Organizers of the “Unite the Right” demonstration suffered a damaging legal defeat this week. But four years after the rally, their message has seeped closer to the conservative mainstream.
Nov. 24, 2021, 3:29 p.m. ET
The jury verdict on Tuesday holding a dozen white supremacists liable for the violence at the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., was a victory for those who have long inveighed against far-right extremists and a rare example of hate group leaders being held responsible not only for the language they use, but also for the bloodshed they are accused of causing.
But even though the planners of the rally lost their civil trial and now confront the prospect of $25 million in damages, their legacy lives on.
Four years after the event, the same ideas that made “Unite the Right” a lightning rod for hate groups are increasingly being echoed, albeit in modulated tones, by prominent figures in conservative media and politics. Chief among them is the great replacement theory, which holds that Democrats and others on the left are trying to supplant white Americans with immigrants and others for their own political gain.
This ideology’s shift from the margins toward the center was one of the leitmotifs of the nearly monthlong trial. Its spread suggests why it was crucial to have brought legal action against the defendants in the first place, according to those who helped to plan the case. “Precisely because their ideas have become more mainstream, it underscores why it is so important to hold these extremists accountable,” said Amy Spitalnick, executive director of Integrity First for America, a civil rights group that underwrote the suit.
The goal of “Unite the Right,” which occurred in Charlottesville over two days in August 2017, was, as its name suggests, to bring together the disparate elements of right-wing protest culture: Klansmen and overt neo-Nazis wanted to march with militiamen, far-right nationalists and more ordinary Trump supporters in a show of force in the early months of his administration.
But the unification project failed amid internecine squabbling before the rally started and only got worse after Charlottesville descended into violence and chaos, resulting in running street brawls and the death of a young woman, Heather Heyer, who was killed when one of the extremists drove his car into a crowd of counterdemonstrators.
In the weeks and months that followed, as left-wing protesters pushed back and a lawsuit was filed against the rally’s leaders, many of them were marginalized, impoverished and sometimes rarely heard from again.
Still, their once-fringe belief that white people are under attack in America has now moved closer to the conservative mainstream.
This summer, for example, Newt Gingrich, the former Republican congressman and House speaker from Georgia, appeared on Fox News and declared that leftists were trying to “drown” out “classic Americans” with people who knew nothing of their country’s history and traditions in an effort to “get rid of the rest of us.” One month later, on his own Fox show, Tucker Carlson claimed that President Biden and the Democrats were purposefully seeking to increase immigration “to change the racial mix of the country” and “reduce the political power of people whose ancestors lived here.” (A spokeswoman for Fox News did not immediately respond on Wednesday to messages seeking comment on Mr. Carlson’s remarks.)
In the spring, a Pennsylvania Republican, Representative Scott Perry, made reference to replacement theory at an immigration hearing on the floor of the House. In September, Elise Stefanik of New York, the House Republican conference chair, released a campaign ad based on a version of the theory. That same month, Dan Patrick, the lieutenant governor of Texas, appeared on Fox News claiming that Mr. Biden’s immigration policies were tantamount to “trying to take over our country without firing a shot.”
“To see things move like this from a pillar of the conspiratorial and paranoid right to a talking point for Tucker Carlson and his allies is really quite frightening,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, the executive director of the Anti-Defamation League, who has tracked and condemned the spread of replacement theory. “It’s a gateway drug to harder and more worrisome extremism.”
Among those who have noticed the shift are some of the people named in the civil suit in Charlottesville.
“The fact that Tucker is making this sort of argument is a breakthrough,” Mike Peinovich, a white nationalist podcast host and a defendant in the suit who was ultimately dropped from the case, wrote on social media. “I will give him credit for going where no TV host has gone before.”
In October, David Duke, a former leader of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and one of the country’s most notorious white supremacists, also embraced Mr. Carlson for having finally espoused the false conspiracy that a plot was afoot to “wipe out the white people” in America and Europe.
According to Mr. Greenblatt, the normalization of replacement theory began almost immediately after the violence in Charlottesville when President Donald J. Trump made a moral equivalency between the far-right ralliers who marched at the event and the large crowds of counterdemonstrators who showed up to protest them. During his years in office, Mr. Trump repeatedly stoked white grievances by focusing on issues like his border wall or on N.F.L. players who knelt during the national anthem, encouraging the notion that white people in America were under attack, Mr. Greenblatt said.
Violent extremists espoused a similar message.
Twice during Mr. Trump’s presidency, domestic terrorists committed assaults that were later found to be directly linked to replacement theory. In October 2018, an avowed antisemite shot and killed 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue after posting online about a Jewish-run refugee organization, which he accused of working to “bring invaders in that kill our people.” One year later, a young man armed with a high-powered rifle killed 23 people at a Walmart in El Paso after writing a screed in which he worried that white people would be replaced by people of color.
Experts on political violence have said they are concerned that as replacement theory continues gaining purchase on the right, an increased number of ordinary people will also feel threatened and accept the use of threats and menace. Polling already indicates that 30 percent of Republicans believe that “true patriots” may have to resort to violence to “save” the country.
Indeed, in recent months, as Republican officials have pursued an agenda of combating what they have described as critical race theory in schools, there has been a disturbing spike in threats against school board officials. Ordinary people have also been involved in sending hundreds of intimidating messages to election officials in at least a dozen states.
Perhaps the best example of political violence going mainstream was the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. Though members of extremist groups played a role in the assault, the rioters who acted most violently that day — those, for instance, who fought with the police — were, in large part, also the most ordinary. They were church deacons, substitute teachers, military veterans and State Department aides.
“Jan. 6 was the inevitable manifestation of this ideology,” Ms. Spitalnick said. “What is ‘Stop the Steal’ if not the idea that the country was stolen from the people it supposedly ‘belonged to’ and that there was a conspiracy to effectively replace a largely white, Christian country.”
Robert Pape, a professor at the University of Chicago who tracks political violence, said a version of replacement theory had found broad acceptance among people who believed Mr. Trump’s lies about the 2020 election. According to a recent study Mr. Pape conducted, almost 25 percent of American adults agreed that “African American people or Hispanic people in our country will eventually have more rights than whites.” That number increased substantially — to more than 60 percent — among those who also agreed that violence was justified in attempts to restore Mr. Trump to the White House.
Mr. Pape said he was worried that the more an idea like replacement theory gained acceptance in the culture, the more it would encourage future violence — not only lone-wolf attacks like those in Pittsburgh and El Paso, but also collective, political assaults like Jan. 6. If people believe they are under attack, he said, they are simply more likely to condone aggression in others or to take up arms themselves.
He compared the situation to the conditions encouraging a wildfire.
“We know that the dry forest areas are getting larger,” he said. “The problem is, we can’t always predict the lightning strikes that will ignite them.”