Opinion | Civil Rights

Trump's 'good genes' speech echoes racial eugenics

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Watching President Trump campaign is like watching the time-traveling movie, "Back to the Future." 

In July, when he trailed Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in the polls, Trump borrowed his political message from the racially segregated 1950s by telling white voters that Democrats plan to bring "who knows into your suburbs, so your communities will be unsafe."

Now, still trailing Biden in the polls, Trump traveled back in his DeLorean a full century to an even darker place. In a speech last week in Bemidji, Minnesota, which was overshadowed by Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death that night, Trump warned his mostly white audience that Biden would flood the state with Somali refugees, whom he disparaged. Then he reminded the audience that the state had been pioneered by strong and hearty people who had braved the wilderness and cold winters to build a better life.

"You have good genes, you know that, right? You have good genes. A lot of it is about the genes, isn't it, don't you believe? The racehorse theory? You think we're so different. You have good genes in Minnesota."

The fact that Trump said "genes" or "good genes" four times suggests a "dog whistle," which is defined as coded or suggestive language to obtain support from a particular group of people that, while appearing normal to most, communicates a specific message. So, what can be wrong with "good genes"?

Given the history of eugenics, and the context in which Trump used the phrase "good genes," a lot. Between the late 1890s and the eve of World War II, pseudoscientists developed the theory of eugenics to address the fears of white elites that immigrants would corrupt the country's gene pool. (The word eugenics is derived from the Greek root, "eugenes," namely, good in stock or hereditarily well-endowed with superior qualities.) The eugenicists argued that the undesirables should be cordoned or walled off (sound familiar?) and the superior White Anglo-Saxon Protestants had to reproduce at a faster rate.

If Trump, who reportedly expressed a preference for immigrants from Norway over those from "shithole countries," (he denies saying that) is promoting eugenics theory, he has distinguished company from that era, including at least two U.S presidents, Theodore Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge, who did the same. The eugenics movement helped to enact the Immigration Act of 1924, which limited immigration for the next 40 years, especially from Eastern and Southern Europe and Asia. 

The phrase "racehorse theory" might be just another Trump non-sequitur. But then again, maybe not. A hundred years ago some eugenicists believed that a careful study of thoroughbred horse breeding would yield findings that could be applied to humans to produce what one eugenicist called "a highly gifted race of men." According to a Trump biographer, Michael D'Antonio, the Trump family, Donald Trump included, has a "very deep" attraction to eugenics, including the "racehorse theory of human development . . . they believe that there are superior people and that if you put together the genes of a superior woman and a superior man, you get superior offspring."

Eugenics messaging can only be delivered by dog whistle because one especially committed eugenicist was Adolf Hitler, who promoted the "Nordic race" as the eugenic ideal. Under Nazi doctrine, the strength and health of Germany depended on the biological purity of its population. In fact, preserving all things Aryan even extended to top German thoroughbred racehorses, whom the Reich barred from being exported to other countries.  

The corollary principle underpinning Nazi racial hygiene was that the biologically impure, especially the Jews, had to be eliminated. Eugenics became taboo when the world discovered that, in the name of racial purity, Hitler had murdered six million Jews and countless millions from other groups.  

That's why the question of just what message Trump delivered to his followers at the Bemidji rally is so pertinent. Perhaps it will be a blip and Trump will go back to the future, namely, the 1950s, for his messaging.  

Or, it could be that Trump will continue his "good genes" dog whistle. If so, his audiences may understand the message the way that, in Fitzgerald's 1920s novel "The Great Gatsby," the loutish Tom Buchanan understood a eugenics tract. "The idea is that if we don't look out the white race will be - utterly submerged." A dark message, indeed, that will only bring us more grief.

Gregory J. Wallance, a writer in New York City, was a federal prosecutor during the Carter and Reagan administrations. He is the author of "America's Soul in the Balance: The Holocaust, FDR's State Department, and The Moral Disgrace of an American Aristocracy."   Follow him on Twitter at @gregorywallance.

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