President Trump has alarmed Jewish leaders and others with remarks that appeared to endorse “racehorse theory” — the idea that selective breeding can improve a country’s performance, which American eugenicists and German Nazis used in the last century to buttress their goals of racial purity.
“You have good genes, you know that, right?” Trump told a mostly white crowd of supporters in Bemidji, Minn., on Sept. 18. “You have good genes. A lot of it is about the genes, isn’t it? Don’t you believe? The racehorse theory. You think we’re so different? You have good genes in Minnesota.”
Rabbi Mark Diamond, a senior lecturer on Jewish studies at Loyola Marymount University, was stunned.
“To hear these remarks said at a rally in an election campaign for the presidency is beyond reprehensible,” said Diamond, the former executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.
“This is at the heart of Nazi ideology… This has brought so much tragedy and destruction to the Jewish people and to others. It’s actually hard to believe in 2020 we have to revisit these very dangerous theories.”
The Trump campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
Trump’s remark was not the first time that he has spoken favorably about the racehorse analogy, which has been embraced by white supremacists for decades. But these latest comments come as the country has been roiled over racial injustice and the protests against it. Trump has continued to make inflammatory remarks and his campaign has made blatantly racist appeals.
During the presidential debate Tuesday, he deflected when asked to unambiguously disavow white supremacists. And he touched upon the genetic theory, returning to a frequent sentiment — that one’s skills are innate.
“You could never have done the job we did,” Trump said to former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee. “You don’t have it in your blood.”
Trump has long spoken about his beliefs in the superiority of his genes, dating back to his days as a Manhattan developer; he’s talked less frequently of his belief in the racehorse theory, which basically calls for using breeding to encourage desirable traits and eliminate undesirable traits.
Initially used for horses, the theory was ultimately used to justify selective breeding of people, including forced sterilization laws that were on the books in 32 states and used in some of them up through the 1970s.
Scientists who study human intelligence and accomplishment generally agree that while genetics may play some role, the success of individuals is heavily shaped by their environment, including their families and neighborhoods, as well as other factors including mentoring some people receive and simple chance.
Trump views the issue differently.
“You can absolutely be taught things. Absolutely. You can get a lot better. But there is something. You know, the racehorse theory, there is something to the genes,” Trump told Larry King on CNN in 2007. “And I mean, when I say something, I mean a lot.”
Three years later, he told CNN that his father was successful and it naturally followed that he would be too: “I have a certain gene. I’m a gene believer. Hey, when you connect two racehorses, you usually end up with a fast horse. And I really was — you know, I had a — a good gene pool from the standpoint of that.”
He used the phrase again at a 2016 campaign rally in Iowa, and his eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., told his father’s biographer that the family believed in the theory.
“Like him, I’m a big believer in racehorse theory. He’s an incredibly accomplished guy, my mother’s incredibly accomplished, she’s an Olympian, so I’d like to believe genetically I’m predisposed to better-than-average,” Trump Jr. told Michael D’Antonio in a 2014 interview, according to a transcript provided by the author.
D’Antonio, now a Trump critic whose scathing biography “Never Enough” was published in 2015, vividly recalled the interview.
“I happened to have done a book on eugenics so I knew exactly what he was talking about, I knew where it came from,” said D’Antonio, who had written a nonfiction book about the confinement of learning-disabled orphans in Massachusetts. “This was something American pseudo-scientists taught the Nazis…. It sent a chill through me.”
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, some mainstream scientists and elected officials in the United States, particularly in California, urged “the improvement” of the citizenry through eugenics. The concept was often used against people of color, Jewish people and Native Americans, but it was also used against white people who were deemed “feeble-minded,” delinquent or otherwise damaged.
Eugenics arose in the U.S. as the gains Black people had made during the Reconstruction era came under attack by white people aiming to maintain power, often by murder and mob violence. It was also used to argue against immigration by Italians and others.
Across the U.S., “there were two avenues that eugenicists used to exploit what they thought of as the racehorse theory of human development,” D’Antonio said.
The first was to encourage people deemed to have superior traits to have large families. These efforts were partly encouraged by “fitter family” competitions at state fairs, where well-nourished white families would be judged on their height, weight, size of their heads and symmetry of their faces — alongside the competitions for the heartiest livestock and largest crops. Winners would frequently be recognized in newspapers.
(Nazi Germany ran the Lebensborn program to cultivate Aryan traits. The state provided support to pregnant women — mostly unmarried — deemed racially “pure”; many of the babies were given to German couples, often SS officers and their families.)
The second avenue in the U.S. was institutionalization and sterilization. Children, often minorities, who were deemed troubled or labeled with the term “imbeciles” were confined to institutions. More than 65,000 people were “officially” sterilized against their will, said Paul Lombardo, a Georgia State University law professor who specializes in bioethics, though he suspects the actual number is far larger.
He said eugenics theory was used to justify forced sterilization laws, as well as immigration restrictions and miscegenation prohibitions. American eugenicists conversed with German leaders in the 1920s and 1930s, and their policies became part of the Nazi playbook. In “Mein Kampf,” Adolf Hitler wrote approvingly about the United States’ immigration restrictions, Lombardo said.
At the Nuremberg trials, after World War II, Nazi defenders noted that Americans had also forcibly sterilized people and quoted a U.S. Supreme Court ruling from the 1920s that said state laws allowing such procedures did not violate the Constitution, said Lombardo, who has written two books on the history of eugenics in the U.S.
“When Trump says at a rally in Minnesota, ‘You have good genes, I believe in the racehorse theory of heredity,’ he has all of the earmarks of a classic eugenicist,” Lombardo said. “It has been astounding to me as somebody who has studied this stuff for 40 years that any public figure would be willing to use that kind of language that so clearly echoes the kinds of things we heard from the people who were running the eugenics movement back in the ‘20s and ‘30s.”
Rob Eshman, the former editor of the Jewish Journal who is now the national editor of the influential Jewish American online newspaper the Forward, said Trump’s language was a clear signal to his supporters who harbor racist or anti-Semitic views.
Racehorse theory “is basically like a forerunner to eugenics theory, which led to the Nazis’ ‘final solution,’” Eshman said after Trump’s Minnesota comments. “It’s one of the least coded messages he has sent.”