For the last decade or so, Washington has indulged Pat Buchanan as a sort of crazy political uncle. Everyone, it seems, has agreed to forget about his long track record of racially questionable commentary and writing, and to look kindly on his continued nativist leanings, because he’s an entertaining and surprisingly insightful TV performer, and it’s fun to watch him argue with Rachel Maddow.
But every now and then, the centrality to Buchanan’s worldview of racial difference rises to the surface. In addition to his frequent MSNBC appearances, where he plays a mostly well-mannered, if hardline, conservative, Buchanan also writes a column for the far-right web magazine, Human Events. And that’s where he gets himself into trouble.
His most recent effort, “The Rooted and The Rootless,” takes as its premise the notion that there’s a “blood-and-soil, family-and-faith, God-and-country kind of nation” that’s competing with a minority represented by the “rootless” Obama and his “aides with advanced degrees from elite colleges who react just like him.”
Already, we’re in National Socialist territory here, but let’s leave that aside (with Buchanan, once you start down this path, it can be hard to stop…). What jumped out at us was Buchanan’s contention that the “blood-and-soil” part of America…
does not comprehend how the president could sit in Trinidad and listen to the scrub stock of the hemisphere trash our country — and say nothing. (our itals)
Scrub stock? We weren’t familiar with that phrase. So we looked it up.
There’s no record of it appearing in the New York Times since 1943. (Hey, no one ever called Buchanan hip!) Until then, it was almost exclusively used to refer to an inferior breed of farm animal, usually cattle or horses, as when the paper reported in 1907: “Financial Disturbance Forces Cattlemen to Sell “Scrub” Stock to Hold Prime Grades.”
In 1934, a federal official writing in the Times about measures being taken in response to the drought of the period, used the phrase in a similar way: “In some cases the drought cattle are being exchanged for scrub stock. The scrub stock is canned and the good stock is used to replace it…”
In other words, “scrub stock” essentially means an inferior breed.
It’s worse than that, though. There’s evidence that theorists of racial and genetic superiority — an area of pseudo-scientific “scholarship” that was in vogue even among mainstream intellectuals in the late 19th and early 20th century — explicitly extended the use of the phrase beyond animals and into humans. In short, the phrase has been used by both eugenicists and racial segregationists to argue for the superiority of the white race.
Consider this passage from an opinion article that appeared in 1913, titled: “Society Is Organizing For A Cleaner And Better Race.”
The study of eugenics — “the science relating to the development and improvement of race” — is attracting more attention than at any former period. There is nothing new in it, except as we are now seeking to apply to human interests and conditions the principles that have been applied for generations to our flocks and herds — our horses and cattle and sheep and hogs and dogs. Scrub stock is always scrub stock. Like produces like … Fresh blood and good blood is needed for the improvement of the human stock.
Or look at this one: In 1997, a reporter for the Roanoke Times went through the archives of that paper, to write about a 1923 incident in which the Washington & Lee University football team refused to play against a Pennsylvania team that had a black player. From the 1997 story:
In response to Northern critics of the episode, W&L President Henry Louis Smith wrote that almost all white Southerners - “whose land is swarming with negroes” - were against “amalgamation” of the races.
If it were allowed, he said, “we would become a land of half-breeds like Santo Domingo, Cuba, and Haiti. No farmer with a hundred registered Jerseys on which his living depends could be more determined to avoid amalgamation with hopeless half-wild scrub stock than the Anglo-Saxon communities of the South.”
To be sure, there are rare cases when it’s used to refer to people without a racial connotation. In 1986, Newsweek reported (via Nexis) on US-Soviet negotiations over how many members of the KGB would leave the Soviet UN staff, after the US had seized a suspected Russian spy:
One White House source said last week that only 14 Soviets had left, and warned that the Kremlin might try to wriggle out of withdrawing the others. “The remaining 11 are the KGB’s starting line-up,” the source said. “I’m afraid the Soviets will substitute some scrub stock unless we hard-line it.”
This usage is echoed in contemporary slang, when we refer to the bench-warmers on a sports team as the “scrubs”. And in 1999, the rap group TLC offered a related definition, famously explaining in the song “No Scrubs” that “a scrub is a guy who can’t get no love from me/hanging out the passenger side/of his best friend’s ride/tryin’ to holler at me.”
But let’s look again at who Buchanan is calling “the scrub stock of the hemisphere” who “trashed our country” at the recent meeting Obama attended in Trinidad. The leader who most prominently did so was Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega, who, aside from being a left-wing former Sandinista, is, like many Latin-Americans, mestizo — meaning he’s part Amerindian and part white.
Buchanan may also have had in mind Hugo Chavez, the leader of Venezuela, who was on relatively good behavior in Trinidad, but who has frequently “trashed America” and whose handshake with Obama in Trinidad was blown up by the right into an example of the president kowtowing to America’s antagonists. Chavez, of course, is also mestizo.
That’s not incidental. The leftist social and political movements of Latin America — against which Buchanan has been fulminating since at least the Reagan era — have traditionally been led by mestizos, and many have been defined in part through their efforts to mobilize non-whites against the often European-descended conservative elite power structure.
With that context, the notion that Buchanan used “scrub stock” to refer simply to ineffective or morally bankrupt leaders, with no racial connotation, becomes, frankly, implausible.
So what does all this amount to? Buchanan referred — not in a heated moment while speaking, but in print — to the mixed-race leader of a foreign country with a phrase that’s used to denote an animal or person of inferior stock. There’s really no getting around that.
We tried to contact Buchanan on this, but we got no immediate response to an email we sent to an address listed on his official website. And a staffer for the American Conservative magazine, which he founded and whose masthead he still appears on, said the magazine was no longer in touch with him.
We also asked MSNBC for comment on Buchanan’s use of the term, and the network’s own use of Buchanan as a prominent pundit, but a spokesman didn’t immediately respond.
Late Update: An MSNBC spokesman has declined to comment.
Additional reporting by Justin Elliott.