8: Dark Demography – White Recoil

DARK DEMOGRAPHY WARNS “good” people about hordes of “bad” people. A recurring syndrome, it was a hallmark of Trump’s campaign from the beginning, deeply rooted in Trump and his loyal “voters and supporters” as well as large parts of the Republican Party.

The fearful theory about masses of bad people overwhelming good people was loudly articulated when Trump announced his presidential campaign on June 16, 2015. After stately descending the golden escalator deus-ex-machina style in his Manhattan Tower, Trump accused China, Japan, and Mexico as competitor countries “killing us economically.” But instead of stopping there, he identified (with characteristic innuendo) the bad people Americans should be afraid of:

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us [sic]. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.1

Soon afterwards, Trump doubled down on these dark words and told CNN, “I’m not just saying Mexicans, I’m talking about people that are from all over that are killers and rapists and they’re coming into this country.”2 Moving seamlessly from metaphorical economic “killings” to foreign rapists and killers overrunning the US “from all over,” Trump advertised himself to the nation (and the global audience that pays careful attention to American elections) as a president who would make a stark, albeit racist, difference to all his predecessors, especially Barack Obama.

THE FIRST PIPER leading frightened followers into the netherworld of dark demography was the clergyman Thomas Robert Malthus. When he made his entry in 1798, poor English people were the target3 – in Trump’s context, “bad hombres” are the problem.4

Dark demography does not have to be racist, but it is increasingly. From Hungary to England and the US, Malthusian pipers have changed their tunes from the national poor to new arrivals from poorer countries and regions, especially migrants and refugees. The menacing groups keep changing though the core argumentation remains the same: civilized society risks extinction if it feeds lots of marginal people who allegedly engage in dangerous, antisocial, criminal activities and, above all, violent or careless sex that boosts their numbers. This is the terror of the Malthusian syndrome that keeps reappearing. Dark demography is the undead of the industrial age, a zombie that Trump has sent into battle without having to know anything about its history.

Malthus’ An Essay on the Principle of Population as It Affects the Future Improvement of Society had “a melancholy hue” and “dark tints” in contrast to the prevalent enlightenment view of his time about the perfectibility of humanity.

The essay’s argument rested on two laws: “First, that food is necessary to the existence of man. Secondly, that the passion between the sexes is necessary, and will remain nearly in its present state.”5 Its Newtonian “principle of population” stated, “the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.” The fear that triggered the Malthusian alarm was the mathematical difference between exponential and linear growth applied to population and food:

Taking the population of the world at any number, a thousand millions, for instance, the human species would increase in the ratio of – 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, etc. and subsistence as – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, etc.6

A global population of 1 billion people, the number Malthus had picked, was reached around 1804. The slow population increase over ten millennia from one million at the start of the Agricultural Revolution to one billion at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution indicates two things, on the one hand Earth’s “carrying capacity” of 1 billion people for pre-industrial farming societies, and on the other the ruthless efficiency of Malthusian checks and balances on population.

Humanity’s long agricultural epoch was on Malthus’s side: rising populations were always kept in line with existing food resources. All technical gains in food production were “eaten up” by population growth; and when populations grew further, positive checks on population (famines, diseases, wars) kicked in and adjusted the increased population to the available sustenance level. Yet after Malthus, world population doubled in ever shorter intervals7 and industrial food production rose in parallel.8

There is a problem with Malthusian population science. It is not the notion of a divergence between infinite human wants and limited resources, but the derivation of socio-political prescriptions from its so-called laws – “moral restraint” (sexual abstinence) at Malthus’ time and one-child policies today.

This became clear when Malthus ventured into the minefield of market interventions in the context of the English Poor Laws. He thought relief of poverty created the problem it was trying to alleviate. Hence, Malthus wanted the English poor to “earn” the entitlement to their subsistence in workhouses. He even argued that doing nothing about poverty was justified by nature:

A man who is born into a world already possessed, if he cannot get subsistence from his parents on whom he has a just demand, and if the society do not want his labour, has no claim of right to the smallest portion of food, and, in fact, has no business to be where he is. At nature’s mighty feast there is no vacant cover for him. She tells him to be gone, and will quickly execute her own orders, if he does not work upon the compassion of some of her guests.9

The paragraph ended as mercilessly as it had begun: “the great mistress of the feast” – mother nature – “humanely refused to admit fresh comers when her table was already full.” Many of Malthus’s contemporaries condemned him for using the word humanely in this perverse way. However, the morality of applied Malthusianism reflects exactly that credo: being born into the world does not oblige a society to nurture needy groups of people or an unwanted labor force.

NON-COLLEGE WHITES voted decisively for Trump across the US in 2016. They recoiled from America’s first black president about whom Trump had rumored that he was a foreign-born intruder and perhaps a Muslim.10

Deeply resenting the coalition of racial minorities and young urban adults that had elected Obama twice, white Americans gave Trump more votes than he lost to racial minorities in the decisive states of Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.11

Low-middle and lower-class American (and British) whites are angry about their diminishing station in the world. They fear becoming a minority in their “own” country knowing most of the world population is not white. Addressing this growing angst, Trump assured his supporters, “Don’t worry, we’ll take our country back.”12

White Americans understood. They believed, Trump will lead the US back to the golden age when nearly nine out of ten Americans were white (in the 1950s). But black Americans understood too. For them, Trump’s message “Make America Great Again” was a racist threat. In the early morning hours of November 9, when it dawned on America that Trump had just been elected President of the United States, CNN commentator Van Jones called Trump’s victory “a whitelash” – a backlash of the white American electorate:

We’ve talked about everything but race tonight. We’ve talked about income, we’ve talked about class, we’ve talked about region. We haven’t talked about race. This was a whitelash against a changing country, it was a whitelash against a black president, in part, and that’s the part where the pain comes.13

The white share of the American electorate has fallen continuously in the twenty-first century, and it will keep falling. Declining numbers of white voters have been projected up to 2060 for the whole nation as well as individual states.14 Whites fell from 78 percent in 2000 to 75 percent in 2004, 73 percent in 2008, 71 percent in 2012, and 69 percent in 2016. During President Obama’s second term (2012-2016), the US electorate grew by 10.7 million eligible voters. Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and other minorities gained 7.5 million of this total, whites only 3.2 million. According to the Pew Research Center, “More than two-thirds of net growth in the U.S. electorate during this time has come from racial and ethnic minorities.”15

Considering these demographic projections, the Trumpian reversal of Obama’s gains should be short-lived, but that is not guaranteed. Trump and Trumpism will fortify the demagoguery of dark demography with walls, real and legal, travel bans, and deportations. Although a steadily declining white population will render the re-whitening of America futile in the long run, the toxic racism of this effort can only be stopped by making Trumpism small again.

In Spring 2015, the US Census Bureau determined white children will be a minority in 2020 and whites will be outnumbered by nonwhites in 2044.16 Then, on the heels of Trump’s grand announcement of his candidacy, it reported that Millennials (youth born between 1982 and 2000) comprising over one quarter of the US population were 44.2 percent nonwhite and thus more diverse than all preceding generations. It also reported that the youngest Americans, children younger than five years old, were even more diverse than Millennials and had already become a “majority-minority” in 2014 by being 50.2 percent nonwhite.17

Trump’s formidable appeal to white voters must be seen against this backdrop of foreseeable electoral doom. He had discovered an anxious and angry constituency that was understanding itself as an “endangered species” in the most literal sense, so much so that the conspiracy theory of “white genocide” has become a fact for American supremacists.

THE DIRE SITUATION of US whites was first recognized in December 2015 when Anne Case and Angus Deaton documented “a marked increase in the all-cause mortality of middle-aged white non-Hispanic men and women in the United States between 1999 and 2013.”18

That was an unexpected finding. All racial and ethnic groups in America and comparable countries exhibited falling mortality rates for this age group. Yet, less educated American whites showed growing mortality rates. Case and Deaton linked this “midlife mortality reversal” of white American men and women to drug and alcohol poisoning, chronic liver diseases, suicide, mental health problems, and the inability to work.

Their subsequent research found that the unique distress of US whites began in the American Southwest in 2000, spread to Appalachia, Florida, and the West Coast in the mid-2000s, and was country-wide by 2015 affecting both rural and urban areas “with additional increases in drug overdoses, suicides, and alcohol-related liver mortality, particularly among those with a high-school degree or less.”19

Examining possible social, cultural, and economic reasons for these “deaths of despair” (defined as death by drugs, alcohol, and suicide; Figure 1), Case and Deaton pointed to globalization and technical change (automation) to explain “the collapse of the white, high school educated, working class after its heyday in the early 1970s, and the pathologies that accompany that decline.”20

Figure 1: Deaths of Despair, men and women, age 50-54 | Source: Case & Deaton 2017

Figure 1 reveals the delayed onset of this collapse. In 1990, the mortality rate of US whites was still lower than the rates of France (FRA), Germany (GER), Sweden (SWE), and Canada (CAN). Yet in 2000, the picture changed dramatically: the rates of the comparison countries headed for convergence around 40 deaths per 100,000 people, whereas the US rate started to rise steeply toward 80 deaths, double the amount of its peers. The situation in other English-speaking countries – the UK, Canada, and Australia – is much better than that of the US, but their trendlines are also moving in the wrong upward direction.

American inequality is a driver of the deadly storm that is killing middle-aged US working-class whites without a college degree. The Americans in its path are devastated by undereducation, bad health, difficulties in their marriages, problems with child rearing, and social isolation. However, their predicament is not uniquely American, and it should not be lethal. Neither the rising educational demands of a technology-driven economy nor the hardships from world labor competition are US problems only. What is truly American, is the persistent opposition to a robust national safety net with public health care, social welfare, and adult education. In the US, hard shocks of change are directly absorbed by poor people’s bodies.

Blaming the victim is a favorite of dark demography. Joblessness and poverty combined with low levels of education trigger that blunder, which Hillary Clinton committed by calling half of Trump’s constituency a “basket of deplorables.”21 Trump, who habitually degrades people including a disabled reporter22 and an American war hero,23 does not like “losers” but “loves” the folks drawn to his rallies, even though many of them are in the truly “deplorable” condition described by Case and Deaton. Dark Trumpian demography can blame poor Mexicans but not poor Americans – provided they are white.

BLACK AND BROWN people are fair game for Trump and Trumpism. Steve King, an Iowa Republican, confirmed this memorably when he tweeted on behalf of “Dutch Trump” Geert Wilders: “Wilders understands that culture and demographics are our destiny. We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”24

King did not specify whose babies cannot sustain us, but he confirmed to have “meant exactly” what he had said.25 What that was became clearer in a radio interview the next day. Speaking about the calamity of a falling fertility rate and how that is threatening Western civilization, whose builders had been white Europeans, King declared that he is neither racist nor against immigrants per se, although diversity is a problem, because not only “decent” people enter the US. To illustrate the “indecent” kind, King recommended Jean Raspail’s novel, The Camp of the Saints, a key text for understanding the Trumpian mindset.26

Raspail pre-articulated the Western populist fears prevalent today back in 1973. He imagined global waves of poverty-stricken, third-world refugees as “crusades in reverse.”27 Raspail envisioned millions upon millions of dark- and brown-skinned people entering the open “camps” of white, wealthy Western societies drowning them with their sheer numbers.

The Camp of the Saints depicts the first of these nonviolent crusades. A fleet of one million Indians unleashed by Malthusian pressure from “famine-racked Calcutta” has sailed off on a hundred run-down ships for the “paradise of milk and honey,” the French Riviera. “This vanguard of an antiworld bent on coming in the flesh to knock, at long last, at the gates of abundance” is on its way to overrun the European paradise with myriads of their youthful poor. Raspail has the Indian Minister of Information tell the Belgian Consul in Calcutta:

There’s no Third World. No, not anymore. That’s only a phrase you coined to keep us in our place. There’s one world, only one, and it’s going to be flooded with life, submerged. This country of mine is a roaring river. A river of sperm. Now, all of a sudden, it’s shifting course, my friend, and heading west…

In Raspail’s fervid imagination, the reverse crusaders do not speak, “they simply growl” and “their growls run the show. After all, five billion growling human beings, rising over the length and breadth of the earth, can make a lot of noise!” Copulating on the decks of their ships “in a welter of dung and debauch – and hope as well – the Last Chance Armada pushed on toward the West.”

The cunning message of Raspail’s novel was less about them and mainly about us and the dangerous softness of “present moral principles” in the progressive West: “For them, white skin means weak convictions.” I am quoting extensively from this work because its narrative has penetrated the core of radical Trumpism. T-Plus devotees like Iowa Representative King have drawn their lesson from the novel’s biting critique of the self-abnegating Western reaction to the Indian fleet and are convinced they are but brave soldiers making a last stand for “our civilization” against the flood of refugees “from all over.”

An “anonymous, omnipresent monster” – the “apocalyptic beast” – has “vowed to destroy the Western World” and, instead of fighting back, Western elites succumb. From the Pope and his clergy to the officials of the French republic and the pundits of the free press, all agree that “an appropriate welcome in a framework of international cooperation” is warranted for the armada of the poor. The entire press corps is shown to serve the beast. Only one journalist from a fledgling libertarian newspaper stands apart. In a press conference at the Elysée Palace, he confronts the spokesman of the French government with the dark Malthusian scenario:

Let’s suppose that the Western nations go along with the government’s proposal and provide for the refugee fleet as long as it’s off in mid-ocean. Can’t you see that you’ll simply feeding your enemy, fattening up a million invaders? And if this fleet … should reach the coast of France, and throw those million invaders out onto the beach, would the government have the courage to stand up against the very same hordes that its kindness had rescued?

In 1982, Raspail reflected on the ending of his novel: “I denied to the white Occident … its last chance for salvation.”28 Thus, the French president changes his mind in the last moment. He does not order his troops to open fire on the disembarking economic migrants but asks them to “weigh this monstrous mission for themselves, and to feel free either to accept or reject it.” Left to their own troubled conscience, French officers and soldiers abandon their positions along the Mediterranean coast and allow a peaceful invasion.

King’s skepticism about “somebody else’s babies” drives the anti-immigration stance of the current US administration.29 Trump, Bannon, Decius-Anton, Sebastian Gorka, Jeff Sessions,30 and Stephen Miller31 – they are all in agreement about the necessity of sharply curbing immigration. As Decius-Anton said, “My view is that we long ago passed the point of diminishing returns and high immigration is no longer a net benefit to the existing American citizenry.”32 The fiction-based history lesson of The Camp of the Saints has deeply resonated in the Trumpian White House.

In Fall 2015, when Chancellor Merkel welcomed hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees into Germany declaring, “I’m happy that Germany has become a country that many people abroad associate with hope,”33 Bannon commented on Breitbart, “It’s not a migration. It’s really an invasion. I call it the Camp of the Saints.”34

Do-or-die defenders of Western civilization are transfixed by the imagined terror of the Malthusian syndrome. Dark demography has triggered a resounding white recoil in the Trumpian force field that will reverberate for some time.

  1. Here’s Donald Trump’s Presidential Announcement Speech.” Time, 16 June 2015. Update Nov. 2020: Adam Gabbatt reviewed Trump’s announcement event four years later with new details about the staging of the spectacle; see “Golden escalator ride.” The Guardian, 14 June 2019.
  2. Eugene Scott, “Candidate Donald Trump talks immigration, gay marriage and ISIS.” CNN, 28 June 2015.
  3. See Thomas Robert Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population. London 1798.
  4. Vivian Salama, “Trump to Mexico: Take care of ‘bad hombres’ or US might.” AP News, 2 Feb. 2017.
  5. Malthus, op. cit., p. 11. Malthus’s emphasis on the permanence of the human sex drive was a direct response to William Goodwin who had argued in his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1797) that humanity will cease to propagate and create people that will live forever.
  6. See above, note 3, p. 25.
  7. Starting from one billion in 1804: two billion in 1927 (123 years), three billion in 1959 (32 years), four billion in 1974 (15 years), five billion in 1987 (13 years), six billion in 1999 (12 years), and seven billion in 2011 (13 years).
  8. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, several successive, agriculture-related advancements of modern science, technology, and science-based industries vanquished the preindustrial agricultural regime. The first breakthrough occurred in the decades after 1840 when Justus von Liebig translated his mineral theory of plant nutrition into the creation and industrial production of “artificial” (mineral) fertilizers. We have written about this crucial development elsewhere; see Wolfgang Krohn and Wolf Schäfer, “Agricultural Chemistry: The Origin and Structure of a Finalized Science.” In Finalization in Science, edited by Wolf Schäfer, Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, vol. 77, p. 17-52. Dordrecht, Boston, Lancaster, 1983.
  9. Thomas Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population and Other Writings. Introduction by Robert J. Mayhew. Penguin Classics. UK: Penguin Books, 2015, p. 199. The second edition of the Essay was republished four times with minor changes by the author, but the offensive paragraph on nature’s feast was not carried over; it appeared in the 1803 edition only.
  10. See Gregory Krieg, “14 of Trump’s most outrageous ‘birther’ claims – half from after 2011.” CNN, 16 Sept. 2016; Chris Moody and Kristen Holmes, “Donald Trump’s history of suggesting Obama is a Muslim.” CNN, 18 Sept. 2015.
  11. See William H. Frey, “The demographic blowback that elected Donald Trump.” Brookings, 10 Nov. 2016.
  12. Elizabeth Chuck, “Donald Trump: ‘Don’t Worry, We’ll Take Our Country Back’.” NBC News, 11 July 2015.
  13. Corinne Grinapol, “Van Jones: ‘This Was a Whitelash Against a Changing Country’.” Adweek, 9 Nov. 2016.
  14. See the interactive chart based on survey and census data from 1980 to 2014 by Rob Griffin, William H. Frey, and Ruy Teixeira, “The Demographic Evolution of the American Electorate, 1980–2060.” Center for American Progress, 24 Feb. 2015.
  15. Jens Manuel Krogstad, “2016 electorate will be the most diverse in U.S. history.” Pew Research Center, 3 Feb. 2016.
  16. See “New Census Bureau Report Analyzes U.S. Population Projections.” The United States Census Bureau, 3 March 2015; Sandra L. Colby and Jennifer M. Ortman, “Projections of the Size and Composition of the U.S. Population: 2014 to 2060.” The United States Census Bureau, March 2015.
  17. See “Millennials Outnumber Baby Boomers and Are Far More Diverse.” The United States Census Bureau, 25 June 2015.
  18. Anne Case and Angus Deaton, “Rising morbidity and mortality in midlife among white non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st Century.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the US, 8 Dec. 2015, p. 15078.
  19. Anne Case and Angus Deaton, “Mortality and morbidity in the 21st century.” Brookings, 10 April 2017, p.2.
  20. Ibid., p. 50.
  21. See “Hillary Clinton says half of Trump’s supporters are in a ‘basket of deplorables’.” CBS News, 10. Sept. 2016.
  22. See “Donald Trump Criticized After He Appears to Mock Reporter Serge Kovaleski.” NBC News, 26 Nov. 2015.
  23. See Erik Ortiz, “‘He’s Not a War Hero’: Donald Trump Mocks John McCain’s Service.” NBC News, 19 July 2015.
  24. Steve King, “Wilders understands…Twitter, 12 March 2017. For King’s history of offensive statements, see David A. Graham, “Steve King’s Improbable Ascendance.” The Atlantic, 13 March 2017.
  25. See Theodore Schleifer, “King doubles down on controversial ‘babies’ tweet.” CNN, 14 March 2017.
  26. See “Steve King urges people to read ‘The Camp of the Saints’ novel revered by white supremacists.” Daily Kos, 14 March 2017.
  27. Jean Raspail, The Camp of the Saints. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1975 (originally published in France by Editions Robert Laffont, 1973). Reprint edition 2015 by Social Contract Press: Petoskey, Michigan, p. 27. All subsequent quotes are from the 2015 edition.
  28. Afterword, included in the 2015 reprint edition, p. 313. Update Nov. 2020: Jean Raspail died June 14, 2020, in Paris; see Elian Peltier, “Jean Raspail, Whose Immigration Novel Drew the Far Right, Dies at 94.” The New York Times, 22 June 2020.
  29. See Dana Liebelson and Paul Blumenthal, “Steve King’s Anti-Immigrant Comments Aren’t New. But His Support in The White House Is.” Huffington Post, 14 March 2017.
  30. See Emily Bazelon, “Department of Justification.” The New York Times, 28 Feb. 2017.
  31. See Josh Dawsey and Eliana Johnson, “Trump’s got a new favorite Steve.” POLITICO, 13 April 2017.
  32. The Editors, “Decius Out of the Darkness: A Q&A with Michael Anton.” American Greatness, 12 Feb. 2017.
  33. Mihret Yohannes, “Angela Merkel welcomes refugees to Germany despite rising anti-immigrant movement.” The Washington Times, 10 Sept. 2015.
  34. Paul Blumenthal and J. M. Rieger, “This Stunningly Racist French Novel Is How Steve Bannon Explains the World.” Huffington Post, 6 March 2017