contrast to major American cities where home prices have shot into orbit. But overall, as we’ve just seen, policies treating people as nothing more than cogs in a machine, isolating them from the world at large, and enshrining outdated traditions into law as the world keeps changing, is perfectly replicating the symptoms of what American bigots claim is a sinister conspiracy to kill them off in a country ran virtually exactly as they want theirs, then going a step further.
Rather than thrive, the Japanese put so much strain on younger generations, they’ve effectively shut down for anything other than work, which is becoming less and less reliable, and more and more short term. Meanwhile, child poverty is on the rise, and overall poverty is surprisingly high for a developed country at 15.6% compared to the United States’ 12.3% when measured by similar metrics. (Meanwhile, by contrast, Canada hit its lowest poverty rate in history with 9.5% despite pursuing the exact opposite policies of right wing dogmas.)
At least graying Japanese nationalists get a much cleaner environment, affordable healthcare, terrific public transport, and friendlier labor laws as consolation prizes while their American counterparts are being asked to support increased pollution, a failing infrastructure, laws that turn them into virtual serfs for businesses, and skyrocketing healthcare costs that put medicine and treatment out of their reach. And this sad state of affairs prompts the question of how we got here.
How The Right Took Control Of America
In the 1990s, America ran the world without question. Its once powerful opponent was no more, its military reach unmatched, and its frenemy China still nearly two decades away from rapid ascendancy. Giddy pundits talked about “the end of history” and the victory of liberal democracy all over the planet. Its people had it made, and acquiring American citizenship was seen as the golden ticket for millions of immigrants. I still vividly recall raising my right hand in an INS office, receiving my certificate of naturalization with a letter welcoming me as a new citizen, and almost immediately applying for a shiny new passport for an upcoming trip.
But while everyone welcomed me and countless others as Americans, a disturbing trend was coming to a boil just under the surface. One would think that after winning the Cold War and establishing a new world order, the American right would be happy with the outcome and start planning for a future in which the country enjoyed the benefits of not having to fight another superpower. Even in the wake of 9/11 and the War on Terror, there seemed to be plenty of money and resources to invest in education, healthcare, infrastructure, and preparations for post-industrialization every expert warned was coming.
Instead, with the help of decades of conspiracy-mongering Bircher potboilers, the conservative movement declared war against a new enemy: Americans. Considering the free market as the force that brought down the Soviet Union — even though the USSR contributed greatly to its own demise, was actually warming up to Western-style democracy in its twilight years, and it was decades of Western political savvy that made its end in one form or another inevitable — the right decided that instead of allowing us to set a vision for where society needs to go and let the market come up with solutions, the market would now dictate our path forward. And this set the stage for the chaos we see unfolding today in two important ways.
The first is that delegating a vision for a society to companies in search of short term profits is like planning a road trip in turn-by-turn increments, even though you haven’t even figured out where it is you want to go. In much the same way, corporations and stock markets aren’t going to get you to some magical promised land because they don’t know where they’re going either. They’re not built to plan for many years into the future. They’re designed to respond in terms of quarters, maybe a few years at most, as consumer and client demands might change and sticking to a strategy for too long can kneecap their ability to adjust to competition.
Governments, on the other hand, can create plans that may take many years to implement and pursue ideas that don’t necessarily result in huge profits, but are nevertheless both good for the people and create new markets out of thin air. For example, space programs gave us integrated circuitry and high energy physics gave us the world wide web, revolutionizing virtually every industry on Earth within just a few decades. And unlike so many Americans are told, it’s not a gaggle of faceless bureaucrats deciding the fate of nations on a whim. We, the voters, decide what vision gets implemented, although the right exploited a loophole which allowed it to break that crucial mechanism for self-determination.
That brings us to our second problem. By declaring that anyone who doubts the power of the almighty market, or any expert who tries to suggest a long term vision for us, is a traitor to the American cause, a filthy commie socialist trying to replace the Constitution with the Communist Manifesto, and decrying their desire to cast votes in elections as a “radical power grab,” we’ve effectively kneecapped the public’s ability to plot a long term course. We can’t prepare even for obvious threats because we’re told that “the market will deal with it.” But the market is currently automating millions out of a job and people aren’t being trained for new ones despite there now being more jobs than people looking for one, and our healthcare system is a Rube Goldbergian mess of fiscal black holes, so we know that’s just wishful thinking.
It’s not that the free market or capitalism are somehow evil or problematic. It’s that they’re tools to be wielded to more efficiently get you where you want to go. With no goals to meet other than their own, and no direction other than towards whatever makes money next, it’s no wonder that we’re adrift. And as we try to swim towards an island or any landmass in general, a ship piloted by right-wing politicians and pundits blocks the way and starts blasting long-winded speeches about our exceptionalism and freedom to do anything, including our freedom to drown.
How Right-Wing Policies Lead Us Into A Societal Dead End
Really, at this point, that’s what their arguments are: strings of buzzwords meant to scare fellow Birchers contrasted against equally empty buzzwords meant to be appreciated by them, and if you disagree, well, so did the commies and look what happened to them. In the meantime, the agenda they pursue for their wealthy benefactors is simple. The people who sign their checks view society not as a package deal, but as a set of a la carte services they can pick and choose from a tax standpoint, and anything they don’t like or don’t feel to be beneficial shouldn’t be taken from their checks or demanded of them in quarterly estimates.
They got theirs, everyone else is on their own. Meanwhile, regulations are nothing more than bureaucratic busybodies interfering with their God-given right to make a profit, and while they might not be too enthused with culture war issues and religion being dragged into politics, they’re fine with the xenophobic and fundamentalist undercurrents as long as they can get their tax cuts and loosened regulations at the end of the day. All of this is great if you’re a tycoon in a gated community. If you’re a typical citizen, however, you end up paying for their whims as the deficit and national debt balloon while your standard of living keeps plummeting.
Ask the government what’s going on and you’ll be told that while we have the money and the votes for tax cuts, border patrols, and the military, we don’t have them for roads, schools, healthcare, pensions, or anything else that isn’t war or security-related. This is why the United States has an unmatched military that spans the globe but one of the worst infant and maternal mortality rates and mediocre test scores in the developed world. It’s the nation-state equivalent of a man living off his credit cards and taking pay cuts to hold on to a job while putting every cent he can into an AR-15 collection.
We can talk about directionless workaholism, how small towns were left behind in the wake of post-industrialization and corporate consolidation, the Dickensian attitudes towards the poor and struggling, and the self-destructive avarice of the one percent, but all those are symptoms of the sudden pivot to and blind faith in supply side voodoo economics. And the increasing hostility to the demographic majority of America driven by an ever more hysterical right-wing punditocracy is just a natural culmination of red scares when no honest to goodness reds are available. As their ever-angrier constituents filled their town halls demanded answers, they asked “have you tried hating minorities and liberals more?” and left it at that.
With no direction and perpetually fighting with itself, it’s little wonder America keeps slipping in every objective standard of living year after year as its citizens are told to blame each other, while the myopic politicians who got them into this mess happily brand each other as liars and corrupt bastards to lower the bar for themselves as much as possible. It’s no wonder that rural America is dying and there’s nothing to help keep it stabilize or a program to transition people to urban life while expanding and modernizing cities to make them cleaner and more affordable for the incoming population, much like Japan has done.
And finally, it’s no wonder at all that voters abandoned by politicians who can’t help them, and frankly don’t want to, relying on scaring them out of their wits to get reelected, are reaching for the absolute worst and vicious conspiracy theories to justify the disastrous results of 40 years of self-destructive actions, votes, and policies while settling for an ever lower standard for their elected leaders and representatives. They placed a noose around their necks and as they’re about to pull the lever to collapse the platform under their feet, they demand to know what brown or foreign-born [insert ethnic or racial slur here] put them in this predicament and are unwilling to realize that demographically and politically, no one but them could have possibly done it.
Of course, don’t anticipate that older rural Americans obsessed with blaming foreigners and immigrants for all their problems will look at the statistics, reverse course, and admit that they ended up in a murder-suicide pact with the conservative project. For that, they would need to admit that the policies they claim are the only way to prevent pogroms, collective farming, and reeducation camps to turn their polite, godly, all-American children into heavily tattooed Marxist, genderqueer social justice warriors with neon hair serving a cabal of Satanic pedophiles, were naive, self-destructive and survived only thanks to a steady drumbeat of fear-mongering. And as they showed us time and time again, they’d rather let what’s left of their towns disintegrate than accept the idea that anyone left of Strom Thurmond’s ghost has a valid policy proposal.