The Atlantic: White Nationalism’s Deep American Roots

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A long-overdue excavation of the book that Hitler called his “bible,” and the man who wrote it

The Atlantic, April 2019 Issue

... The concept of “white genocide”—extinction under an onslaught of genetically or culturally inferior nonwhite interlopers—may indeed seem like a fringe conspiracy theory with an alien lineage, the province of neo-Nazis and their fellow travelers. In popular memory, it’s a vestige of a racist ideology that the Greatest Generation did its best to scour from the Earth. History, though, tells a different story. King’s recent question, posed in a New York Times interview, may be appalling: “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization—how did that language become offensive?” But it is apt. “That language” has an American past in need of excavation. Without such an effort, we may fail to appreciate the tenacity of the dogma it expresses, and the difficulty of eradicating it. The president’s rhetoric about “shithole countries” and “invasion” by immigrants invites dismissal as crude talk, but behind it lie ideas whose power should not be underestimated.

The seed of Nazism’s ultimate objective—the preservation of a pure white race, uncontaminated by foreign blood—was in fact sown with striking success in the United States. What is judged extremist today was once the consensus of a powerful cadre of the American elite, well-connected men who eagerly seized on a false doctrine of “race suicide” during the immigration scare of the early 20th century. They included wealthy patricians, intellectuals, lawmakers, even several presidents. Perhaps the most important among them was a blue blood with a very impressive mustache, Madison Grant. He was the author of a 1916 book called The Passing of the Great Race, which spread the doctrine of race purity all over the globe.

Grant’s purportedly scientific argument that the exalted “Nordic” race that had founded America was in peril, and all of modern society’s accomplishments along with it, helped catalyze nativist legislators in Congress to pass comprehensive restrictionist immigration policies in the early 1920s. His book went on to become Adolf Hitler’s “bible,” as the führer wrote to tell him. Grant’s doctrine has since been rejuvenated and rebranded by his ideological descendants as “white genocide” (the term genocide hadn’t yet been coined in Grant’s day). In an introduction to the 2013 edition of another of Grant’s works, the white nationalist Richard Spencer warns that “one possible outcome of the ongoing demographic transformation is a thoroughly miscegenated, and thus homogeneous and ‘assimilated,’ nation, which would have little resemblance to the White America that came before it.” This language is vintage Grant.

Most Americans, however, quickly forgot who Grant was—but not because the country had grappled with his vision’s dangerous appeal and implications. Reflexive recoil was more like it: When Nazism reflected back that vision in grotesque form, wartime denial set in. Jonathan Peter Spiro, a historian and the author of Defending the Master Race: Conservation, Eugenics, and the Legacy of Madison Grant (2009), described the backlash to me this way: “Even though the Germans had been directly influenced by Madison Grant and the American eugenics movement, when we fought Germany, because Germany was racist, racism became unacceptable in America. Our enemy was racist; therefore we adopted antiracism as our creed.” Ever since, a strange kind of historical amnesia has obscured the American lineage of this white-nationalist ideology.

Madison Grant came from old money. Born in Manhattan seven months after Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, he attended Yale and then Columbia Law School. He was an outdoorsman and a conservationist, knowledgeable about wildlife and interested in the dangers of extinction, expertise that he soon became intent on applying to humanity. When he opened a law practice on Wall Street in the early 1890s, the wave of immigration from southern and eastern Europe was nearing its height. “As he was jostled by Greek ragpickers, Armenian bootblacks, and Jewish carp vendors, it was distressingly obvious to him that the new arrivals did not know this nation’s history or understand its republican form of government,” Spiro writes in his biography.

Jews troubled Grant the most. “The man of the old stock,” he later wrote in The Passing of the Great Race, is being “driven off the streets of New York City by the swarms of Polish Jews.” But as the title of his 1916 work indicated, Grant’s fear of dispossession ran wide and deep:

These immigrants adopt the language of the native American, they wear his clothes, they steal his name, and they are beginning to take his women, but they seldom adopt his religion or understand his ideals and while he is being elbowed out of his own home the American looks calmly abroad and urges on others the suicidal ethics which are exterminating his own race.

Grant was not the first proponent of “race science.” In 1853, across the Atlantic, Joseph Arthur de Gobineau, a French count, first identified the “Aryan” race as “great, noble, and fruitful in the works of man on this earth.” Half a century later, as the eugenics movement gathered force in the U.S., “experts” began dividing white people into distinct races. In 1899, William Z. Ripley, an economist, concluded that Europeans consisted of “three races”: the brave, beautiful, blond “Teutons”; the stocky “Alpines”; and the swarthy “Mediterraneans.” Another leading academic contributor to race science in turn-of-the-century America was a statistician named Francis Walker, who argued in The Atlantic that the new immigrants lacked the pioneer spirit of their predecessors; they were made up of “beaten men from beaten races,” whose offspring were crowding out the fine “native” stock of white people. In 1901 the sociologist Edward A. Ross, who similarly described the new immigrants as “masses of fecund but beaten humanity from the hovels of far Lombardy and Galicia,” coined the term race suicide. ...
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