The long-discredited theory is newly relevant in 2017—but maybe it's always been embedded in the Republican platform.
“What is meant by improvement?” Sir Francis Galton asked the Sociology Society of the University of London in 1904. At the time of his speech, Galton was already 35 years deep into a career promoting what he termed “eugenics,” the idea that the human race could improve itself through selective breeding—through propagating good traits and quarantining the bad ones. “All creatures would agree that it was better to be healthy than sick, vigorous than weak, well-fitted than ill-fitted for their part in life,” he explained. “So with men.”
Eugenics enjoys the dubious distinction of being one of the most thoroughly discredited theories in scientific history. It is most closely associated with the Nazis and their obsession with racial superiority, but the Nazis did not invent it any more than they invented racism: It began in Great Britain, and swiftly spread to the United States. Beginning with Indiana in 1907, 32 states adopted laws “authorizing the sterilization of people judged to have hereditary defects,” Adam Cohen writes in his book Imbeciles. “They called for sterilizing anyone with ‘defective’ traits, such as epilepsy, criminality, alcoholism or ‘dependency,’ another word for poverty.” Americans adopted eugenics so enthusiastically that 70,000 people were sterilized under laws that eventually influenced the policies of the Third Reich.
But eugenics, though discredited, has never been abandoned. In fact, the most powerful people in America appear to enthusiastically embrace the idea that humans can be divided into inherently superior and inferior specimens and treated accordingly. “You have to be born lucky,” President Donald Trump told Oprah Winfrey in 1988, “in the sense that you have to have the right genes.” His biographer Michael D’Antonio explained to Frontline that Trump and his family subscribe “to a 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 a superior offspring.”
So does Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon, if the reports are to be believed. Sources told The New York Times this November that despite his devout Catholicism, Bannon “occasionally talked about the genetic superiority of some people and once mused about the desirability of limiting the vote to property owners.” Adam Serwer of The Atlantic reported in January that Attorney General Jeff Sessions praised the Immigration Act of 1924 in a 2015 interview with Bannon, which could be an insight into the views of both these immigration hardliners: The act required would-be immigrants to specify whether they’d ever spent time in prison or the “almshouse,” and if their parents had ever been confined to a psychiatric hospital.
The work of Trump adviser Michael Anton also reveals a grim obsession with genetic purity. “‘Diversity’ is not ‘our strength;’ it’s a source of weakness, tension, and disunion,” he wrote in the Unz Review last year. As the Huffington Post noted at the time, the same essay claimed that the aviator Charles Lindbergh’s fascist America First Committee had been unfairly maligned. Lindbergh was a eugenicist who admired the Nazis: He once wrote that flying “is one of those priceless possessions which permit the White Race to live at all in a sea of Yellow, Black, and Brown.”
Of course, none of the people in Trump’s inner circle would describe themselves as eugenicists. They would call themselves capitalists, patriots, and Christians. And yet the Trump administration’s overt obsession with white supremacy—which the 2016 election showed to be the ugly beating heart of the conservative movement—has imbued the platform of the Republican Party with a lurid tinge, changing our understanding of its disdain not only for minorities, but for the weak, the poor, and the disabled. The GOP may loathe the term—indeed conservatives often accuse liberal abortion supporters of being the real eugenicists—but the party’s agenda in many ways channels the spirit of eugenics, even if it does not accept the theory in a literal sense.
If you think I’m exaggerating, just consider for a moment what it is like to be an American with “bad” genes. I was not born lucky, at least not as Donald Trump defines it: My brother and I have a rare genetic disease that affects our red blood cells. It isn’t terminal, but it also isn’t pleasant. It is expensive and painful, and the only thing I’ve learned from living with it is that all emergency rooms smell exactly the same. It also means that I am not sure if I should have children. It feels wrong to knowingly bequeath a disease to anyone. It feels especially wrong to do so in America, a country that still does not recognize an inalienable right to health care.
Trump’s comments are merely an open expression of a long-standing, institutionalized disdain for the poor and the sick. He helms a party at ease with the fact that American pharmaceutical companies can charge $89,000 for a life-extending muscular dystrophy drug. America charges you for childbirth, for check-ups, for cancer; it will bankrupt you over blood transfusions and ambulance rides. I had medical bills in collections before I’d even finished college, mostly due to a deductible so high that I paid to see specialists out of pocket.Trump’s comments are merely an open expression of a long-standing, institutionalized disdain for the poor and the sick.
Matters have recently improved. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, insurance companies can no longer discriminate against people with “pre-existing conditions.” But dismantling the Affordable Care Act is a top priority for this administration and for the Republicans in Congress, if they can ever get out from under a swiftly growing mountain of scandals. At the heart of the push to repeal Obamacare is the idea that dependency is a cancer on the republic and should be excised. Both parties have absorbed this idea, to different extents. The ACA is too market-dependent—too willing to put a market value on human life—to give everyone the health care they need.
But the Republican Party expresses this antipathy to dependency in vicious ways and in all avenues of public life. The GOP gets particularly vicious when dependency combines with race (eugenics and racism are toxins that have always reinforced each other anyway).
If Sir Francis Galton stood before the GOP in 2017 and asked them what they mean by improvement, they’d have ready answers. To Steve Bannon, it is a ban on Muslim refugees trying to enter this country. To Jeff Sessions, it is stricter voting laws that violate the rights of those who are most dependent on the government. To Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, it is an atrophied public school system and a weak Americans with Disabilities Act. To Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, it is “high-risk insurance pools” for sick Americans. To Vice President Mike Pence, it is legalized discrimination against LGBT people. And to Speaker Paul Ryan, it is the destruction of the welfare state.
Republicans target weakness as energetically as eugenicists did. They have embraced capitalism so fully that they will admit no flaw in it. Confronted with inequality, they tell us the problem lies, not with the system, but with the individual and his incurable deficiencies. “We don’t want a dependency culture,” Paul Ryan said in 2013. According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, Ryan’s “Better Way” budget would increase the wealth of America’s extreme upper class while prohibiting new funds for the Affordable Care Act and expanding work requirements for welfare recipients. The implications—that the wealthy deserve to be even wealthier, and that the poor are poor because they make bad personal choices—have been long reflected in Ryan’s personal views on the subject.
Ryan has since tried to distance himself from his old intellectual hero Ayn Rand, and from the Objectivist “makers and takers” rhetoric that made him a conservative star. He has even generously conceded that, “Most people don’t want to be dependent.” But there is no question that Ryan’s policies would exacerbate income inequality. His welfare reform proposals build on former President Bill Clinton’s Personal Accountability and Work Opportunity Act, and we now know that deep poverty nearly doubled after Clinton’s welfare policies were implemented.
Race and poverty and disability also intersect in a way that makes the eugenics comparison unavoidable. People with disabilities are disproportionately more likely to live in poverty. Low-income students are disproportionately more likely to drop out of high school. And communities of color suffer the most. According to a new Demos study, the racial wealth gap is so durable that nothing—not Ryan’s beloved two-parent households or college degrees or full-time jobs—closes the gap between communities of color and whites. The experiences of people of color provide the clearest proof that poverty is not a symptom of entitled dependency, but of a corrupt system.
Republicans are dedicated to perpetuating that system. Thus they cut welfare for the same reason eugenicists once sterilized the poor: Poor people drain resources better spent elsewhere.
Then there’s public education. Trump and Betsy DeVos both champion the expansion of school vouchers and charter schools as a means to promote “school choice” for low-income parents. Vouchers, which enable students to use public funding for the school of their choice, are especially flawed, since they disadvantage students with disabilities. Private schools are exempt from much of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, which means they can receive voucher funds while refusing to accommodate students with disabilities. Patchy application erodes the efficacy of anti-discrimination law, but that apparently doesn’t trouble DeVos. During her confirmation hearing, she told senators that it should be “up to the states” to require private schools to adhere to the ADA, and it wasn’t clear if she’d even heard of the IDEA before entering the chamber.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration has signaled that it would fund a voucher expansion by assigning $20 billion in federal funds to vouchers. According to Chalkbeat, teacher’s unions fear that money would most likely come from Title I portability, an old education reform proposal that would reallocate Title I funding from public schools. That funding is currently assigned to public schools based on how many low-income students they serve: “The damage would spread through the system, raising class sizes even in non-Title I schools, threatening academic enrichment programs, guidance, art and music and other services our children depend on,” the United Federation of Teachers asserted in a press release.Vouchers reinforce a two-tier educational system: Public schools are for the rabble, and private schools are for the elite.
If DeVos funds a voucher expansion in this manner, without also expanding the reach of the ADA, parents of students with disabilities would be trapped in under-funded, under-equipped public school districts. And that’s a throwback to a more discriminatory age of American history. Before the ADA, the IDEA, and the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, children with disabilities weren’t guaranteed access to quality public education. Instead, they were frequently confined to institutions or the home; a few attended disability-specific schools. Many were sterilized under eugenics laws.
But the needs of students with disabilities have never dissuaded school choice advocates in the Republican Party (or the Democratic Party, for that matter). The calculus of school choice explicitly excludes them because it must. It relies on the premise that private schools are superior because they are not controlled by the state. Privatization, of course, permits these schools to be more selective than their public alternatives, so vouchers reinforce a two-tier educational system: Public schools are for the rabble, and private schools are for the elite.
That approach harms all Americans, but it’s just one of two blows that Americans with disabilities can expect from Republican-controlled government. If the GOP’s planned replacement of Obamacare looks anything like Tom Price’s “Empowering Patients Act,” people with disabilities will, once again, be at the mercies of private insurance companies.
Price has supported replacing the ACA with age-adjusted tax credits, Medicaid block grants, and high-risk insurance pools for people with so-called “pre-existing” conditions. But the example of welfare reform demonstrates that states typically use block grants as an excuse to underfund aid programs, and high-risk pools have historically failed to meet the needs of Americans with serious or disabling conditions. According to one 2008 study, Kansas’s high risk pool left sick Kansans chronically underinsured, and actually increased the number of people dependent on disability payments.
If Price’s plan ever becomes federal law, he and his Republican colleagues will force Americans with disabilities back into their traditional role as an inferior class. People with disabilities will live shorter, poorer lives. We already have a real-life example of what this would look like nationally: In Texas, Medicaid cuts have already seriously harmed children with disabilities. “We have had a number of families who have had critical medication denied. We’ve had families who have had some surgical delays and have been told, sorry, you’re not in network,” a representative of Protect TX Fragile Kids told The Dallas Morning News.
Trump’s education policies will only make the situation more dire. Many children will be cut off from care, and then cut off from accessible free education, all so Republicans can say they’ve shrunk government. So long to social mobility, so long to life-saving medical care, so long to any illusion of equality: Republicans will accomplish what the eugenics movement sought to do so long ago.
And I will not be surprised when it happens. On the night of Trump’s election I did not sleep. First I thought of my brother, who only has health insurance because of the ACA. Then I stacked questions on top of hours: Should I wait four to eight years to have children? Or do I gamble? And I didn’t know the answer. I still don’t know the answer.
Trump makes obvious what I and Americans like me already understood: We are in the same vulnerable position that we have always occupied. This won’t change as long as we inhabit a world ruled by men who prioritize the free market over human lives. Their ideal society excludes us and every other group ever deemed an obstacle to prosperity. And when they come for us they will call it progress.
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