Wisconsin lawmakers deny rhetoric promotes ‘great replacement theory’, expert says it does

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MADISON, Wis. (CBS 58) -- A racist conspiracy theory is now at the center of a political debate after 10 people were killed in a racially motivated mass shooting in Buffalo, according to authorities.

The so-called "great replacement" conspiracy theory is a belief there's a plot to diminish the influence of white people in America.

A growing number of Republican lawmakers are promoting aspects of the theory when criticizing President Joe Biden's immigration policies.

The topic is consuming media reports and putting some lawmakers in a tough spot, including Wisconsin's U.S. Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI), since the mass shooting in Buffalo, New York, is being linked to the racist theory.

Law enforcement is investigating a 180-page document, published online before the Buffalo, New York, supermarket shooting, that discusses the "great replacement" theory. Authorities believe it was a motivating factor behind the attack where 18-year-old suspect Payton Gendron is accused of killing 10 people and wounding three.

Johnson denies he's heard of “replacement theory” despite tweeting about it and questioning whether President Biden's immigration policies are an attempt to change "the demographics of America," during an appearance on a Fox Business show last month.

"Yet this administration wants complete open borders. And you have to ask yourself why? Is it really they want to remake the demographics of America to insure their -- that they stay in power forever? Is that what's happening here?" Johnson said in March.

Johnson declined an interview to elaborate on his views. His spokeswoman said it's a "lie", Johnson supports "replacement theory" and defended his comments.

"The senator has spoken extensively on the inhumanity of the Biden administration's open border policies, not some racist ‘theory,'" said Alex Henning, a spokeswoman for Johnson.

An expert who studies polarization and extremism said this type of rhetoric from politicians can promote baseless and dangerous racist theories.

"It is one of the greatest tragedies," said Cynthia Miller-Idriss, director of Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab. "There's a right for someone's opinion compared to what one should say. We are in an exclusive democracy and how we move forward together as a nation…it is dangerous and false."

About 1 in 3 U.S. adults believe there’s an effort underway to replace white Americans with immigrants for political gains, according to a poll by the Associated Press–NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

Miller-Idriss said online propaganda is one of the leading factors causing the youth and adult population to become vulnerable to these beliefs.

“We cannot ban or arrest our way out of this problem. We really have to start intervening from really early ages,” she said.

On Wednesday, May 18, Johnson also slammed a Washington Post article that highlights numerous incidents about GOP lawmakers' descent into replacement theory, calling it an "immediate political attack"

"Immediate political attack that they're using it as a means of leveraging for political purposes this attack in Buffalo is something that is reprehensible," Johnson said on a The Clay Travis & Buck Sexton Show, a conservative talk show.

Johnson added, "This is all about power for the Democrats. I get accused of talking about something I'd never even heard of. I don't think I've ever even said the word and I'm not gonna say it now, okay, about this theory."

President Joe Biden visited Buffalo on Tuesday, condemning the attack, and spoke directly about white supremacy and the racist conspiracy theory."

Biden not only blamed the suspects who carry out hate fueled mass shootings, but also "the people who make them, convince them, from their power and their prestige and their money, to be able to go out and do these terrible things."

Johnson, who's seeking a third term, received backlash from the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, who’s hoping to unseat the Oshkosh Republican this fall.

"Ron Johnson is so desperate to stay in Washington he will say anything regardless of how dangerous and wrong it is," said Philip Shulman, spokesman for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin. "Wisconsinites are fed up with him putting his self-serving agenda ahead of their best interests."

Illegal Immigration: "Biggest Crisis Facing America"

Other members of Wisconsin's congressional delegation are pushing back on Biden's immigration policies, arguing "open borders" will "fundamentally change the county."

Congressman Glenn Grothman (R-WI 6th) declined to talk about "replacement theory" and the belief that Democratic politicians and others are forcing demographic change through immigration.

Instead he echoed fellow Republicans, calling illegal immigration the "biggest crisis facing" America, during an interview with CBS 58.

When asked why the surge along the southern border is a top priority over inflation, gas prices, and rising crime, Grothman said, "it's going to have a permanent impact on America."

"It's going to fundamentally change the county and it's occurring at such a rapid rate," said Grothman. "We have just an out of control situation."

Grothman, who visited the southern border last month, defended his comments by citing data from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection April 2022 report that shows 234,088 migrant encounters by border patrol agents, compared to 178,785 a year ago.

Grothman estimates roughly 185,000 of those 234,088 remain in the county illegally. However, the data is incomplete because statistics are still being collected for the remainder of the year.

"I mean you're looking at approaching 2 million a year," Grothman said. "That will change America so much over many years. The single biggest crisis facing America today."

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