For months, GOP presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy has been dog-whistling to supporters of extremist far-right ideologies and wild conspiracy theories like QAnon. On Wednesday night, at the fourth Republican presidential debate, Ramaswamy went full tilt: After blasting the three other debaters for turning on former president Donald Trump, Ramaswamy argued, without evidence, that the January 6 Capitol riot was an inside job, the 2020 presidential election was stolen, the government had lied about 9/11, and the “deep state” was responsible for all these things.
Then, Ramaswamy claimed that the “great replacement theory is not some grand right-wing conspiracy theory, but a basic statement of the Democratic Party’s platform.” The great replacement theory is a widely-debunked conspiracy that the liberal establishment, along with a cabal of “global elites,” is encouraging the immigration of people of color in order to “replace” white voters.
Immediately, white supremacists online celebrated the reference to the racist and antisemitic conspiracy.
Nick Fuentes, a white nationalist influencer who was livestreaming his reaction to the debate on the alternative streaming platform Rumble, appeared visibly shocked that Ramaswamy went so far. He watched open-mouthed as Ramaswamy continued to boost wild conspiracies. “Let’s go,” a visibly delighted Fuentes told his thousands of viewers.
A clip of Fuentes’ reaction was posted on X by Irish antisemitic and anti-immigrant influencer Keith O’Brien, known online as Keith Woods, with the comment: “Time to mainstream this discussion across the West.”
The post quickly racked up tens of thousands of likes and shares, including from Ramaswamy’s own official X account. “Repost by Vivek, very cool,” O’Brien wrote on his Telegram channel. “We love Vivek.”
“When someone like Ramaswamy promotes great replacement and other conspiracy theories, he’s platforming a violent and paranoid ideology to a mainstream audience. It’s clear that he speaks the language of conspiracy theory believers, antisemites, and extremists—many of these same people have embraced his candidacy,” Mike Rothschild, an author who writes about conspiracy theories and extremists tells WIRED. “And he’s speaking to these people not to help his DOA campaign, but to cement them as his future base for whatever he does next in this world. It’s a dangerous and cynical ideology.”
Ramaswamy subsequently deleted the post from his feed, but within minutes of Ramaswamy boosting the conspiracies, verified accounts on X and major far-right influencers on platforms like Telegram were celebrating. “Vivek says ALL the RIGHT things,” John Sabel, a QAnon promoter known as QAnon John, wrote on his Telegram channel.
Jordan Sather, another QAnon influencer, claimed that initial media reports of Ramaswamy spouting conspiracy theories “prove that Vivek kicked ass on the debate stage last night.”
Ramaswamy did not immediately respond to requests for comment from WIRED. The night before the debate, the candidate also boosted the conspiracy theory on X in a post calling the theory “basic immigration policy for Democrats.”
“We know this conspiracy theory can drive people to kill,” Jared Holt, extremism researcher at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, tells WIRED. “If this supremacist lie is further embraced by political leaders, I think it’s reasonable to worry that the chance of violence will increase.”
The once-fringe theory has been cited as a motive by multiple mass shooters in recent years. It has been boosted not only by online far-right influencers but also mainstream right-wing figures like Tucker Carlson, who pushed the great replacement theory hundreds of times on his former Fox News show.
“The “great replacement” is just one of several iterations of racist “white extinction” theories that radical right actors have injected into American politics throughout the years. It’s motivated far-right extremists to carry out acts of grotesque racial violence, whether in the United States or abroad,” Hannah Gais, a senior researcher at the Southern Poverty Law Center, tells WIRED. “At times, these theories have mainly found favor among the far-right fringe. In other cases their embrace among more mainstream political actors has led to devastating policy changes, such as the use of racial quota systems in immigration law.”
The great replacement theory has also been used across Europe to justify the rise of authoritarian regimes, such as that of Viktor Orbán in Hungary. It was recently cited as an excuse for the violent riots that engulfed Ireland’s capital last month.