British scientist Francis Galton coined the term Eugenics in 1883 from the Greek word for “good” or “well” (eu) and the suffix -genēs meaning “born.” A cousin of Charles Darwin, Galton’s later career was concerned with improving the percentage of people of above average “genetic endowment” through selective mating. In other words, if the best people married and had children with each other, their offspring would have the best traits.
Galton’s eugenics was to examine whether science could offer a tool to improve the human race. American biologist Charles Davenport took Galton’s ideas to the U.S. and began a movement that resulted in decades of harm to the oppressed.
In its early years, the American Eugenics Movement espoused the same goals as Galton’s, but various prominent members brought their prejudice into the process and the scientific method became tainted. Davenport and other American eugenicists began with the conclusion that the traits of upstanding citizens of Northern European descent were the ideal and used measurements to find deficiencies in all others.
With this flawed science and some powerful supporters, the American Eugenics Movement was instrumental in cutting immigration by 97% in 1921 and passing laws in twenty-seven states that allowed for sterilization of inferior people of childbearing age.
Sterilization laws were affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court and in May 1927, Chief Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote in the Court’s decision, “It is better for all the world if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.”
Eugenics promised that criminality, poverty and other undesirable traits could be bred out of the human race. They cannot.
Prejudice was so pervasive in American eugenics that those who settled in areas of high poverty or crime were considered unfit. Race was one factor, but white people living in slums or poor rural areas could also be labeled degenerate or feeble-minded.
State and federal governments used eugenics to codify a prejudicial system into law and keep the powerful in power. Although eugenics fell from favor in the 1930’s and 40’s, some of those laws still impacted people’s lives into the 1970’s.
Three major situations led to the decline of eugenics. First, the science wasn’t sound. By the early 1930’s, the scientists a generation after Davenport discovered that genes traveled in pairs or groups which made eye color in simple species difficult to predict. By extension, prediction of criminology and intellectual ability in humans seemed impossible.
When the Eugenics Conference was held in New York in 1932, few scientists attended. An exception was Hermann Muller whose work with fruit flies convinced him that eugenic science was flawed as he made clear in his speech.
“There is no scientific basis for the conclusion that the socially lower classes have genetically inferior intellectual equipment. Certain slum districts of our cities are veritable factories for the production of criminology among those who happen to be born in them. Under these circumstances, it is society, not the individual which is the real criminal and stands to be judged.”
A second blow to eugenics was the Great Depression. If genes determined fitness of the individual, how do you explain the Ivy League graduate on the bread line?
Finally, Hitler dealt the death blow. With the liberation of concentration camps, people saw in graphic detail what happens when the powerful move from the eugenic principle of sterilization for the good of the race to extermination for the same reason. The massive deployments of World War II also mixed the races as never before, and while prejudice was in no way eliminated, some people met the vilified races and found common ground.
That death blow appears not to have been permanent, however. In the final weeks before the midterm election, President Trump ratcheted up fear of immigrants, an important component in the eugenics movement.
There is a long history in the U.S. of enacting policies to keep the less fortunate from rising up. Slavery, Jim Crow laws and mass incarceration have been used for centuries to keep African Americans down. The president’s Muslim ban, verbal and threats of physical assaults on asylum seekers and the family separation policy target other disenfranchised groups.
Many people think that Trump’s fear mongering was a campaign tactic. Traditionally, the approval ratings of presidents rise during times when the country is under attack and Trump’s “invasion” language and deployment of troops to the southern border appear to have convinced some voters to pick Trump’s chosen congressional and gubernatorial candidates.
But perhaps it’s not a campaign ploy, but a ratcheting up of his tough anti-immigrant stance into a new version of eugenics. There certainly are parallels.
In May 1920, Charles Davenport wrote in a letter to The Passing of the Great Race author Madison Grant, “Can we build a wall high enough around this country, so as to keep out these cheaper races?” It is worth noting that Adolf Hitler wrote a fan letter to Grant proclaiming that, “This book is my bible.”
Unlike the eugenics movement of a century ago, President Trump does not use science to support his proclamations. For a large number of his supporters, facts are not important beyond the fact that the president said it. And that is certainly an important difference between Trump’s eugenics movement and the earlier iteration. While both are rooted in prejudice, they target different groups to malign.
The early twentieth century movement targeted those who were not successful and “white” by the definitions of the times. Jews and Italians were not white and poor people were deemed unfit, regardless of race. For Trump’s Eugenics Movement, financial success is a positive factor, but the predominate criterion for him appears to be whether a person or group treats him with respect.
Trump’s enemies list is long and appears to be growing – democrats, journalists, African Americans, independent women, and anyone who questions his America First policies. He appears to have a similar view to birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger who embraced the eugenics movement to further her cause. “When we view the political situation and realize that a moron’s vote is as good as an intelligent, educated, thinking citizen, we may well pause and ask ourselves, ‘Is America really safe for democracy?’” (Speech at Vassar College, August 5, 1926)
While President Trump uses insults against his enemies’ intelligence in his eugenics movement, it should not be perceived as a scientific basis for who should be favored and who should be discarded. For Trump, a moron appears to be anyone who questions or disagrees with him, or resists his policies. Resistance to his trade war and opposition to his agenda make the leaders of other countries and democrats morons in Trump’s eyes. Asking tough questions – especially when black – and trying to escape deadly gang violence through the asylum process make journalists and migrants morons as well.
Moron is a dangerous word. While originally coined by eugenicist Henry H. Goddard, being labeled a moron could send a person to an insane asylum, sterilized or deported because of the threat that they may have children. “The idiot is not our greatest problem. He is indeed loathsome. … Nevertheless, he lives his life and is done. He does not continue the race with a line of children like himself. … It is the moron type that makes for us our great problem.” (Goddard, 1912)
In Trump’s Eugenics Movement, he appears to view non-white immigrants as Goddard viewed “morons.” They cheapen the United States with their diversity and they have children which continue to drain the power of real (i.e., white) Americans. He seems to have no qualms about sending people back to places in which they face real danger and again, that’s another parallel to last century’s eugenics movement.
Cuba, the U.S. and Canada all refused to allow the German liner St. Louis to land in May 1939. The ship was filled with refugees from Nazi Germany, almost all of them Jewish, and more than a quarter died in the Holocaust after returning to Europe from their failed asylum attempt in North America. It was the immigration laws pushed by eugenicists that provided the legal reason to turn away the St. Louis from U.S. ports.
So, what happens when a significant portion of a country’s population buys into the proclamations of its leader about the inferiority of another group? Nazi Germany offers an apt lesson, and there are certainly signs that the president’s more ardent supporters are answering the call and physically and verbally attacking those on Trump’s enemies list. Pipe bombs and a mass shooting of those who support refugees are two examples, but so is the vitriol directed at the caged in press during Trump’s rallies. The phrase “slippery slope” is a common way of warning that minor changes may lead to drastic consequences, but it appears to be warranted when discussing Trump’s Eugenics Movement.