Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #159. First published in the St. Cloud Times online Oct. 2, 2020; in print Oct. 4

On Sept. 18, Donald Trump was in Bemidji,153 miles from here, but we were on his mind.

"From St. Paul to St. Cloud, from Rochester to Duluth, and from Minneapolis, thank God we still have Minneapolis, to right here, right here with all of you great people, this state was pioneered by men and women who braved the wilderness and the winters to build a better life for themselves and for their families. They were tough and they were strong."

Standard political oratory – salute the audience with the narrative they like to tell about themselves (though “thank God we still have Minneapolis” refers back to his preposterous claim, earlier in the speech,that if Joe Biden wins, people will be saying of that city, “It used to be over there. It’s all ashes now”).

But Trump didn’t stop there. What he said next was not just a dog whistle, but as one commentator has noted, a “train whistle.”

“You have good genes. You know that, right? You have good genes. A lot of it’s about the genes, isn’t it? Don’t you believe? The racehorse theory you think was so different? You have good genes in Minnesota.” (The voice recognition software at, where the transcription of the speech can be found, misheard and produced “resource theory.” In the video of the speech it’s perfectly clear: “racehorse.”)

The audience at Bemidji Aviation Services was overwhelmingly white. Standing right behind Trump were people who are looking for our votes: Rep. Tom Emmer, for CD6; Michelle Fischbach, for CD7; Jason Lewis, for U.S. Senate. When the president made his “genes” remark, all three of them smiled approvingly – and Fischbach applauded while grinning.

Earlier in the speech Trump had detonated his usual blast at recent arrivals to Minnesota. Dripping with sarcasm, he said, “Lots of luck. You’re having a good time with the refugees.” He then, of course, singled out Somalis.

By the time he got to “genes,” his meaning couldn’t have been more evident. It’s white people who are “tough and strong,” who deserve “to build a better life for themselves and for their families.” People of color are a threat.

“Do we believe in the gene thing? I mean, I do,” Trump is on tape saying on another occasion. And he also said this: "All men are created equal. Well, it's not true. Because some are smart; some aren't."

You’d think that conservative Americans, who pledge allegiance to the Founders, would recoil from such a blatant contradiction of a central theme of the Declaration of Independence.

Of course some people are smarter than others, but Thomas Jefferson’s point is that in all matters of public policy, everyone is on an equal footing. IQ has nothing – nothing – to do with it.

Donald Trump’s adherence to eugenics – the “racehorse theory” of breeding for people – is among the scariest of his authoritarian inclinations. We need to be wary of it the way Germans needed to be wary in the early 1930s. It’s not just that “You [white Minnesotans] have good genes.” It’s the clear implication that other people’s genes are “bad,” which easily slips over into “dangerous” – meaning such people must be kept out, deported, eliminated one way or another.

Trump’s gene theory, which grounds his admiration for the pioneers who “braved the wilderness and the winters,” spills over into his convictions about education.

He has recently condemned the New York Times 1619 Project, which brings into focus the central role of slavery in American history. He proposes withholding federal funding from California until it jettisons the 1619 Project from school curricula. He has decried what he calls “ideological poison, that if not removed will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together,” and has said that under his plan, “Our youth will be taught to love America with all of their heart and all of their soul.”

To say that the only way youth will “love America with all of their heart and all of their soul” is to be taught exclusively about the good things the “good genes” did – to be Minnesota specific: overlooking the decimation of Native peoples; forgetting the Duluth lynching; disregarding the research of St. Cloud State professor Christopher Lehman in “Slavery’s Reach: Southern Slaveholders and the North Star State” – is to treat youth (and those of us no longer young, too) with condescension and contempt. “The civic bonds that tie us together” are threatened far more by Trump’s 20,000+ documented lies than by the truth about our history.

Recent Times interviews with local candidates were instructive, but the questions thrown were mostly Wiffle Balls. Given Trump’s total takeover of the GOP, every Republican candidate at every level, state and federal, must be asked – on the record – “Do you endorse or repudiate Donald Trump’s ‘racehorse theory’?” There is no middle ground.