‘Anglo-Saxon’ Is What You Say When ‘Whites Only’ Is Too Inclusive

A new message proves too toxic for the Republican Party.

A collage of Anglo-Saxons and Republican lawmakers
Chip Somodevilla / Stefani Reynolds / Bloomberg / Getty / The Atlantic

About the author: Adam Serwer is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers politics.

Last week, far-right Republican Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar distanced themselves from a proposal to create an America First Caucus, after a document bearing the group’s name made reference to “Anglo-Saxon political traditions.”

Both Greene and Gosar told the press that they hadn’t seen the document and did not endorse its sentiments, after House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy condemned the effort, saying that America “isn’t built on identity, race, or religion,” and rejecting “nativist dog whistles.”

If seeing the party of Donald Trump distance itself from nativism is strange, it helps to understand that “Anglo-Saxon” is what you say when “whites only” is simply too inclusive.

The Anglo-Saxonism to which I refer has little to do with the Germanic peoples who settled in medieval England. Rather, it’s an archaic, pseudoscientific intellectual trend that gained popularity during the height of immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe to the United States, at the turn of the 20th century. Nativists needed a way to explain why these immigrants—Polish, Russian, Greek, Italian, and Jewish—were distinct from earlier generations, and why their presence posed a danger.

They settled on the idea that the original “native” American settlers were descended from “the tribes that met under the oak-trees of old Germany to make laws and choose chieftains,” as Francis Walker put it in The Atlantic in 1893, and that the new immigrants lacked the biological aptitude for democracy. Anglo-Saxon was a way to distinguish genteel old-money types, such as nativist Republican Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, from members of inferior races who had names such as, well, McCarthy. The influential eugenicist Madison Grant insisted that the Irish possessed an “unstable temperament” and a “lack of coordinating and reasoning power.”

“By making the simple (and in fact traditional) assumption that northern European nationalities shared much of the Anglo-Saxon’s inherited traits, a racial nativist could now understand why immigration had just now become a problem,” the historian John Higham wrote in Strangers in the Land. “Also, the cultural remoteness of southern and eastern European ‘races’ suggested to him that the foreign danger involved much more than an inherited incapacity for self-government: the new immigration was racially impervious to the whole of American civilization!”

This belief that America’s “original” population was Anglo-Saxon, and that the American way of life was threatened by the presence not just of nonwhite people but of inferior, non-Anglo-Saxon (or “Nordic”) white people, shaped the racist immigration-restriction laws of the early 20th century. As historians have documented, it also influenced the ideology of Nazi Germany. Translated into law, it produced such horrifying artifacts as Virginia’s 1924 anti-miscegenation act, passed with the aid of the eugenicist Anglo-Saxon Clubs. The law required all babies to be classified as “white” or “colored” and made it a felony to “misrepresent” your racial background. The Nazi jurists studying American race laws in the 1930s thought such “one drop” rules were a bit too strict.

The Anglo-Saxon Clubs naturally denied any racist intent, as the historian Edwin Black writes in War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race. “‘One drop of negro blood makes the negro’ is no longer a theory based on race pride or color prejudice, but a logically induced, scientific fact,” the groups claimed, adding that their objective was to maintain “the supremacy of the white race in the United States of America, without racial prejudice or hatred.” Got that?

Despite McCarthy’s effort to distance the GOP from the America First Caucus document, it’s clear that prominent Trumpist officials and intellectuals, some of them descended from the very immigrant groups Anglo-Saxon was intended to vilify, agree with some of the presumptions of Anglo-Saxonism. The echo of the notion that, as Francis Walker wrote, non-Anglo-Saxons are biologically incapable of “self-care and self-government” can be heard regularly on outlets such as Fox News, where hosts like Tucker Carlson argue that Democrats wish to “replace the current electorate, the voters now casting ballots, with new people, more obedient voters from the Third World.” This is biological determinism, but it’s also simply false. The Republican Party is now led by the descendants of the people Walker decried as incapable of self-government, people with surnames like Giuliani and Pompeo, even as it launches these old calumnies at a new generation of immigrants.

The document outlining the priorities for the America First Caucus, a name with an equally odious pedigree, makes similar arguments. “An important distinction between post-1965 immigrants and previous waves of settlers is that previous cohorts were more educated, earned higher wages, and did not have an expansive welfare state to fall back on when they could not make it in America and thus did not stay in the country at the expense of the native-born,” the document reads.

This is utter fantasy. European immigrants at the turn of the century faced nothing like the restrictions that prospective immigrants face today, let alone the immense, militarized deportation machine Americans have come to accept. They were poor, uneducated, and didn’t even need to speak English to enter the country; a minuscule fraction were excluded. The distinction between immigration before and after 1965 is that in that year, the U.S. repealed restrictions based on race and ethnicity that almost entirely prevented immigration from Asia and Africa. The America First Caucus document’s falsehoods about post-1965 immigration echo Anglo-Saxonism’s pseudoscientific presumptions that recent immigrants are somehow qualitatively incapable of “self-care and self-government.”

The 2020 election showed that the Republican Party could embrace conservative positions, even on immigration, and still appeal to Latino voters. But the ideological predilections of Anglo-Saxonism definitionally exclude that part of the Republican base, sending a clear message that they and other voters of color are unwelcome in the party, and threatening those electoral gains. They replace a message of restriction, or even law and order, with one rooted in racial purity. McCarthy’s forceful condemnation of that message is one small example of how a more diverse base of voters can work as a check against bigotry within a political party, even if it’s only a single step in the right direction, against weak actors it takes little courage to condemn.