Welcome back to The Long Version by Jonathan M. Katz. Go get this newsletter in your inbox every week, click here:
I don’t have to tell you, it’s been another lousy week in the world. The president took a break from flouting the Constitution and losing other people’s money to host Hungary’s neo-fascist leader Viktor Orbán at the White House. Orbán is an open anti-Semite and Islamophobe who delights in starving migrants and has promised to build “an alternative to liberal democracy.”
The White House made the message of the visit clear:
The visit came against a backdrop of surging violent white supremacy across the English-speaking world, accompanied by flowering illiberalism in America, condoned at the highest levels by the party in power in Washington. White-supremacist terror is on the rise, sometimes with protection from allies in the police. States are scrambling to deny basic citizenship and voting rights to nonwhites. Concentration camps are overflowing in Texas. The Washington Post just caught the Trump administration plotting to literally round up thousands of immigrants’ children from their beds.
One conspiracy theory has played an outsized role animating the rage. “White Genocide” is the fantastical idea that racial or ethnic minorities are bent on killing or otherwise dispossessing white people in America. Adherents often imagine it to be a plot directed by Jews, using brown-skinned immigrants as foot soldiers.
That is what the Unite the Right marchers were referring to when they chanted “Jews will not replace us” at the torch rally in Charlottesville back in August 2017. (Trump specifically cited that torch march, twice, as evidence for his claim that there “were very fine people on both sides.”) It’s often what racists mean when they talk about George Soros. It is also what inspired the recent murder of 11 people inside a Pittsburgh synagogue on a Shabbat morning.
That same deadly myth is also constantly, openly promoted on national television by Fox News’ Tucker Carlson:
Carlson has already gotten Trump to tweet out one of the most popular White Genocide myths. (Trump also publicly promoted the “Soros” part of the lie, immediately after both the synagogue massacre and the arrest of a Trump supporter caught sending bombs to Soros, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, thirteen other Trump critics, and CNN.)
As cleverer racist conspiracists like Carlson surely know, it’s hard to argue with a lie that doesn’t make many falsifiable claims. But there is one place where the “White Genocide” myth is vulnerable. It draws its power from a sense of urgency: the migrants are coming for you right now. You could hear it in the words posted by the Pittsburgh killer just before he opened fire: “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
The problem for them is that this lie isn’t new. It’s been spread around, as a constant, supposedly imminent threat, for more than a century. In fact, Donald Trump isn’t even the first president who promoted the idea.
The Long Version
Theodore Roosevelt was a lot of things: president, soldier, hunter, and a noted historian in his own time. He was also racist as shit. Roosevelt believed in the physical, mental, and moral superiority of what he called “Anglo-Americans”—a category he preferred to “Anglo-Saxon,” so he could include himself. (He was of Dutch descent.)
That ideology informed everything he did, from founding national parks on seized native land to prosecuting a devastating war of expansion in the Philippines—as he put it, keeping “the temperate zones of the new and the newest worlds a heritage for the white people.”
Before he ascended to the presidency, Roosevelt had become a fan of the sociologist Edward A. Ross, who was also an early innovator of the eugenics movement. Under his academic imprimatur, Ross warned that low birthrates among native-born Americans, combined with higher birthrates among immigrants would lead to what he called “race suicide.”
It became Roosevelt’s thing:
(Note the paper in the lower lefthand corner.)
The president couldn’t stop telling people about his concern:
“If all our nice friends in Beacon Street, and Newport, and Fifth Avenue, and Philadelphia, have one child, or no child at all, while all the Finnegans, Hooligans, Antonios, Mandelbaums and Rabinskis have eight, or nine, or 10 — it’s simply a question of the multiplication table. How are you going to get away from it?”
(Dear reader: If you’re of Irish, Italian, Jewish, and/or Polish descent, he was talking about you.)
Unlike Trump, Roosevelt saw himself as a Progressive—a term that meant something different than it does now, but shared the idea of fighting for change. He was often at loggerheads with more virulent racists. In sharp contrast to the ex-Confederates of his day, for instance, Roosevelt was a fan of Booker T. Washington. He liked his moderate, accommodationist school of civil rights, encouraging black people to accept the establishment of Jim Crow segregation—which was just getting started at the time— and focusing instead on their own education and entrepreneurship.
But even there, Roosevelt couldn’t get past his own racist paranoia. In 1901, after hosting Washington at a White House dinner, Roosevelt was pilloried by many white Americans. A popular, widely published anonymous poem challenged the president to “let Miss Dinah Washington [a racist archetype, not the as-yet-unborn singer] marry Teddy’s boy.” He never invited a black person to the White House again.
When lynchings surged across the South, Roosevelt reacted not by targeting the terrorists but blaming the violence on black men accused of committing rape. In a State of the Union address, he declared the imagined sex crime—the ultimate violation of racial reproductive purity—“even worse than murder.” The terror spiked again. Under his watch, Jim Crow became a durable institution in the South, and one whose legacy still endures.
Nothing ever changed Roosevelt’s mind: Not his ideological hero, Ross, getting fired from his post at Stanford (a speech calling for turning “our guns upon every vessel bringing Japanese to our shores” had apparently gone too far.) Not even a near-war with Japan over the decision of a San Francisco school board to segregate Asian and white students was enough to cool his obsession.
For the rest of his presidency, Roosevelt fought against contraception for women (he feared it would lower birthrates among whites). He also instituted harsh immigration laws, elevating the status of the Bureau of Immigration—a forerunner of ICE—and signing the restrictive 1907 Immigration Act.
In the end, the only thing that stopped the presidential obsession with “race suicide” was Roosevelt leaving office.
A lie that won’t die
“Race suicide” and its successor conspiracy theories kept circulating for years. In 1916, one of Roosevelt’s close friends, the eugenicist and conservationist Madison Grant, wrote a book repackaging the theory called The Passing of the Great Race.
Ten years later, Adolf Hitler later sent Grant a letter congratulating him on the book, which the future Führer called “my bible.”
For more on a 1970s racist French dystopian novel that helped revive the idea for a new generation of Americans, including past and present Trump allies such as Steve Bannon and Iowa Republican Steve King, check out this article by literary scholar Chelsea Stieber: https://africasacountry.com/2019/03/camp-of-the-saints
What else I’m reading
This awesome article by Will Stephenson about one of Teddy Roosevelt’s other, less vile friends, Archibald Butt (yes, that’s his name), who died on the Titanic
This depressing but important take on John Bolton and a lot of other probable American war criminals escaping justice at the Hague
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