This article is one in a series of arguments on the family in our summer issue.
Don’t look it up, because you cannot unsee it: a blanched and scowling Trump strides through a lurid flood scene, a bawling white baby under each arm. Behind him, a shadowy band of skeletons and hooded reapers looms on a receding shoreline. Pastor Jeff Jansen, the founder of Global Fire Ministries International in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, posted the image to his Facebook and Instagram accounts on May 6, as the news of his firing for “unbiblical behavior” (he left his wife and children “to pursue his own desires”) went viral. Jansen had been among the evangelical pastors and self-described prophets confidently predicting a Trump re-election in 2020. In April he had denounced the modern church as “so neutered and so turned effeminate, almost homosexual” that it was cruising for a bruising from the Heavenly Father. “Where are the men?” he demanded of an audience in Oregon. “Where’s the maleness? Where is the: ‘I will defend the children, I will protect the family?’”
This demented crypto-Christian phallus-worship is to Reagan-era family values what the Charlottesville tiki-torch brigade was to the Docksider-wearing Orange County Young Americans for Freedom of the 1980s. QAnon-fueled fantasies of white child rescue and the once-and-future king have drained any nuance from the ideology of white possession and domestic dominion.
The murderous hysteria over white patrimony—“blood and soil,” anchor babies, the birther movement that launched Trump into political life—is inseparable from the private capture of both economic opportunity and political authority. In his surprise best-seller Capital in the Twenty-First Century, economist Thomas Piketty demonstrated that inherited wealth is almost as decisive a factor in current levels of inequality in the United States as it was in the Gilded Age. The gains in equality that marked the middle decades of the twentieth century have almost completely been undone by the policies pursued since the 1980s. These developments were born of a union of neoliberal economics and neoconservative traditionalism.
For all their incompleteness, the social investments of the New Deal and Great Society definitively broadened access to healthcare, education, stable housing, and secure retirement, thus dampening the advantages of inherited wealth. The wartime federal investment in production, followed by the postwar boom and alongside the decriminalization of collective bargaining, meant that more productivity gains were retained by those workers who made them. Young white men of modest backgrounds who lacked a significant patrimony in property could nevertheless expect to advance beyond their parents’ standing.
These public benefits, however, depended on a different form of private patrimony: the inheritable property of whiteness. In deference to the profoundly unrepresentative legislative power of the Dixiecrats, New Dealers ratified and extended the link between property in whiteness and other forms of property. They did so in a legal regime equipped to restrict that inheritance through miscegenation and immigration laws and the policing of sexuality. White men begat many a child across the color line both before and after slavery, but those children didn’t automatically receive the status of “free” or “white”—categories with clear-cut economic meaning. When a segregationist debating James Baldwin on television objected to Black men marrying his daughters, Baldwin made the implicit meaning clear: “You don’t want us marrying your wives’ daughters,” he corrected his opponent. “We’ve been marrying your daughters since the days of slavery.” Through the 1930s, most miscegenation cases brought in court were intended to invalidate a longstanding interracial relationship in order to prevent property from passing to or through a non-white wife.
When the overtly eugenicist immigration restrictions of 1880 and 1924 became an embarrassment on the international stage of the Cold War, U.S. law dropped the explicit language of racial preference; the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1952 declared race an inappropriate tool for policing the biological basis for national belonging. But it maintained its racial restrictions in part by shifting preferences to family unification: entry was denied to homosexuals and adulterers, twin threats to the purity of America’s imagined bloodline and the legitimacy of the heirs to its patrimonial property. The debate when the laws were further revised in 1965 made clear how an emphasis on legitimate reproductive families would maintain these property relations and distribute them, through lineage, by race: “Since the people of Africa and Asia have very few relatives here,” Representative Emanuel Celler explained to his colleagues, “comparatively few could immigrate from those countries because they have no family ties in the U.S.”
The long New Deal order, then, represented a majority decision to temper private inheritance as the main mechanism for wealth distribution; but it rested on a prior decision to restrict the recognized national family to white people. The Black freedom movement and the larger global revolt against white supremacy threatened the terms of this arrangement by challenging its racial restrictions. As non-white Americans began to gain access to the social patrimony of public investment, white allegiance to the New Deal order began to fray.
Families that had gained middle-class security during the postwar “golden age” of military Keynesianism correctly recognized that this epochal windfall—like the homesteading that transformed collective use of Native land into exclusive property rights for the white household—was temporary, so consolidating past gains for their children became paramount. As a result, the 1 percent had unexpected reinforcements in the fight to preserve their heritable rentier income and gut social investment. Beginning with the 1979 Volcker Shock and accelerating under Reagan, the stagflation stand-off between unemployment and interest rates was decisively resolved in favor of the latter. Both the subprime crisis and the staggering load of student debt are expressions of this racial project of inheritance—inheritance, among some, of financial assets, and among the rest of non-dischargeable debt secured by family and household ties.
The very concept of economy did not begin in the marketplace, after all, but in the patriarchal household. We cannot talk of “family values” without invoking relations of extraction and possession: The Latin familia designates “the servants of a household,” and its English equivalent doesn’t begin to acquire its present sense until the sixteenth century. There is no economic relationship that is not also about domestic authority and lineage; there is no “social” or “cultural” or “family values” conservatism that is not also asserting the right to claim and distribute property. Seen in relation to the dizzyingly diverse forms of kinship that have sustained humankind, these relations among sex, inheritance, and property are the aberrant artifacts of a particular fantasy of perpetual self-possession. Outside the value capture of patrimonialism, collective care always sustained the majority, and today it grounds dreams of abolishing “the” family and exorcising what Saidiya Hartman named the “ghost in the machine of kinship”: slavery itself.
Bethany Moreton is Professor of History at Dartmouth College and a founding faculty member of Freedom University, which offers college coursework without charge to Georgia high school graduates regardless of immigration status. Her most recent article, “Our Lady of Mont Pelerin: The ‘Navarra School’ of Catholic Neoliberalism,” appears in Capitalism: A Journal of History and Economics.
NB: The image that accompanied Jansen’s communiqués has a backstory. The original photo—of Trump awkwardly holding cousins Evelyn Kate Keane (six months, with a pink bow on her bald head aggressively marking her gender) and Kellen Campbell (three months, wailing in blue)—was taken for the Associated Press by Stacie Scott at a rally in Colorado Springs on July 29, 2016. The photo was widely reproduced in part because just days later Trump demanded that a crying baby be ejected from a similar event in Virginia. A likeness circulated as a meme showed Hillary Clinton as a witch, hovering over the far shoreline in the company of grim reapers. By the time Jansen recirculated the meme in May, Clinton had been removed, and it had found second life in the complicated “restored republic” and “sovereign citizen” conspiracies predicting Trump’s reinstatement. Jansen, like a number of white evangelical ministers, has continued to prophesy Trump’s return to the presidency.
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