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The scary ideology behind Trump’s immigration instincts

The debate over family separation plays into a familiar narrative that’s being pushed by the White House.

President Donald Trump listens during a meeting with lawmakers on immigration policy in the Cabinet Room at the White House in January.
Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

President Donald Trump’s closing argument in the 2018 midterms was to vote Republican to save America from foreigners — an idea rooted in a fringe theory that whites are under siege, or “white genocide.”

“It’s like an invasion,” Trump said last week, talking about Central American migrants walking north through Mexico. “They have violently overrun the Mexican border. You saw that two days ago. These are tough people, in many cases. A lot of young men, strong men. And a lot of men that maybe we don’t want in our country.”

In the midst of the debate over family separation earlier this year, Trump implied that his justification for his restrictionist ideology for even legal immigrants is to prevent the United States from enduring what’s happening in Europe. There, he claims falsely, immigrants are bringing with them a wave of violence that’s driving up the crime rate.

Trump has often referred to these kind of outlandish claims as just “politically incorrect.” But it’s more than that.

Believers argue that white people are being systematically “erased” by their inferiors, and thus require an influx of white babies and new white immigrants (and the exclusion of nonwhite immigrants) to survive.

To some among these believers, white Americans, and white culture, are threatened by a slow-running “genocide” via demographic replacement. (Indeed, Trump once retweeted someone with the handle “WhiteGenocide,” which refers to this theory.)

This theory has adherents on the alt-right, across the conservative media, and even in Congress.

In this worldview, it’s not “racist” to think that a Norwegian might be a better fit with American culture (as they define it) than an immigrant arriving from Lagos or Addis Ababa — it’s “racial realism.” It’s the only way to stop white people from being losers of a fight to the death between races.

These ideas are old, rooted in scientific racism and fears of miscegenation once held by Progressive Era stalwarts like President Woodrow Wilson and white supremacist hate groups alike. But now they appear to have the ear of those closest to the president — and are playing a part in the creation of policy.

This group included former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon. In fact, long before he ran Trump’s presidential campaign or took a role in the White House, Bannon believed that the movements of nonwhite immigrant groups, legal or not, posed a physical, cultural, political, and moral danger to “white” countries. As he told White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller in a March 2016 Sirius XM show, “When you look and there’s got 61 million, 20 percent of the country, is immigrants — is that not a massive problem?” Miller agreed wholeheartedly. Now Miller and his former boss, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, are vocalizing the same views, both to the media and to the president of the United States.

Trump’s internal racism might be that of a 71-year-old white man who marvels that, for instance, members of the Congressional Black Caucus didn’t already know Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson. But his external racism is heavily influenced by adherents of an ideology that believes whiteness is the essential character of America, with direct and very detrimental impacts on discussions regarding immigration policy. An ideology that holds that demographic changes — or even the existence of mixed-race children — represent a “genocide.”

And importantly, Trump’s language and policies are evidence of a worldview that holds that whiteness is more valuable to participation in the American experiment than anything else — even a deep and abiding belief in American ideals.

“We cannot ‘cull’ Africans as if they were deer, but ...”

Throughout the 19th century, fears regarding miscegenation and “race mixing,” rooted in a belief that the dilution of white bloodlines — bloodlines that offered political, economic, and social authority over nonwhites — would result in societal disaster led to states across the country banning interracial marriages and enforcing strict rules regarding exactly what it meant to be white. In the 20th century, such views were espoused by Progressive Era activists, leading to restrictionist acts passed in 1917 and 1924. As Madison Grant argued in the 1915 eugenicist tome The Passing of the Great Race:

The resurgence of inferior races and classes throughout not merely Europe but the world, is evident in every despatch from Egypt, Ireland, Poland, Romania, India and Mexico. ... Neither the black, nor the brown, nor the yellow, nor the red will conquer the white in battle. But if the valuable elements in the Nordic race mix with in-ferior strains or die out through race suicide, then the citadel of civilization will fall for mere lack of defenders.

More recently, the exact language of “white genocide” began to circulate among the white supremacist underground after the Second World War. In 1972, the official newspaper of the National Socialist White People’s Party published a piece titled “Over-Population Myth Is Cover for White Genocide,” arguing that the widespread availability of contraception would lead to a terrifying future in which “whites will be outnumbered four to one.”

A decade later, David Lane, a white supremacist responsible for the murder of a Jewish radio host in 1984, wrote the “White Genocide Manifesto” while in prison, arguing that “‘racial integration’ is only a euphemism for genocide.” He later shortened his three-page manifesto to 14 words: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” Three decades later, the term “white genocide” is the single most popular hashtag used by white nationalists on Twitter.

The sentiment among white nationalists has little changed since the Civil War: Whiteness is a valuable commodity, essential to the very nature of American and European life. And it is under attack — not by violence but by immigration, and by sexual intercourse between whites and nonwhites.

“White genocide” rhetoric circulated in mail-order publications and racist websites like Stormfront for much of the 1990s and 2000s, but also held sway within policy institutes and foundations that gave cover to scientific racism, also known as “racial realism” — a belief that racism is not only based in fact but has scientific and quantitative backing.

Among these groups was the Pioneer Fund — which the Washington Post found in 1985 to have “financed research into “racial betterment” by “scientists seeking to prove that blacks are genetically inferior to whites.” American Renaissance, a publication of the self-described “race-realist, white advocacy organization” New Century Foundation, held an online symposium in late 2017 called “Global Demographics and White Survival: What Is to Be Done?”

One writer included in the conference, F. Roger Devlin, compared African birthrates to that of the deer population in Arizona, arguing, “We cannot ‘cull’ Africans as if they were deer, but we can eliminate the misguided humanitarian aid that is doing so much harm.” He concluded his essay with the following:

Obviously, we must be prepared to do what is necessary to defend our own living space, up to and including shooting intruders. Whites are so used to seeing Africans as objects of humanitarian concern that many are unable to grasp that they may also be dangerous rivals. But in fact, fertility is a major advantage they possess over us. We should not attempt to compete with them directly, but we can and must prevent our living space from becoming a dumping ground for their excess fertility. If we fail, it will mean a darker future for all humanity.

Another white supremacy foundation is the National Policy Institute, created by William Regnery in 2005 to “give voice to the interests of white peoples.” Its current president is Richard Spencer, who has said he worked closely with Stephen Miller in college on campus activism about immigration.

It must be noted that these ideas are not only untrue but also ahistorical. The idea of whiteness as quantifiable and, moreover, essential to the notion of what it means to be an American ignores virtually all of American history.

In fact, hard lines dividing Americans by race were redrawn over and over; many American families seemed to cross from black to white to black depending on their social status and the region of the country in which they lived. Immigrant groups, too, endured changing racial norms, with Irish and Italian Americans, for example, deemed scientifically inferior for decades.

When Maine politician Ira Hersey declared in the early 20th century, “We have thrown open wide our gates and through them have come other alien races, of alien blood, from Asia and southern Europe … with their strange and pagan rites, their babble of tongues,” he was talking about Italian Catholics.

To “racial realists,” it’s all about the numbers

White Americans are declining as a percentage of the population of the United States, from roughly 69 percent of the population in 2000 to 64 percent in 2010. As of July 1, 2015, just over half of all babies under the age of 1 born in the United States were racial and ethnic minorities. Mixed-race Americans are the second-fastest-growing ethnic group in America.

Time magazine, “The New Face of America,” November 18, 1993.

For many Americans, this is a positive development. But for “racial realists,” this is an emergency.

As they see it, if there are more nonwhite people in America, there will be fewer white people. If there are fewer white people, there will be fewer white voters who would favor conservative policies. As “racial realist” Gregory Hood wrote for American Renaissance in November 2017, “American civic nationalism ultimately depends on white voters. The refusal to speak the truth explicitly about demographic realities [dooms] the GOP to electoral extinction.”

The underlying assumption is that only white people will favor conservative policies. As Hood wrote in the same piece, conservatives must understand “that many of the things they value — the flag, monuments to certain leaders, or cultural norms such as a tradition of free speech — really are dependent on a European-American majority.”

That’s an echo of the sentiments shared by immigration restrictionist John Tanton, who told a donor to his organization, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, “One of my prime concerns is about the decline of folks who look like you and me,” and warned a friend, “for European-American society and culture to persist requires a European-American majority, and a clear one at that.”

There’s markedly little discussion among “racial realists” of attempting to creating conservative arguments that appeal to nonwhite Americans. To them, race is political destiny, and to the racial victors will go the nation. In a way, it’s the very inverse of “demographics as destiny.”

In short, believers of “white genocide” think that any encouragement of diversity in schools or workplaces, or the increase in mixed-race Americans (and their presence in mainstream media), isn’t evidence of more progressive attitudes toward race, but of a sinister plot.

In the words of Richard Spencer: “America was ... a white country, designed for ourselves and our posterity. It is our creation, it is our inheritance, and it belongs to us.”

Off the internet, into immigration policy

Of course, much of the current GOP might not feel comfortable using terminology like “white genocide” and “racial realism,” in part because many conservatives simply don’t share these views.

Many members of the Republican Party think like Haitian-American Rep. Mia Love, who spoke out about Trump’s racist comments about “shithole countries” in January. In her words, Trump’s statements were “unkind, divisive, elitist, and fly in the face of our nation’s values,” and she told CNN’s Jake Tapper, “You have to understand that there are countries that struggle out there but ... their people are good people and they’re part of us.”

In fact, until recently, the conventional wisdom was that the GOP needed to do more to appeal to people of color in order to survive and thrive. After the presidential election in 2012, Sen. Marco Rubio told Politico, “The conservative movement should have particular appeal to people in minority and immigrant communities who are trying to make it, and Republicans need to work harder than ever to communicate our beliefs to them.” Sen. Susan Collins agreed, telling the New York Times in 2012, “Republicans cannot win with just rural white voters.”

“One of the great projects and challenges of the conservative movement is persuading a much broader ethnic coalition of Americans of the value of conservative ideas,” said David French, a staff writer at National Review who experienced online attacks by far-right trolls in 2015, many of whom aimed their ire at French’s Ethiopian-born daughter.

But many on the right didn’t, and don’t, feel the same way. While Miller was advising then-Sen. Jeff Sessions on how best to kill the efforts of Rubio and the “Gang of Eight” to pass immigration reform in 2013, Steve Bannon and Breitbart News were fanning the flames of racial discord, complete with a “black crime” article label and stories about the imminent dangers posed by nonwhite immigrants.

It’s not just Breitbart. Conservative pundit Ann Coulter (who tweeted, “I don’t care if [Trump] wants to perform abortions in White House,” after the release of his immigration policy paper in 2015) wrote last November that “the only reason Democrats want a never-ending stream of Third World immigrants is because they know immigrants will help them win elections. ... There isn’t much time on the clock before it’s lights-out for the GOP.” Trump is a noted fan of Coulter’s writing, and during his presidential campaign, Coulter warmed up the crowd at several campaign rallies.

In a way, the idea slots neatly into Trump’s zero-sum worldview. To those who voice the “white genocide” myth, a victory by nonwhite Americans, particularly immigrants, will inevitably lead to losses by white Americans.

As far-right commentator (and former White House senior adviser) Pat Buchanan wrote, “Endless mass migration here means the demographic death of the GOP. In U.S. presidential elections, persons of color whose roots are in Asia, Africa and Latin America vote 4-1 Democratic, and against the candidates favored by American’s vanishing white majority.”

To him, this puts America “on the path to national suicide.” American Renaissance shared his column.

Trump’s adoption of racist views is at the core of the immigration debate

Bannon may be out of the White House (and Breitbart News). But his attitudes regarding immigration and immigrants remain in place, voiced by fellow immigration restrictionists like Sessions and Miller who believe that immigration poses a danger to American culture and American life — unless that immigration is from a predominantly white country.

Most importantly, those views are being voiced by Trump himself. After all, when the white nationalist marchers in Charlottesville, Virginia, chanted, “You will not replace us” — a direct reference to the “white genocide” myth — Trump made sure to say that there were “very fine people” among those chanting.

The “white genocide” viewpoint — one that views immigration of all kinds as an imminent threat to the fabric of America — making the process of dealmaking virtually impossible for Democrats, and for Republicans who desperately want to avoid any arguments that racialize immigration policy. If the debate over immigration is about border security and preventing the entrance of genuine threats to American security, compromise is imaginable, even possible.

But if the debate over immigration is actually about a belief that nonwhite immigrants pose an existential danger to America and Americanness as a whole, and that “demographics” require Haitian immigrants to be expelled from the country while hypothetical immigrants from Norway are welcomed with open arms, then there is no ready compromise at hand.

As my colleague Dara Lind wrote in January, “You can’t negotiate with people who believe that an America that lets in people from ‘shithole countries’ isn’t the America they know or love. Either America is a nation of immigrants or it is a nation of blood and soil. It cannot be both.”

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