Consider one of white supremacists’ first contemporary media victories: the mainstreaming of the epithet “cuckservative,” a term used to shame the men of the mainstream right, in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential campaign. Just like their claims that sex between black and white people is a form of “white genocide,” the name-calling was meant to discipline the intransigent holdouts in the Republican Party, whom the supremacists — that loose alliance of 4channers, social-media grifters, and sticky-keyboard GamerGaters calling itself “the alt-right” — accused of being domesticated husbands whose wives have spurned them for another man. As in the porn genre that inspired “cucking,” as it came to be known, the usurper is coded as wild and unknown and, almost always, as black. The wife does it while her man watches. A cuckservative doesn’t measure up to the other guy, which also turns him on. Then the accuser, the real man in this scenario, lays claim to the woman, naming her his rightful property.
At the time cucking was seen as a momentary internet phenomenon; the trolls, some believed, would eventually move on. So we entertained the movement as a curiosity: Their figurehead and leading haircut Richard Spencer — who pushes the theory that he and his ilk are irresistible to the women due to their “alpha sperm” — even got his own magazine fashion shoot. Draping themselves in hashtags and ill-fitting blazers, they insisted that this wasn’t your grandfather’s white nationalist movement. That this was something new — hip, even.
But these tactics — asserting the innocence of white women’s bodies, and of white men’s absolute mastery over them — have deep roots in American politics. White women’s safety was the excuse for maintaining racially segregated bathrooms all the way through the civil rights movement. There were the Scottsboro boys, a group of black teenagers falsely accused of gang rape by two white women, so the women could evade prosecution themselves for crossing state lines “for immoral purposes.” And there was young Emmett Till, killed sixty years ago by two white men after allegedly making what one white man said were “ugly remarks” to his white wife. The late journalist Mattie Smith Colin was there the day Till’s mother met his body, in a “soiled paper wrapped bundle,” at the train station. The same racist paranoia that incubated cucking was directed at Barack Obama throughout his entire presidency: A secret Muslim of mixed origins had defiled their White House.
The rise of the president-elect signals a return and potential enshrinement of the American eugenics project, judging by the people and policies included in the incoming administration. While Vice President–elect Mike Pence was governor of Indiana, he signed a law requiring burial or cremation of miscarried and aborted fetuses, as well as a law prohibiting abortion based on the sex or race of the fetus, a further barrier to abortion access premised explicitly on racist stereotypes. During his tenure, Purvi Patel, an Indian-American woman, was prosecuted for “fetal murder of an unborn child” after seeking medical attention for a miscarriage. Now consider Ivanka Trump’s proposed paid family leave plans, an extension of her Sheryl Sandbergian Lean In–like brand #WomenWhoWork, which might only apply to straight and married mothers raising their biological children. Meanwhile, Ivanka’s own company lacked any maternity leave, and it was left to her women workers, the ones who say they came up with the hashtag, to demand it. (Like Ivanka, Spencer, the haircut, supports paid maternity leave from work, according to a Huffington Post story by Luke O’Brien. “Because,” the piece paraphrases, “most of those Lean In women were high-IQ whites.”)
All that’s new in this white supremacist sexual politics is that many more people can see it as it happens— the online swarms, the meme warfare, all the barest of smokescreens for outright racist panic. If a woman calls bullshit on these weak schemes, the president-elect’s followers take sport in punishing her. Once they tried it with me. As a journalist, I cover women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and sex workers’ rights; I’m also a white woman. One night, thumbing through my Twitter mentions, I saw that frog avatars had added my username to their already rolling diatribe against feminism and sluts. There was nothing much to reason out about why I was targeted; I was just a screen name attached to a woman, linked to some words they could garble. They just finally found me. What they did wasn’t punishment for anything specific I had said or done. I had simply failed, in their eyes, to incubate white babies.
After the election, feminist writer Flavia Dzodan wrote of the fawning profiles of the sperm theorist and his friends, “perhaps it is time to see these ‘fashion’ profiles for what they really are: the promotion of a return to ‘anti-miscegenation.’ ” She likewise wondered why we didn’t see all these incidents for what they were: signs of a new and explicit embrace of eugenics. They were not, she pointed out, a mere historical footnote. They are here and now. They never left.
And so the work of outing a eugenic agenda is in wading through intentionally obscuring layers of memes and talking points to face what connects them. An obsessive anti-abortion crusader like Pence might not phrase that fight in racist terms, yet he is on the record calling claims of “institutional bias or racism” in law enforcement overblown. He must be seen whole-cloth, not simply as an enemy of women. It’s the fantasy of pure womanhood his politics are set upon, as much as those of the ostensibly “fashionable” fascists. Conformity to this fantasy is to be enforced with public humiliation when fail to achieve it. And it has, from the beginning, been dependent on a fantasy of white innocence.