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The ‘America First Caucus’ Is Backtracking, But Its Mistaken Ideas About ‘Anglo-Saxon’ History Still Have Scholars Concerned

7 minute read

The idea of an “America First Caucus” seems to have hit a snag. A draft of a policy platform leaked last Friday, revealing that members of Congress, led by Georgia Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, were planning to launch a group united by a “common respect for uniquely Anglo-Saxon political traditions.” The next day, following significant backlash from social media and from colleagues on both sides of the aisle, a spokesperson for Greene told CNN that she is “not launching anything.”

But while the proponents of the America First Caucus were likely more persuaded by their colleagues’ disapproval than by that of historians, scholars’ concerns were less easily assuaged by the launch being scrubbed. As many argued on social media, the idea of “Anglo-Saxon political traditions” is based on a false—and troubling—understanding of history.

TIME spoke to medievalist Mary Rambaran-Olm, an expert on race in early England and Provost Research Fellow at the University of Toronto, who has written about the loaded racist connotations behind the term “Anglo-Saxon.” Here, she talks about her research on the real origins of the term and where the latest controversy over its use—and misuse—fits in its history.

TIME: What does “Anglo-Saxon” mean? Where does it come from? What’s the real origin of this term?

RAMBARAN-OLM: Basically it was an Anglo-Latin term that King Alfred used to describe how he was king over the Angles, which is the English, and the Saxons, two of the main tribes that had migrated to Britain. [Use of the term] has only been recorded three times in the entire corpus of Old English—apart from a handful of charters where kings referred to themselves as such and that was used for propaganda to try and unite the kingdoms. The early English weren’t calling themselves Anglo-Saxons. Once we look at the manuscript evidence, we see that there isn’t really a basis—especially now—for people to be calling themselves Anglo-Saxons. The terms that people used during the period to describe themselves in the vernacular were most commonly “englisc” or “angelcynn.” There’s no record of it in English manuscripts from shortly after the Norman Conquest in 1066 until the 1600s.

What changed at the time it started to be used more frequently?

It was tied to colonization. Back in the 17th century, Empire was starting to manifest…and a nationalist tone. They started to look back at the centuries before, and they wanted an origin story. So instead of referring to themselves as English, they wanted to be “pure Anglo-Saxons”—so there was this purity attached to it, and that was for colonization. And so in Britain that term started to seep into academic circles and then into the public. In the 19th and 18th centuries, there was something called medievalism where writers and politicians were really reflecting on an imagined past, and that’s when the term really took off. It did mean almost exclusively white, and so it became a dog whistle, and it carried forward into American politics. So this isn’t something that’s exclusively an American problem, but for the America First Caucus to use that, it stood out right away because it’s all mythology that they’re using, and they’re advancing a white-supremacist narrative. And it’s very dangerous. Everything’s sort of layered on a false understanding of history.

So the term Anglo-Saxon has been used to describe a certain purity, but Angles and the Saxons weren’t indigenous to England anyway, which means the idea of pointing to them as “original” misses the larger context. Is that a valid way to describe the irony here?

You’re absolutely right, there is definitely an irony there, that these Angles and Saxons weren’t originally from Britain; they came as migrants. They migrated from modern-day Germany, the Netherlands and other areas in the northern regions of Europe. And we can connect to the Puritans or the English who came over to the Americas. The terms are always softened to say they migrated, “just like the Angles and the Saxons,” but when it’s “other” people, that language is never as soft, whether they’re “invading” or “immigrants are taking over.”

How has the use of the term “Anglo-Saxon” evolved, if at all?

It was always used for propaganda. It’s always been weaponized for nationalist reasons. People generally don’t know that there has always been this conflict in terms of the use of it. My colleague Erik Wade and I are discovering that even back 150 years ago, there were scholars, predominantly in Britain, who were saying, “No, you’re using this term that is historically incorrect.” So it’s almost like we just keep going through this same sort of cycle every 200 years.

Is there a particular political or social context that tends to surround the moments when people look back to so-called “Anglo-Saxon political traditions”? What are the most famous examples of people using and misusing the term?

Thomas Jefferson perpetuated the Anglo-Saxon myth. His idea of what America should be was the next England. He referred to it as the Anglo-Saxon project. Teddy Roosevelt, famous for the invasion of Cuba with his Rough Riders, had a copy of a racist manifesto called Anglo-Saxon Superiority. John Powell founded a white supremacist organization in the U.S. in the 1920s called the Anglo Saxon Clubs of America, and they petitioned to pass legislation in Virginia in 1924 [called] the Racial Integrity Act. Winston Churchill used this rhetoric during World War II, when he said, “why be apologetic about Anglo-Saxon superiority.” And we see it resurface during the Brexit.

So where do the “Anglo-Saxon political traditions” in the “America First Caucus” document that went viral over the weekend fit into this history?

It’s a blanket misunderstanding of the past and weaponizing that for far-right purposes. They’re just picking up on these words and terms and phrases that have been used and misused for so long—but I do appreciate that people were really pushing back. It was good to see the general public debate.

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What does a focus on so-called Anglo-Saxon history miss?

Learning about English history—even within America, Canada, Australia, South Africa—we learn it from an English colonizer perspective. This does erase very important points about diversity in early England. England is not a self-made country. At the end of the day, it was people who were coming from abroad who have enriched England, to make it what it is.

Even if U.S. House Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s office now says there won’t be an “America First Caucus” launching with a platform explicitly calling for respecting “Anglo-Saxon political traditions,” why does it still matter to talk about it?

The thing is, that the rhetoric is already there, and it’s been there for centuries. It’s new for some people, but it’s not as new as people think. And that’s not to say that this won’t resurface again. Even if they soften the language, it still doesn’t take away from the dangers that are there, and she’s not one to shy away from those sorts of controversies. So it’s important that we correct those narratives and stay on guard.

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com