John Tanton, the nativist next door
“We are quitting at two,” a Northern Michigan doctor named John Tanton told the Alpena News in 1975, referring to his two daughters.
Moving to Petoskey, Mich., in 1964 after a medical residency at the University of Michigan, Tanton had long established himself as a committed — and sometimes eccentric — pillar of the local community. Decades before Roe v. Wade legalized abortion and when birth control was considered taboo, Tanton’s wife Mary Lou had been heavily involved in Ann Arbor Planned Parenthood; the couple established the first Planned Parenthood clinic in Northern Michigan and expanded access to family planning services in the regional clinics. However, this was not out of some dedication to liberal politics.
John was a deeply-committed conservationist, heavily involved in nationwide grassroots environmental groups. Heavily influenced by the 1968 book, “The Population Bomb,” which warned that exponential population growth would devastate the environment and food security, to Tanton the goals of environmentalism and access to birth control were fundamentally intertwined. As was the thinking of many other educated minds of the time, environmental preservation meant population control could not be a taboo subject. By this decade, the post-Baby Boom birth rate had tapered off and the immigration restrictions of the early 20th century rolled back; population growth in the United States had come to be driven by immigration.
“Even back in high school, my idea was that man’s role was not to multiply and subdue the earth,” Tanton recounted in a 1989 interview. “But to exist in easy partnership with it and to study the natural world.”
This vision of environmental preservation and population control, combined with a zeal for activism, would ultimately manifest itself in Tanton — himself the son of a Canadian immigrant — as a fervor for restricting immigration into the U.S. In the decade that followed the opening newspaper quote, Tanton would become one of the preeminent national voices to limit American immigration, both illegal and legal, and his life’s work has made him one of the most consequential figures in shaping the modern anti-immigration movement in this country.
Despite living half a country away from Capitol Hill, Tanton helped establish the Federation for American Immigration Reform and a myriad of other advocacy groups in the late 1970s and 1980s that would shift the national conversation against both legal and illegal immigration in two subsequent generations.
Largely avoiding the public spotlight and attempting to cast himself as a gentleman doctor, Tanton’s detractors — including the Southern Poverty Law Center — have labeled him as a white nationalist, though he himself takes offense to the label.
In 2007, pushing the age of 73, he donated 25 boxes filled with his correspondence — dating back from the late 1960s up until the early years of the new millennium — to the University of Michigan’s Bentley Historical Library. The first 14 boxes are accessible to the public and the remainder are sealed until 2035 per Tanton’s request.
In our present political moment, immigration has become perhaps the most bitterly polarizing issue in U.S. politics. A New York real estate developer has ascended to the White House on overtones of racial revanchism and draconian crackdowns on immigration, and many of the current administration’s strict immigration agenda originate from groups tied to the Michigan doctor.
Contemporary liberals tend to attribute the anti-immigration politics of the present to an ignorance of America’s history as a nation of immigrants. Indeed, it is one of the oldest ironies of this country that the descendents of immigrants — such as Tanton — would reject subsequent generations of arrivals as unable to join the country, be it the Irish and Italian Catholics or Eastern European Jews on the East Coast, or the Chinese on the West Coast.
The Tanton of the 1970s was well aware of this tragic irony in his writings and explicitly warned against repeating the mistakes of the past. Nevertheless, by the 1990s he had evolved to associate with some of the nation’s most influential white nationalists. An extension of his decades-held beliefs would ultimately consume his political philosophy with the idea of preserving a homogenous American civilization against the perceived threat of immigrants and diversity.
As his public persona and private writings descended into white nationalism, it remains unclear how much of this transformation reflected a genuine ideological evolution to embrace bigotry, as opposed to long-held prejudices that had been hidden behind his public motives.
In 1956, Tanton — then a senior at Michigan State University — arrived in Chicago alongside 11 other Rhodes Scholarship finalists to compete for roughly half-a-dozen awards to study in Oxford, England that had been set aside for Midwesterners.
Having spent his adolescence on a farm in the rural “thumb” of Michigan and in a country schoolhouse, he credited most of his education to being self-taught, and he had excelled at his studies in MSU. However, Tanton found himself feeling out-classed by his peers who came from wealthier upbringings and East Coast Ivy Leagues, and he was ultimately not awarded a scholarship.
Still taking pride in how far he had made it in the Rhodes Scholarship process, Tanton entered the University of Michigan Medical School following his graduation from MSU. In Ann Arbor, he continued to excel at his studies, married a fellow student and completed an ophthalmology residency in 1964. Fond of their rural upbringings, the Tantons moved to Petoskey, Mich., a small town in the north of the state famed for its freshwater polished stones that bear the town’s name, and John Tanton became one of the few ophthalmological surgeons in the region.
Tanton has been a meticulous hoarder of letters, news clippings, and other correspondence that began at this time, and his public file in the Bentley Library paints an incomplete portrait of a dizzyingly busy community activist and outdoors enthusiast.
According to a résumé he saved in his folder, at the time he held positions including president of the Northern Michigan Planned Parenthood, as well as various state and national positions in the Sierra Club, League of Conservation Voters and other local conservation clubs — all while practicing medicine. In local news clippings from that time, he is referred to as a prominent local environmentalist. In an article published by North Woodscall in 1977 about Tanton’s appointment to the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore Advisory Commission, he’s introduced as a “Petoskey surgeon” and “one of Michigan’s leading environmentalists.”
The doctor considered himself an eccentric philanthropist willing to support causes he felt others weren’t willing to touch. He once wrote to a medical colleague that despite donating 10 percent of his income to charity, he and his wife chose to “treat (our) contributions as venture capital and put them into high-risk areas that are struggling to get started … where we hope our pittance can make a difference.”
It was around the mid-1970s that Tanton’s interests fixated him on human migration, leading him to believe it threatened environmental conservation by draining resources, hurt the economic well-being of developing nations by draining highly-skilled workers and hurt the working class and environment of nations receiving immigrants by straining resources and labor markets. The issue that kept discussions about limiting migration out of the mainstream, Tanton would write in a 1975 essay tying migration control and conservationism, was America’s unique history as a nation of immigrants. Tanton himself expressed a discomfort with the country’s history of violent racism and xenophobia.
“This visceral reaction (to immigration restrictions) is understandable, as most of us have immigrant roots, and we feel compromised,” Tanton wrote. “An aversion to discussing immigration is also understandable in light of the seamy history surrounding past efforts to limit immigration. These were marked by xenophobia and racism, and gave rise to the likes of the Know-Nothing political party, and the Ku Klux Klan.”
However, according to Tanton, this unseemly history was insufficient reason for limits to migration to become a fair topic of debate. Nonetheless, his writings would come to exhibit the xenophobia and racism of which he noted of in 1975.
Sensing that his liberal Planned Parenthood and conservationist colleagues weren’t willing to put immigration on the table as a means to control population growth, Tanton struck out with several like-minded associates to raise several thousand dollars and establish FAIR in 1978 as a D.C.-based issues-advocacy group. Tanton would continue practicing medicine in Petoskey, except for a brief hiatus when he and his family moved to Arlington, Virg., in 1981. The group drove grassroots and media advocacy campaigns, and took advantage of access with sympathetic policymakers from both parties on Capitol Hill.
“It was great working on the population problem as long as we could flagellate ourselves for being bad people by having too many children,” Tanton said in 1989. “But then the birth rate fell precipitately during the 1970s, at the same time that the immigration rate was going up.”
Tanton’s entry to this issue was largely reactive to a transformation of U.S. immigration that began the preceding decade. Since 1921, U.S. immigration laws had placed strict limits on the number of people admitted from outside of Northern Europe, crafted specifically to exclude certain groups deemed undesirable and preserve a white anglophone majority in the country. This was nullified by the Hart-Celler Act of 1965, which replaced the racially-biased quota system with criteria favoring those with high-value skills and familial ties to U.S. residents.
Simultaneously, the development of the American Southwest created a newfound demand for cheap agricultural labor from Latin America composed of both illegal and legal migrants. These two forces would begin driving a demographic change in the U.S.
Tanton’s goal wasn’t to revert America’s immigration policies to the 1921 status quo, which he considered to be too openly prejudiced.
“At times, our immigration policy has actually been rather racist,” he ironically told the Houston Chronicle in 1981.
In Tanton’s words, the early goal of FAIR was to allow immigration restriction to become a socially acceptable topic of political debate. He and his colleagues hoped to also transcend the political spectrum with what he considered a centrist anti-immigration platform that would ostensibly avoid the open bigotry of the past. Of the initial five board members of the organization, he described only one as “on the conservative side,” himself and another board member as centrists and the other two as liberals. On a day-to-day basis FAIR also vocally opposed federal programs for migrants in the courts of law and public opinion.
“You want to appeal to a person’s emotions but to do it in a way that’s still respectable,” Tanton said in 1989. “We didn’t want somebody reading back to us in a Congressional committee something that we didn’t want to live with.”
In its initial years, FAIR was cautious of its messaging, wary of using “demagogic” appeals that could sully its public image as racist. However, Tanton would note that this allowed parallel groups to emerge to FAIR’s right that advocated for similar policies in much more inflammatory terms.
By 1982, Tanton and a subset of his colleagues came to be frustrated with FAIR’s moderate messaging points and began exploring the use of inflammatory linguistic and cultural wedge issues to drive their anti-immigration message. By then, his writings increasingly came to reflect a worldview that a culturally diversifying America was leading to a civilizational clash.
“When the question came up of whether we should broaden FAIR’s bundle of issues — taking a look at cultural division and bilingualism and the changing composition of the American population and what that might mean — there was a great deal of resistance, as you say, to getting into what seemed like dangerous territory,” he said.
Despite the misgivings of some of his fellow anti-immigration activists, Tanton and his associates came to embrace more divisive, high-profile tactics to drive support to their issue. They came to focus on the American Southwest, the prime destination of migrants from Latin America for generations, where Tanton felt the cause of immigration restriction to be the most salient.
“Because the problems of immigration had already become sufficiently acute in areas like California, the political system was already compromised there,” he recounted in 1989, suggesting that he didn’t believe the Hispanic populations in the Southwest were entitled to political representation over white Americans. “Politicians could no longer take stands for fear of back pressure from the immigrant populations.”
The most provocative push by Tanton was a direct advocacy campaign to enshrine English as the official language of the U.S., in a rebuke of the bilingual English-Spanish society that had been emerging in the Southwest as a result of migration. With several high-profile backers, including former California Republican Sen. Ichiye Hayakawa — who was born in Canada and was of Japanese descent — and former CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite he helped launch the advocacy group U.S. English to accomplish this, initially by forcing ballot referendums on the issue in states such as California and Arizona.
It was this latest endeavor that finally put Tanton — who didn’t care much for public appearances — and the true nature of his worldview into the public’s eye.
In 1988, the Arizona Republic leaked a memo written by Tanton to an inner circle of his associates just days before the vote on a divisive Arizona ballot proposal to enshrine English as the official language of the state. In the memo, Tanton had made explicitly racial arguments that large-scale Hispanic migration threatened the foundations of American society.
California, he claimed, would become akin to the South African apartheid by 2030 as a result of Latin American immigration, and he suggested Blacks and Hispanics would form a permanent socioeconomic and cultural underclass.
Furthermore, he insinuated that Latin American immigrants would bring an inherently corruptible civic culture antithetical to American society, and that they were of an inferior intelligence.
The view of growing cultural, linguistic and racial diversity as a threat to the cohesion of American society is consistent with many of Tanton’s other private writings that are archived in the Bentley Library around this era. This political philosophy is hardly unique to Tanton, and echo the writings of controversial political scientist Charles Murray, among others.
Backlash would be swift, with many of Tanton’s prominent allies — including Cronkite — condemning him and resigning from U.S. English. Tanton yielded to public pressure and also resigned from the group. In an interview the following year, Tanton stated that the contents of the memo reflected his sincere beliefs, though they didn’t reflect the talking points he would use in public. He also stated that he regrets resigning from U.S. English, insisting that he had done no wrong.
“My memo was written for a group of people who were already initiated into immigration, population and language issues,” he said. “It was not written for people off the street who'd never heard any of these ideas before and had no background in them.”
Despite the Arizona Republic’s revelations, the voters of Arizona would go on to narrowly affirm the proposal several days later, banning the state government from offering services in Spanish (outside of several narrow exceptions) by 12,000 votes out of roughly 1.1 million cast.
The records available to the public in the Bentley Library dating to the early 1990s and later are largely closed until 2035, a precondition of Tanton’s 2007 donation. Nonetheless, there are certain aspects of his life that are public record beyond this point. Remaining in Petoskey and continuing his medical practice, he would still remain active in his network of anti-immigration advocacy groups — including FAIR — though he avoided the limelight.
A year after his donation to the Bentley Library, the Southern Poverty Law Center published a report detailing extensive communications between Tanton and high-profile white supremacists — including Jared Taylor, Peter Brimelow and Kevin MacDonald — throughout the 1990s. In these communications Tanton regularly expressed sympathy for their views that immigration from non-Western societies would undermine “Western Civilization.”
“We’re very concerned that his ideologies are at best sympathetic and at worst fully supportive of white nationalists,” said Humza Kazmi, one of several Virginia immigration attorneys who has studied Tanton’s network. Kazmi and his colleagues sued the University of Michigan last November to release the entirety of Tanton’s papers, arguing that the embargoed documents will demonstrate the full extent to which he embraced white nationalism and influenced present-day policymakers.
The University has resisted the lawsuit in court, arguing that it is contractually bound to honor Tanton’s donation agreement to withhold files until 2035, as is the case with many donors to the library. Currently, the case is awaiting appeal by the plaintiffs.
How does one reconcile the racial belief system shown in Tanton’s Arizona Republic memo, and the Tanton who warned that America’s history of violent racism shouldn’t be repeated, who initially shied away from “demagogic” tactics in FAIR’s early years, and who himself was the son of an immigrant and expressed a fondness for America’s melting pot history? Perhaps he experienced a genuine ideological evolution that lead him to embrace a vision of racial exclusion and white nationalism.
But another possibility is that he had always held these views of racial hierarchy, and he advocated for non-racial immigration restrictionism as a ruse to one day normalize his vision. After all, he regularly expressed in his papers that his overarching goal was to bring immigration restriction into the political mainstream without any social stigma.
In his 1989 oral history, Tanton envisioned “three stages in the immigration debate.” The first, which he dubbed the “Statue of Liberty phase,” was where any discussion of limiting immigration is viewed as inherently anti-American. The second he dubbed as the “‘Yes, but’ phase” where limited discussion about immigration would be possible in the political mainstream.
“Then the third stage, which I think we still have yet to move into, is one in which it’s accepted as a legitimate topic and you can discuss it without being accused of things, or without first excusing yourself for being concerned about immigration policy,” Tanton said in 1989.
In the present day, perhaps we are on the cusp of entering Tanton’s third stage of debate. Individuals with ties to white supremacists have held official positions in the current White House, the President of the United States has suggested there is moral equivalency between Nazis and their opponents and prime time Fox News hosts Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham regularly go on screeds against “demographic change” and diversity with no professional repercussions. It is also a legitimate question how much of the current administration’s inhumane immigration crackdown is driven by a legitimate concern for border security, and how much driven by racial animus against non-white immigration.
As for Tanton, he has reached his mid-80s but his wife told the Detroit News in 2017 that he has been committed to a nursing home after contracting advanced-stage Parkinson’s disease. He reportedly has had a difficult time understanding the news. FAIR and other organizations he helped shape continue to exist and are outspoken advocates of the president’s immigration agenda.
Was Tanton the architect of our divisive political moment, or simply a gadfly who held wildly diverging political views that foreshadowed the division that would come decades later? The true extent of his role in shaping the present will continue to be unclear, until perhaps the remainder of the Bentley archives open in 17 years. It will be much longer before it will be clear how the demographic identity of our nation and what it means to be an American will change.