In the late 19th century, a set of ideas known together as the “Teutonic germ theory” held sway over academic circles in Britain and the United States. It laid out a racial explanation for the evolution of democracy. According to the theory, the origin (or “germ”) of democratic institutions lay in the ancient Teutonic forests of Germany, from where it migrated with the Anglo-Saxons to Britain and then to America. Only Anglo-Saxons, the reasoning went, were properly able to extend democracy and freedom around the world.
Proponents of the theory venerated the Battle of Teutoburger Wald (which took place in 9 AD) as a pivotal moment in world history, when rugged, individualistic Germanic tribes defeated the legions of despotic Rome. The British historian EA Freeman believed so strongly in the superiority of his primordial Germanic heritage that he insisted on speaking a distilled English, shorn of its many borrowings from Latin and Romance languages.
This interest in the past wasn’t simply historical obscurantism. It coloured the way scholars and policy-makers looked at the peoples around them. Herbert Baxter Adams, the chief American advocate of the theory, tutored future US president Woodrow Wilson. Coupled with other faddish concepts of the time like social Darwinism and eugenics, the belief in the innate virtue of the “Anglo-Saxon stock” deeply affected how Americans perceived newcomers.
Unsurprisingly, this period in American history was a time of tremendous migration. Waves of people from southern and eastern Europe arrived in the US during the latter half of the 19th century. They were often met with disdain as “beaten men from beaten races; representing the worst failures in the struggle for existence.” Italians were described as “the refuse of the murder breeds of Southern Europe,” while Jews were an aberration of the evolutionary process, like vermin “capable of living under conditions that would exterminate men whom centuries of natural selection had not adapted to endure squalor.” American nativists viewed the new arrivals as a fundamental threat to the Anglo-Saxon spirit of the nation.
The nativists lost, and the Teutonic germ theory fell out of vogue in the 20th century as Germany became an enemy of both Britain and the United States. Social Darwinism, eugenics and the belief in the superiority of the Teutonic or Aryan race were all perfected with cosmic ferocity in Nazi Germany, resulting in the Holocaust. Thereafter, American scholars found it difficult to invoke the virtues of Germanic identity.
But the nativism inherent to the theory didn’t disappear. It mutated and adapted to changing conditions in the United States. Where once Irish, blacks, Italians, and Jews were the subjects of its scorn, Latinos, Asians, and now Muslims became the targets. Nobody (except for seriously fringe white supremacists) talks any more about guarding the purity of Anglo-Saxon Protestant America, but people do fret about the future of the Christian, English-speaking, white or European civilisational character of the country.
Former presidential candidate and right-wing ideologue Pat Buchanan was the most prominent critic of immigration at the end of the 20th century. “The Whites may discover what it is like to ride in the back of the bus,” he wrote recently, suggesting that only non-whites should ever sit in the back. “We have only sought to preserve the country we grew up in.” Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington (he of the controversial “Clash of Civilizations” thesis) gave anti-Hispanic xenophobia a scholarly gloss, echoing his 19th century forebears in lamenting the poverty, fertility rates, and cultural difference of Mexican immigrants.
For decades, this kind of anti-immigrant thinking enjoyed some currency in American politics, but it was usually kept at arms-length from the centre. The rise of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has changed that. Trump has fomented and courted nativism, making it the central animating force of his campaign. “I feel like he’s the last chance we have to establish law and order and preserve the culture I grew up in,” a white Trump supporter told the New York Times. “Immigrants from Africa, South America, some parts of Asia and the Middle East come from failed cultures,” another commented, worrying that a United States with more of such people “will fail,” too.
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It doesn’t matter that their concerns are unfounded (growing numbers of Spanish-speakers don’t tear the fabric of the nation; immigration from Mexico has tailed off in recent years; Muslims form a wealthy, well-assimilated, infinitesimally small percentage of the population; white people retain the vast majority of positions of political, economic, and cultural power). Nativism is the product of emotions, not facts. But it is damning that the language of the 19th century has resurfaced in this electoral season. No matter whether Trump or Clinton win in November, this snarling energy, this forceful fear of the other will remain a threat to the open and embracing ethos of the United States.
Kanishk Tharoor is the author of Swimmer Among the Stars: Stories
The views expressed are personal