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Fintan O’Toole: People screaming abuse at asylum seekers are not stupid. They do it because they enjoy it

The toxic ideas of a century ago have seeped back into currency. A third of Americans now say they believe in the Great Replacement

To understand the ideology that underpins far-right protests against refugees and asylum seekers, a good starting point might be the great American novel.

Near the start of F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, published in 1925, Tom Buchanan is mansplaining. “If we don’t look out,” he announces excitedly, “the white race will be – will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.”

Those words are, with minor variations, repeated now in Ireland by people who adhere to the increasingly mainstream theory of the Great Replacement. It, too, is “scientific stuff”, harvested from social media. It “proves” that there is a conspiracy to “replace” white people in their own countries with dark-skinned foreigners. Just as, allegedly, there was the same plot a century ago.

Asylum seekers, even though they appear in relatively small numbers, are the vanguard of this invasion. Jews (coded at protests in Ireland and elsewhere as “international bankers”) are behind it all.


There’s a tendency among some commentators to half-excuse this stuff, to buy into the idea that, however deplorably it is expressed, it is a revolt of dispossessed people against “elites”.

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But, in Gatsby, Buchanan isn’t poor white trash. On the contrary, he’s very rich. He’s been to Yale. He has a string of polo ponies and a mansion on Long Island. He’s married to the exquisite Daisy, after whom Gatsby hankers.

The book that Buchanan has been reading, the “scientific stuff” that proves the imminent danger of the swamping of the white race, is The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy. It was written by Lothrop Stoddart, another member of the American elite, who had a PhD in history from Harvard.

Stoddart, as Buchanan puts it, argued “This idea ... that we’re Nordics. I am, and you are ... And we’ve produced all the things that go to make civilization – oh, science and art, and all that. Do you see?”

This is almost exactly the same rhetoric as we get with the Great Replacement now. One adjustment, made for Irish-Americans and now for the Irish at home, is that Nordic (also called Aryan) can include Celtic.

Initially, in so-called “scientific” racism, the Celts were very low on the racial rankings, just above or equal to Africans. Especially in the American context, we were not being swamped – we were the ones doing the swamping.

But already by the 1920s, there was some ambivalence about this in white supremacist circles. It was becoming politic to include the Irish in nativist ideology.

Among the wealthy and much of the intellectual establishment, racism went hand-in-hand with a fixation on the pseudoscience of eugenics

In his much-read book, Stoddart seemed a little unsure about where to place the Irish in his racial hierarchies. On the one hand he suggested that the “Scotch-Irish” (Presbyterian migrants from Ulster) were “identical with [the] English in the Anglo-Saxon sense” and therefore part of the superior Nordic strain that was being threatened by the rise of the inferior races. This seems to imply that the other Irish, the Catholics, might not be quite so acceptable.

On the other hand, Stoddart refers to “the Celtic vanguards of the Nordic race” and “the Nordic Celts in Gaul and Britain”. The idea of blond, blue-eyed Celts as early Scandinavian settlers on our archipelago had an appeal undiminished by its status as historical nonsense.

So maybe the Brigids and Paddies might be kind of Nordic after all – and therefore part of the “white race” in danger of being “swamped” by the rising tide of colour.

In any case, what’s striking is how much this idea pervaded elite society in the West a hundred years ago. It is, as Fitzgerald shows us, the dinner conversation of the polo-playing classes.

It was intertwined with a broader obsession of the elites: “racial hygiene”. Among the wealthy and much of the intellectual establishment, racism went hand-in-hand with a fixation on the pseudoscience of eugenics.

Based on a complete misunderstanding of Darwinian evolution and of genetics, this potent idea linked the fear of the good Nordic stock being polluted by the genes of lesser races with the alleged need to stop “degenerates”, people with disabilities and “the feeble-minded” from breeding. This could be done by keeping them out, by forcibly sterilising them or, in the extreme, by murdering them.

There is nothing more elitist than the idea that the ‘white race’ must protect its ‘good genes’ from being polluted by the bad genes of lesser races

This stuff was never the preserve of the poor and the ignorant – or of Nazis. Giants of 20th century industry, politics and ideas were passionately devoted to it: Henry Ford, Theodor Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Margaret Sanger (founder of the birth control movement), John Maynard Keynes, John Harvey Kellogg (inventor of the corn flake).

Even in its most brutally exterminationist form, the idea of purifying the race appealed to many scientists and professionals, including those who took oaths to “do no harm”. It is an astonishing fact that the professional group most well-represented in the early Nazi Party was doctors: more than half of all German physicians joined up.

The point here is that there’s nothing “underclass” about these ideas. They are not some kind of weird pathogen that breeds only in conditions of poverty and ignorance. On the contrary, they appeal to elites because they “prove” that inequalities are “natural” – the result of breeding rather than of social conditions.

And, conversely, the anti-elitist rhetoric with which this ideology is now infused is bunk. There is nothing more elitist than the idea that the “white race” must protect its “good genes” from being polluted by the bad genes of lesser races.

It starts with breaking windows and screaming abuse and issuing threats. We know where it ends

Nor is there anything less anti-elitist than the kind of society that the far right seeks to create. The basic bargain the far right offers its followers is that they have to surrender their free will to absolute obedience to their leader – but in return they will get the sadistic pleasure of kicking (or killing) those who are inferior.

The far right does not abolish hierarchies – it just places its own followers in the middle of a savagely enforced hierarchy, subject to the whims of its leaders from above but free to inflict whatever pain it wants on those below.

And a lot of people think this bargain is worth making. There’s a tendency in writing about the anti-refugee protests to assume that most of the people taking part are dupes who don’t understand what they’re doing. Why should they be patronised like this? Just because they’re working class?

Most people know very well what it means when they’re screaming abuse at asylum seekers. They’re not stupid: they do it because they enjoy it.

Sadism isn’t the infliction of pain on others. It’s taking pleasure in that pain.

Throughout history, people – especially those gathered in crowds – have experienced the rush of pleasure that comes from being able to do whatever you damn like to defenceless human beings. Like a lot of pleasures, it is addictive. And, like most addictions, you need an ever greater dose to get you high.

It starts with breaking windows and screaming abuse and issuing threats. We know where it ends.

For a few decades, that knowledge helped to discredit and hold at bay the ideology of “racial hygiene” that was so pervasive among respectable elites a century ago. But, in the world where “doing my own research” means slavishly following cranks and conspiracy theorists, the toxic ideas of a century ago have seeped back into currency. A third of Americans now say they believe in the Great Replacement.

They – and their Irish followers – believe it for the same reasons people such as Tom Buchanan did. It tells them not just that they have pure genes, but that this biological inheritance makes their superiority to others only natural.