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White Nationalist Rhetoric Heard Today Echoes America A Century Ago


White nationalism in the U.S. is becoming more visible and more deadly, from marchers in Charlottesville to a gunman at a Pittsburgh synagogue. In the new issue of The Atlantic, Adam Serwer looks at the American roots of this movement. He writes that what is judged extremist today was once the consensus of a powerful cadre of the American elite. Adam Serwer, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ADAM SERWER: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: If you would ask me to guess where white nationalism in America comes from, I think I might have said the Deep South, given its history of segregation, lynchings, slavery, et cetera. But you write that this movement actually had strong underpinnings in elite New Englanders in the early 20th century. Tell me about them.

SERWER: That's right. So the essay focuses in large part on Madison Grant, who was a patrician New Yorker and conservationist who applied his experience with endangered animals to essentially white people in the United States. And what he warned was that the influx of immigrants that had been occurring over the past few decades was threatening democracy itself.

SHAPIRO: I'd never heard of this man Madison Grant, but you say that he provided a kind of pseudo-scholarly backbone for a lot of racist ideas that were popular in the early 20th century. What function did he serve in this larger racist dialogue?

SERWER: So I would say that Grant is, in the words of immigration scholar John Hingham, the most influential nativist in American history. And the reason is is that he synthesizes what you might call race science, which is sort of a pseudoscience of proving that a particular group of white people are superior to everyone else on earth. And the United States was committing race suicide by allowing immigration of inferior genetic stock, by which he largely meant people of Italian descent, people of Eastern European and Jewish descent.

SHAPIRO: And at the time, were those views considered radical, extreme, fringe?

SERWER: His book, "The Passing Of The Great Race," was actually extremely well-received by the American elite, people like Theodore Roosevelt, President Harding, Calvin Coolidge. He was expressing the consensus of an elite group of white people that the country was being ruined by the influx of these immigrants who were of inferior genetic stock.

SHAPIRO: And you write that this book, "The Passing Of The Great Race," was actually cited by Hitler. Hitler called it his bible. So explain how these white supremacist views came to be adopted by Germany, and why, if these views were so widely accepted by American elites, the U.S. ultimately went to war to fight against those ideas?

SERWER: Well, I wouldn't put all of the Nazis on Madison Grant, but I would say that he was influential in that American immigration law, which was profoundly shaped by Grant's theories, was influential on the Nazis. And Hitler, in "Mein Kampf," goes at length saying things like America is the one country that has understood the importance of protecting its, you know, genetic purity.

SHAPIRO: This is not the story that we are told in American history books. You write about what you call historical amnesia about this chapter of history. How has it been rewritten and why?

SERWER: Well, I would say that there were significant ideological distinctions between the Nazis and the most virulent American racists. The American South was actually quite anti-Nazi, and part of the reason for that was they believed in a white man's democracy, but they didn't actually want to live under a fascist regime.

I think that this is a particularly painful chapter of American history because it undermines our national identity of being a place where anybody can become an American. But the truth is that the conflict over who should be considered truly American is something that is very old. And this particular chapter is one that most Americans, right and left, would rather not reflect on.

SHAPIRO: Do you see a direct throughline from the kinds of things that Madison Grant was saying and writing about a hundred years ago to what we hear in public discourse today?

SERWER: I would say that the scholars of this era of immigration who I spoke to say that there is absolutely a throughline. The idea that the presence of immigrants of a particular type is threatening to the nature of American democracy is something that you can see pretty much every night on Fox News. You can hear it from the president when he talks about the danger of allowing Latin American people to come here. But in large part, Grant has been removed from popular memory, and so it's more difficult for us to understand exactly where this comes from.

SHAPIRO: Well, what do you think the lesson is that we should learn from this chapter of U.S. history a hundred years ago?

SERWER: We have to be extremely careful about disregarding the baseline American values that are, in my view, what make this country a wonderful place to be, which is that anybody can come here and be an American. And we shouldn't define American citizenship on the basis of race and religion in the way that we once did.

SHAPIRO: Adam Serwer, thank you very much.

SERWER: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: His essay, "White Nationalism's Deep American Roots," is in the latest issue of The Atlantic. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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