During the first third of the Twentieth Century, the eugenics movement played a powerful role in the politics, law, and culture of the United States. The fear of “the menace of the feebleminded,” the notion that those with supposedly poor genes “sap the strength of the State,” and other similar ideas drove the enthusiastic implementation of the practices of excluding disabled individuals from the country, incarcerating them in ostensibly beneficent institutions, and sterilizing them. By the 1930s, with the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany, eugenic ideas had begun to be discredited in American public discourse. And after the Holocaust, when it became clear just how much Hitler had looked to American eugenic practices as a model, our Nation seemed to turn away from them in horror.
But eugenic ideas and practices never went away, and they have been increasingly prominent during the last half decade. The election of Donald Trump was the crucial turning point, though his election perhaps did more to reveal the lingering eugenicism in American society than to bring it into being. Trump himself has repeatedly endorsed eugenicist ideas. His administration relied on eugenics-era precedents in seeking to bar immigration by those who might become a “public charge.” And both he and his administration—at times explicitly, other times tacitly— endorsed a “herd immunity” approach to the COVID-19 pandemic that subordinated the interests of older people, those with disabilities, and members of racial minority groups to others.
These developments highlight the persistence of eugenics in the politics, law, and culture of the United States, nearly a century after the end of the original eugenics era. Or so I argue. I begin, in Part I, by discussing the Trump Administration’s public charge rule limiting immigration. Although the future of that policy is now uncertain following the election of Joe Biden to the presidency, the Trump Administration’s rule powerfully demonstrates the resilience of eugenic thinking in American policymaking. I then turn, in Part II, to the COVID19 pandemic. Trump’s response to the pandemic is best understood as resting significantly on eugenic ideas. But what is more important than Donald Trump’s own actions is that the eugenic ideas underlying them seem to have been widely endorsed—perhaps by only a minority of the populace, but by a large and vocal minority with substantial support from many business and state-government entities. This widespread support for a eugenicist response to COVID is among the most frightening aspects of the pandemic for the long-term moral health of our Nation.
Bagenstos, Samuel R. "The New Eugenics." Syracuse Law Review 71, no. 3 (2021): 751-763.