Budgeting Social Darwinism

03/18/2017 01:46 pm ET Updated Mar 18, 2017
Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

There has been much chatter about President Trump’s proposed “America First” budget as well as the roll out of Trumpcare, which has been designed to replace The Affordable Care Act. Beyond the debatable specifics of these budget and health care proposals, it is clear—at least to me--that they reveal a disturbing back to the future philosophy that applauds the American Social Darwinism of the early 20th century. As an anthropologist who has been thinking about the dynamics and culture and society for more than 30 years, these proposals are nothing less than a blueprint to re-structure our society into a social organism, to cite President Trump’s favorite classification scheme, of winners (the fit) and losers (the unfit), the latter of which will eventually weaken, sicken, die and disappear, ensuring a fine and pure social life for all the winners.

Who are the winners and losers in Trumpcare and the America First Budget?

Some of the Winners:

--the young, the healthy, and the white, who are Christians;

--the corporate elite (also white and Christian, for the most part);

--White Nationalists, racists who want to return America to a pure state (white and Christian);

--The military-industrial complex, which will be showered with billions of additional funds.

In the context of Social Darwinism, the winners protect us from the losers who, if left alone, will pollute and weaken a pure society. That’s what it means to “take our country back.”

Some of the losers:

--the old, whose programs like Meals on Wheels are no longer “productive;”

--the poor, who will lose their health insurance and heat subsidies;

--the infirm of all ages and backgrounds, who will also lose their health insurance and no longer be a “burden” to society;

--immigrants—especially Muslims and Hispanics-- “terrorists and rapists,” who are “bad people;”

--African Americans, genetic polluters who threaten “our way of life;”

--all peoples of color, also genetic polluters who speak and behave differently;

--Jews, who dare to practice openly a non-Christian religion and operate Jewish Community Centers;

--scientists, speakers of inconvenient truths, on climate change, for example;

--social scientists, who engage in social and cultural critique;

--artists and humanists who seek understand the human condition to make life sweeter for everyone;

--journalists, who attempt to rebut an avalanche “alternative facts”

The philosophy that shapes the America First Budget and Trumpcare proposal underscores the notion of “personal responsibility.” If you’re poor or unemployed, you must be lazy or “unfit.” Don’t blame your misery on the rich or on the structural forces that have created and reinforced social inequality. If you work hard, you can be rich. If you don’t, then you’ll be poor and it’s your fault. This line of thinking, in fact, channels Lionel Barrymore’s Mr. Potter in Frank Capra’s classic film, It’s a Wonderful Life, a film that mirrors our contemporary debate about social class, social fitness, and the social contract.

Beneath the surface of this reactionary rhetoric lies a troubling pattern that underscores the Social Darwinist notion that the rich — or the strongest and fittest — should be socially viable, while the poor — or the weakest and least fit — should be allowed to wither and die. Loosely based upon Darwin’s theory of natural selection, Social Darwinists always want nature to take its rightful course in society. In the past the rich and powerful used Social Darwinism to deny workers a decent wage, bash labor unions, and justify the refusal of the economic elite to help the poor. The poor were “unfit” and not worthy of help.

Let the market do its work. Don’t blame the rich for your problems! Blame yourselves for being unemployed. Let nature take its course.

Doesn’t that sound like Tea Party rhetoric? Doesn’t that echo the rhetoric of candidate Trump? Doesn’t this set of ideas give shape and substance to the America First Budget and the Trumpcare proposal?

Before the Great Depression, Social Darwinist beliefs not only expanded American social inequality but also prompted the eugenics movement, which inspired programs in which the genes of the “unfit” were “cleansed” from society. Beliefs in eugenics compelled many American state legislatures to pass laws that sterilized “unfit” people. Inspired by eugenic theories, the US Congress passed a series of Immigration Restriction Acts in the 1920s. These laws severely limited or barred the immigration of peoples deemed “unit.” Fit people came from Northern Europe. They were the winners. Unfit people came from Asia, Eastern or Southern Europe. They were the losers. The American eugenics movement, of course, inspired the Aryan nationalism of Nazi Germany that resulted in The Final Solution and the “cleansing” of six million “unfit” Jews.

That was the horrific past. In the present it seems preposterous that American society might return to a past of scientific racism, anti-immigrant prejudice, and severe social inequality. But from my anthropological vantage, which has been shaped by generations of anthropological opposition to the racism and religious intolerance that fueled American Social Darwinism, that’s what the America First Budget and Trumpcare is all about.

If we do not resist Trump’s social engineering with every fiber of our being, we will not only drift back to a reconfigured form of 19th century economic royalism, but also return to the winner-loser ideology of Social Darwinism. Such a return will tear our society apart.

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