During a July gathering at an Arizona pizza place, ex-sheriff Richard Mack, the founder of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, smoothed his hair before donning his white cowboy hat and preparing to speak. After presenting his far-right bonafides as he does at every speaking event, he went on to address the issue of immigration enforcement at the U.S.-Mexico border.
After describing humanitarian efforts to assist migrants as “treason,” Mack then claimed that “a lot” of immigrants are “paid to come here.” “And you know where they are going? They’re not going to the Democrat cities any more. Do you know where they are going? To the Republican areas. And do you want to know why?”
Mack’s voice rose as he reached his main point: Democrats were committing massive voter fraud by changing the demographics of the country “because the reason they started all this was to make sure the voter bloc in America changed and the Democrats have a monopoly on voting!”
After the 2020 election, Mack and other “constitutional sheriffs” partnered with groups like True the Vote and lawyers like Cleta Mitchell in opposing the legitimate election results and promoting propaganda designed to generate confusion and alarm among Republican voters. Mack called the battle against non-existent voter fraud a “a holy cause.”
As part of this effort, Mack uplifted Barry County, Michigan, Sheriff Dar Leaf, who is currently under state investigation for his role in seizing voting machines. Leaf, alongside other operatives, has continued to argue absurd theories of voting irregularities and asserted that he has the power to impound voting machines. Other constitutional sheriffs and their allies, including champion election denier Mike Lindell, have used these lies to argue that sheriffs, as armed law enforcement agents, should seize ballot boxes and investigate potential voter fraud.
Despite the manpower and time invested, all these claims of voter fraud have been proven false at every single turn. Now, former President Donald Trump and his associates face criminal prosecutions for their role in advancing false theories of massive voter fraud and encouraging the harassment of election workers in Atlanta. Michigan prosecutors charged 16 people for attempting to subvert the results of the 2020 election, including Matthew DePerno, the 2022 GOP candidate for attorney general.
Now, failing to prove voter fraud, constitutional sheriffs argue an alternative — and equally false — theory: Democrats seek to change the voter landscape by encouraging immigration, especially from countries in Central and South America.
Their claims — that there is a concerted plan by liberals to win elections by registering immigrants as voters — are based in a white supremacist conspiracy theory known generally as “Great Replacement.” The phrase comes from a 2011 book by French white nationalist Renaud Camus named “Le Grand Remplacement.” Camus (no relation to Albert Camus, the writer) lays out what he perceives as a massive conspiracy to change the ethnic composition of people living in France and, perhaps most menacingly, “the loss of its cultural identity through multiculturalism.” The book has been passed around far-right circles in the United States, and, unsurprisingly, is popular with mass shooters, having been quoted by the Buffalo and El Paso shooters. It’s also been name-checked by U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.).
American far-right propagandists borrow Camus to stoke racist fears of immigrants while also expanding the conspiracy to include anyone who, by virtue of being a progressive or liberal, supports human rights and immigration and believes in ethnic, racial, and cultural diversity. That tolerance of difference, such proponents argue, causes a variety of social ills — crime, poverty and a lack of sufficient American patriotism — and perpetuates a sense that “things are changing,” which taps into the deep well of white resentment.
One-time Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson was one of the most vocal purveyors of this white supremacist theory. Citing low birth rates in the United States and increased immigration, he said, “This country is now well under the so-called replacement level. That means if we continue on this trajectory, and no one’s trying to take us off this trajectory, eventually, there’ll be no more native-born Americans.” A variety of other Fox News guests and hosts have made similar xenophobic claims.
There are others who use social media as a way to spread the Great Replacement, particularly through video. Johnathon Alexander, who spoke with Mack in Arizona this summer, spreads anti-immigrant propaganda under the guise of being an “independent journalist,” complete with a press card from the American Press Association in which he wears what looks like a Border Patrol uniform. Alexander also participates in a border militia that he advertises on his website.
Far-right institutions like the Claremont Institute — which has a special program to train sheriffs to battle “wokeness” — provide faux-intellectual cover for Replacement Theory. In a story published in American Mind, Claremont’s web publication, Senior Fellow Jeremy Carl quoted Camus’ book approvingly and added, “In America, it is beyond dispute that the far Left is pursuing and celebrating its own Great Replacement…The immigration crisis under the Biden Administration has thrown this process into overdrive.”
Sheriffs are following this lead, lending credence to the false view that immigrants are overwhelming the country by virtue of their discretion in enforcing immigration and border policing. Pinal County, Arizona, Sheriff Mark Lamb, who is running for the U.S. Senate on a platform that glorifies guns and demonizes immigrants, argues that the Democratic Party is not just “weak on immigration,” but intentionally so. (He recently said in a campaign ad that his election website is in Spanish “so that the cartels can read it” and, presumably, cower in terror.)
“This is exactly what they want to happen,” he said, referring to the Biden administration. “Fortunately, as a sheriff, I don’t have to heed too much [of] what they say.”
The demographics of our country indeed are changing. They always have been. For a long time, democracy in the U.S. meant democracy only for white men. Constitutional sheriffs are making this argument again in their quest to keep the country white, one county at a time.
Jessica Pishko is an independent journalist and lawyer who focuses on how the criminal justice system and law enforcement intersects with political power. As a contributor to Democracy Docket, Pishko writes about the criminalization of elections and how sheriffs in particular have become a growing threat to democracy.