When the bigots marched through Charlottesville, Va., two years ago this week, chanting, “Jews will not replace us,” a lot of Jews found this confusing. We weren’t trying to replace anybody.
We imagined we were already woven into the national fabric, fully accepted across generations as members of America’s racial and religious extended family.
We hadn’t yet figured out who was doing the replacing — and who was being accused of shoving it down white nationalists’ throats.
Charlottesville was only our first eye-opener in the Trump era. As everyone remembers, that was the march of bigots that looked like a rerun of Hitler-era Germany — and yet, an American president, Donald Trump, gazed among the racists and the anti-Semites and somehow wished to point out the “good people” among them.
Bit by bit, though, in the worst conceivable ways, we learn the translation of the “replace” phrase — and how it ties in most recently with last weekend’s awful mass killings.
That young madman who murdered 22 people in El Paso, Texas, says that a book called “The Great Replacement” inspired him to act against a “Hispanic invasion.”
As The Forward points out this week, the notion of “replacement” is also “why the gunman who killed 11 Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue was obsessed with the Jewish immigration-aid agency HIAS. And it’s why the New Zealand mosque shooter — whom the El Paso gunman and the Poway, California, synagogue shooter cited as inspirations — claimed that immigration was leading to ‘white genocide.’
“It’s a far-right conspiracy theory that claims Western global entities are using immigration policy to ‘replace’ white people with racial and religious minorities.” Much of it comes out of “The Great Replacement” book, “from which anti-Semites quickly began to claim Jewish people were pulling the strings.
Last year, Rep. Steve King was kicked off his congressional committees after asking why being a white supremacist was bad. King also claimed that George Soros, the wealthy Jewish financier and philanthropist was behind the so-called “Great Replacement.”
Hence, we had that initial Charlottesville chant that Jews will not “replace” us.
Words matter. This president uses variations of the “replace” phrase to divide the country politically. If it benefits him, never mind the national antagonism it provokes.
“Send them back,” he says. He talks of “invasions.” The New York Times reports he’s used such language in more than 2,000 Facebook ads.
And that precise language winds up in the mad screed the El Paso killer sends out just minutes before he goes on his rampage.
At a rally in Florida back in May, Trump asked a howling crowd, “How do you stop these people?” He meant those migrants, those brown-skinned people. How do you stop them from “replacing” nice white people.
“Shoot them,” a voice cried out.
The video’s out there for all to see. Trump laughs at the line, and says, “That’s only in the panhandle you can get away with this stuff.”
This is a man who uses language we used to hear from the lunatic fringes of politics, and he’s made them mainstream. And they’ve given legitimacy to those lunatics such as the El Paso killer, who reads a book about a “Hispanic invasion,” called “The Great Replacement,” and in the political hate language of a poisonous era imagines he’s committing an act of patriotism.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books, most recently “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age” (Johns Hopkins University Press).