The love for their children was in every gesture, every word, every look. You could sense it – feel it – even from a distance.
A mom and dad, dressed in what appeared to be used clothing – him in an oversized collared shirt with a small hole in the shoulder, wearing oversized sneakers, her in Santa Claus leggings and a faded James Madison University t-shirt – there with their three kids at an amusement park in Ocean City, Maryland. Their oldest appeared to be 12 or so. The middle kid, a girl, looked to be a few years younger. They had a chunky little baby too, bouncing in the arms of mother, who was pregnant.
They had come prepared to the mind-numbingly expensive park: The baby’s stroller was packed to the brim with bottled water and snacks and extra clothing. There would be no shelling out $4.50 for a small Gatorade. There would be no $9 hotdogs. Those were for me and my dumb middle-class ass.
I observed the family from the sliver of shade a Coke machine provided me on a sweltering, mercilessly windless August day. My son and daughter were bouncing from ride to ride, oblivious to me cowering in the shade of a soda machine, wiping sweat from my brow and being generally miserable on the third day of our beach vacation. It probably took me too long to give up the shady spot to the mom and her baby, but I did, and she thanked me with a nod. “Gracias,” she said.
My kids securely on some sort of ride that flipped them up and down and sideways, I watched as the dad happily escorted his son to the next ride. Smiles beamed on their faces, and before the boy could race to get in line for the ride, his father playfully grabbed his face and kissed him on the cheek. He whipped around to his wife, there in the shade of the soda machine, and snatched the baby from her, twirled her around, and tossed her into the air, catching her like an old pro. This family was present. In the moment. For them, nothing else mattered on this cloudless, hot-as-shit summer day.
The man was downright giddy. He was carefree, bubbling with joy. This day – the rides whirling, the music blaring, the children running and laughing – clearly meant everything to him. The happiness he derived from his children’s happiness was plain for all to see. There I was, in full Martyr Mode, wishing I could be at a beachside bar drinking a hard seltzer and watching golf, cursing the heat and the park’s absurd prices and the sweat dripping into my sunglasses and the weird pain in my knee that I was sure was a torn ACL. I was suddenly and completely overwhelmed with self loathing. I am a privileged man spending god knows how much money to take my kids to an amusement park. I’m hardly rich, but I have enough money to waste on shit like that and forget about it with the next month’s credit card payment.
And here was this dad, (very) likely a man with next to no financial security, being downright jovial with his wife and three kids – with another on the way. Then my self loathing morphed into judgment: Why did this couple have so many kids?
Long before I knew of the political and cultural goals of pro-birth types, I was always squeamish when a national leader or a know-nothing billionaire or a right-wing activist would fret about low birth rates and urge people to have more kids. Telling people to procreate is creepy as shit. Instructing and pleading with folks to engage in this most private of acts is and always has been weird and off putting. I suppose it doesn’t help that only folks on the right whine about declining birth rates, and tie it into their insane anti-abortion agenda.
When X-owning idiot-jester Elon Musk isn’t working directly with the worst people on earth, he’s begging people to have more sex and produce more babies. This should be a big fucking red flag for anyone who rightfully believes that anything a billionaire wants for society is wrong and perverse and self serving. Musk, who has a bunch of kids he doesn’t know – and at least one who hates his fucking guts – blames contraception and abortion for the coming collapse of civilization (another signal that Musk is not a high-minded intellectual fighting valiantly against the so-called woke mind virus, but rather an everyday Republican voter). Naturally, he won’t acknowledge the strains of late-stage capitalism making children a financial impossibility for so many couples. A little truth serum in ole’ Elon and he’d probably tell you he’s worried billionaires will have to pay workers a living wage if the labor market permanently tightens with decreased births.
Like everything else the right claims to care about, their worrying about declining birth rates in developed nations is in bad faith. Musk and his compatriots on the far right might mention countries like Japan and China when they rant and rave about too few babies being born, but their concern is primarily with lowering white birth rates. This ties in nicely with the Great Replacement theory, a white supremacist fever dream – embraced by many mainstream conservatives during the Trump era – that claims white people will be replaced by brown and black people via mass migration and the collapse of white birth rates.
This is certainly not something the American right can say aloud if they are to bring normies into the fold. It’s only through gradual and carefully planned radicalization that a person can hear, “We need more white babies and fewer brown and black babies,” and not instantly recoil in horror. If folks on the right were to be honest about their concern with birth rates, they would give full and ready contraception and abortion access to poor people of color while barring any form of birth control for white women. Republican lawmakers in some states have become so desperate to stop (white) women – mere incubators for the fascist project – from ending their pregnancies that the state’s inhumane six-week abortion ban includes bounties put on the heads of anyone who seeks reproductive care. Don’t let anyone gaslight you on this: It’s as sick and dystopian as it sounds.
Unfortunately I’m not drawing conclusions about what right wingers mean when they talk about birth rates. They're been terribly clear about what it is they mean when they freak out about birth rate data. Great Replacement disciple Tucker Carlson in recent years has praised Eastern European despots, including Hungarian dictator and Republican favorite Viktor Orban, for promoting childbirth with financial incentives for women who pump out a bunch of babies. In 2019, before a gunman massacred 50 people in a New Zealand mosque, he released a manifesto. Its first sentence: “It’s the birth rates.”
“For people in the white power movement, everything is framed through reproduction and gender,” Kathleen Belew, a history professor at the University of Chicago and an expert in far-right ideology, told The New York Times shortly after the fascist murder of 50 New Zealanders.
So much of this concern about falling birth rates (among white people) is rooted in a deep, almost existential insecurity among young white men with no economic prospects, who spend all day on the internet, who are severely depressed and anxious, and who consume a horrifying amount of far-right memes and, yes, pornography, suggesting men of color are creating more babies to replace them. You heard that insecurity in the wails of the pro-Trump crowds who rallied in Charlottesville in 2018 and declared in one whiney voice, “You will not replace us.” These men are full of pain, unaware of what capitalism has done to them, and they’re ready to pour their suffering into the world.
“The way that emotion gets engaged in the right wing today is almost always around questions of fertility,” Paola Bacchetta, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, told the Times. “It’s about their anxieties about their male others. They fear that they will overproduce them and eliminate them.”
Annie Kelly, a doctoral student at the University of East Anglia in Britain who studies anti-feminist online movements, said the recruitment of alienated young white men into fascist groups like the Proud Boys has created a mass movement that now questions the inclusion of women in the workplace and pushes the idea of (white) women as incubators into the political mainstream both in the United States and abroad. The belief that these backward and anti-feminist ideas can be shut down by traditional feminist discourse is, at best, wrongheaded, she said.
“Good-faith proponents have this naïve understanding that bad ideas can be defeated by the power of argument,” Kelly said. “Bad-faith proponents have a vested interest in the idea being back on the table.”
This leaves the left without any clear answers about how to engage with the right-wing discourse around declining birth rates. There’s the good faith route, one that might include promotion of free childcare and pre-K and something crazy like accessible health care – programs that could, maybe, encourage Americans to have more children without the fear of living in – or on the edge – of poverty. But that would be swiftly dismissed by the right, which has no interest whatsoever in improving people’s lives.
Maybe the best the left can do is to call out this birth rate fretting for what it is: The horror that the white supremacist hierarchy could one day be toppled through sheer numbers.
I didn’t particularly like myself after internally questioning why the happy couple at the Ocean City amusement park had had so many children. It was not my place to question their choices, and certainly not to judge their decisions. Still, my mind wandered: How could they afford all these kids? How could they get along? As a firmly middle-class father of two, I didn’t understand.
I think about that couple when I read about Musk and others on the far right waxing poetic about low birth rates, knowing exactly what they mean. They would not want a poor Latino couple having four children; this is precisely their concern. And yet, no birth-rate worrier would acknowledge it. Where we go from there, I do not know.
There they were, mom and dad, stealing a kiss from each other while their children happily swung around on some giant green and yellow machine called the Spider. They exchanged a smile. Dad made a funny face for the baby, who laughed and grabbed his nose.
They were happy. One kid, two kids, ten kids – maybe that’s all that matters.
Follow Denny Carter on X and Threads at @CDCarter13.