The Racist Right and that Island in the Pacific

Trivia Question: What city (pop. over 100,000) is farthest away from any other city? The answer is….Honolulu. We don’t think of Honolulu as a remote city because it gets about 8,000,000 visitors a year. There are certainly other cities that are harder to get to. Hawai’i is both very, very remote from the world as well as very connected to the world. Which leads us to our Attorney General, Jeff Sessions. You see, a federal judge blocked Trump’s latest Muslim Ban as unconstitutional. In an interview, Sessions assured conservatives the Trump Muslim ban will eventually be upheld by the Courts:

I really am amazed that a judge sitting on an island in the Pacific can issue an order that stops the president of the United States from what appears to be clearly his statutory and Constitutional power.

Trump has lost three in a row on this issue, and the final disposition of the case appears to be a long way away. Rather than focusing on why the ban is a within the President’s power, Sessions chose instead to issue this weird remark about Hawai’i. So, it is worth trying to figure out why he would say such a weird thing.


The United States annexed Hawai’i in 1893, overthrowing its government and installing its own. Hawai’i has been an important military base for decades for the United States. In 1959, Hawai’i became our fiftieth state. Hawai’i’s annexation and statehood status are seen by many as exemplars of US imperialism, particularly by Native Hawaiians. Colonialism—aka the White Man’s Burden of bringing civilization to the brown and black people of the world and, in the process, stripping the colonized lands of their natural resources for the motherland—is often linked to racist practices.

Indeed, the 1950s debate over Hawaiian statehood highlights two important reasons  the Alt-Right is the alternative to the mainstream right. First, the Alt-Right’s embrace of isolationism in foreign policy. Second, how the Alt-Right is motivated by racial views of civilization. Let’s take each of these in turn.

Before World War II, conservatives were hesitant to become involved in another European conflict and it was not until Pearl Harbor that isolationism surrendered to intervention. After the war and the dropping of the “Iron Curtain” over Europe, the right was of at least two minds. On the one hand, many saw the threat of International Communism as demanding a vigorous and active involvement in the world. On the other, many on the libertarian right argued for a complete withdrawal into pre-war isolationism.The libertarian right opposed both World War II and the Cold War. They distinguished between fighting for freedom and opposing communism, pointing out that one should never surrender the former for the sake of the latter.

Few libertarians were more opposed to the Cold War than Murray Rothbard. Rothbard argued that war was the ultimate exercise of state power, not only in foreign policy, but also in the centralization of domestic power. Because state intervention into the decisions of individuals was prima facia coercive, libertarians, led by Rothbard, saw the national security state as just another form of socialism. In 1955, Rothbard took on the proposed statehood of both Alaska and Hawai’i, both of which were on the political agenda at the time. Rothbard noted that the problem with Hawaiian statehood was:

For the first time, the organic American Republic would extend beyond the confines of the American continent. For the first time, the United States would include non-contiguous territory, leaping over thousands of miles of ocean and foreign land. This could be a momentous and fateful step.

The might of the Civil War has apparently ended the right of secession by a state. Nor can a state presumably be expelled from the Union. Admission of a new state becomes irrevocable. If Alaska or Hawaii acquire statehood, the possibility of a future return to a policy of American Continental isolationism disappears forever. No longer, for instance, could we ever hope to disengage ourselves from the quarrels and hatreds of Asia. No longer could we look to disentanglement as a way to peace. (p. 9)

This plea for isolationism dovetailed nicely with the second way the Alt-Right is an alternative to the mainstream right: its continued embrace of overt racism at a time when conservatives were desperately trying to deny that their policies were motivated by racism. Racism functions in many forms. Of particular interest are two analytic categories that sociologist Pierre van den Berghe used. First, “paternalistic,” in which race relations follow the master-servant relationship. In paternalistic systems, the races may live together as long as the rules for the subordination are made clear to all; American Jim Crow is the quintessential example of such a system. Colonialism is another example of this kind of racism; the notion that white folks have to bring civilization to the benighted natives who could not possibly govern themselves. Native Hawaiians recognized the colonial enterprise as this exact kind of racism.

Against paternalistic racism, the Alt-Right embraced a racism that was consistent with their isolationism.  Van den Berghe called their kind of racism “competitive”, in which actual physical separation replaces the elaborate social etiquette preventing race mixing in paternalistic racial systems. In competitive systems, it is denied that the races can live together and full geographic separation is required.

In a Hearing on Hawaiian Statehood in 1959 a group called the Citizen’s Forum of Columbia Heights made their position clear. The population of Hawai’i should not be allowed into the Union because they were not of the white race:

Whereas her population Is 77 percent alien, consisting of Asiatics, Chinese, Japanese, and other nonwhites, with less than 14 percent Caucasian, probably including our military, their families, and Government U.S. employees, and Whereas it is a well known fact that there are a large number of Communists in Hawaii and statehood will be of great benefit to them, besides providing one of the greatest dangers to the citizens of our Union, and that danger is the migration of Hawaiians into the United States, and Whereas If granted statehood, nothing our Nation can do hereafter can stop the migration of Hawaiians into any one of our States from that time forth we do not want an oriental island State In our Union. (p. 108)

The hearings on Hawaiian statehood brought the reclusive Willis Carto before Congress for the only time in his long career. Carto was probably America’s leading antisemite for four decades. He testified on behalf of his organization, the Liberty Lobby.  In his testimony Carto argued that:

The admission of Hawaii Would establish [a] precedent. This precedent Would be that land or islands unconnected with the American Continent and inhabited by people of radically differing backgrounds from the majority of Americans are eligible to become a State. (p. 110)

Like Rothbard, Carto invoked the spectre of extending the US beyond the continent. But note that “people of radically differing backgrounds” bit. Carto’s real concern was all those Asian people becoming citizens, as if they were white people. The slippery slope he outlined made it clear that brown people would soon be part of the US if Hawai’i was granted statehood:

Gentlemen, this is a road with no ending. This is the road to world government. It is the highway through the gradual watering down of the idea of American nationality and nationhood to a meaningless, characterless, cosmopolitan universality. It is violence to American sovereignty. It is suicide. There is a question which American statesmen must come to grips with before it is too late. After Hawaii, what? Puerto Rico? Panama? Guam? The Virgin Islands? Why not then Ghana? Or San Marino? Reasons can found for the admission of all of these. What is the point at which we stop? (p. 110)

Carto’s testimony provides a great example on how slippery the Alt-Right can be.  There are at least three different ways we can read his testimony:

  1. Carto sounds a lot like Rothbard, who is himself channeling pre-World War II isolationists of the right. Although the idea was increasingly out of step in Cold War America, there was a long tradition of keeping the US out of the world’s business.  Even George Washington warned us of “foreign entanglements.”  So, on one level, Carto was upholding a traditional isolationist stance.
  2. However, it is no coincidence that Carto’s list of possible states contains places inhabited by brown and black people (with the European micro-nation of San Marino thrown in there to provide some cover). Obviously these people of “radically different backgrounds” should not be allowed to be citizens lest they dilute the power of real Americans (all of whom are obviously white). Indeed it is difficult to see the word “suicide” there without subconsciously inserting “race” before it. Like isolationism, “race suicide” has a long tradition in American politics.
  3. But wait! There’s one more read here! What about that odd phrase, “meaningless, characterless, cosmopolitan universality.”  What the heck does that mean?  With Carto, everything, always and everywhere, comes down to the Jews. But, in the wake of World War II and the Holocaust, he was well aware that he could not testify before Congress screaming about how the Jews want to destroy us all. Therefore he tapped into a stream of antisemitic language which portrayed the Jews as cosmopolitans bent on destroying white civilization through race mixing. This was a favorite trope of the Nazis and is still popular in American neo-Nazi circles.

In the final analysis, Carto managed to sound like a somewhat old-fashioned conservative to Congress while at the same time making clear to those in his circle that he got to call out the Jews in front on Congress. Carto was a master of being a Nazi without being too Nazi when out in public.

Now, I’m not saying that Jeff Sessions is coding his language for the antisemitic right. No, he’s just a good old boy from Alabama, just as American as anyone can be from a state that insists on honoring traitors who took up arms against their government in defense of enslaving an entire race of people.  Besides, he was just making a joke! Don’t you people know a joke when you hear one? What I am saying, however, is that Sessions tapped into a long tradition of white Americans thinking that Hawai’i isn’t really part of the United States because the people there are brown and therefore can never really be Americans. It is an ugly thing to say. But don’t expect an apology from the Administration any time soon.

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7 thoughts on “The Racist Right and that Island in the Pacific

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