Before anti-immigration rhetoric made its way into the presidential campaigns of Donald Trump and others, a small publishing house in rural Michigan spent decades warning of the coming “invasion” of immigrants.
The Social Contract Press in Petoskey publishes essays on immigration that sometimes get picked up by mainstream conservative news outlets. The press is labeled a racist “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center. But the publishers say they’re concerned about mass immigration and the preservation of American culture. They say race has nothing to do with it.
The press operates out of a nondescript office building on Mitchell Street downtown. From his corner office on the second floor, K.C. McAlpin runs the show.
“I’m as surprised as anybody else about his emergence,"says McAlpin of the rise of Donald Trump. "I will say this: I wish every candidate had an immigration platform similar to Donald Trump’s, and we encourage them to do that.”
The 'mastermind' of the modern anti-immigration movement
The Social Contract Press was started in 1983 by ophthalmologist John Tanton. Tanton grew up on a rural Michigan farm and became an active environmentalist. He was a longtime member of the Sierra Club and was instrumental in the creation of the Little Traverse Conservancy. Tanton broke with environmental groups in the 1970s, when they failed to share his concerns about overpopulation.
“I would call him, really, a super-environmentalist and conservationist,” says McAlpin.
McAlpin says environmentalism is what got him studying immigration, too.
McAlpin grew up in Texas. He was an oilman working for Exxon in South America in the 1970s, where he saw what he calls “careless cultural attitudes” toward the environment.
“So you see things like public beaches in Venezuela that are just covered in garbage and you see people on the beaches in Rio de Janeiro pushing whole bags of garbage out their car window," says McAlpin. "So there’s just a general disdain for … public lands and things like that.”
Heidi Beirich with the Southern Poverty Law Center has been researching the groups for years.
“We list the Social Contract – we also list the Federation for American Immigration Reform – as anti-immigrant hate groups," says Beirich.
The SPLC has a “hate map” of the United States and the Social Contract Press is on it, grouped together with neo-Nazis and white supremacists. They accuse the press of publishing “race-baiting” and “fear-mongering” books and articles that portray “Euro-American” culture as superior to others.
Beirich calls John Tanton the “mastermind” of the modern anti-immigration movement.
“Tanton, in my opinion, is a genius," she says. "His views are heinous to me … but John Tanton has single-handedly, over the course of his career, built the anti-immigrant movement in the United States.”
McAlpin agrees with Heidi Beirich that the man who hired him is the father of the modern anti-immigration movement.
“I do think that’s true," he says. "Let’s take the case of the so-called ‘anchor babies.’ We were publishing and talking about that, going back decades. And so certainly, I think if it hadn’t been for a lot of the work that we did, the candidates might not have picked up on it.”
Tanton is still alive but is in ill health and was not available for an interview.
A shift from Latin America to the Middle East
But his work carries on. The Social Contract Press publishes books and a quarterly magazine on the subject of immigration. It also hosts an annual writer’s conference.
This year’s conference, in Washington, D.C., marked a shift in focus from Latin American immigration to an influx of refugees from the Middle East. One speaker – William Federer – warned about the “Islam-ification” of Europe and how it could spread to the United States. He made the claim that Muslim immigrants are streaming into Western countries to take advantage of welfare programs.
“And the guy will have four wives, (he’ll put them all on welfare (and) he’ll have seventeen kids and he’ll be living like a king, while he’s Islam-ifying," says Federer. "So the Europeans are actually paying to have themselves changed.”
'Are you a hate group?'
Heidi Beirich says the Social Contract Press earned its “hate group” label not just for the ideas it publishes but also for its associations. In 2008, Beirich dug into a trove of John Tanton’s letters, which are kept at the University of Michigan. In them, she found correspondence between Tanton and the leaders of white nationalist groups all over the country.
“So he’s writing to Jared Taylor of American Renaissance," she says. "He’s writing to Sam Dickson, a Klan lawyer. I mean there’s just tons of material documenting Tanton’s deeply racist views.”
And Beirich says it’s not just John Tanton. Many leaders in his organizations can also be traced to white nationalism.
McAlpin denies the accusation.
"It’s only Heidi and the SPLC that are obsessed with race," he says. "The first thing they want to do is identify everybody and separate everybody by race and try to pit one race or ethnicity against another – and label us and everybody that takes the opposite view on immigration that they do, as a hate group.”
McAlpin says the Social Contract Press is engaging in the “battle of ideas” but the battle is focused on culture – and not race.
“There’s a reason so many people want to move to America … and that is because we’ve been so successful and because we have an American culture that’s predominantly Anglo-Saxon, Western European-influenced culture,” says McAlpin.
Losing their prominence
In the internet age, the Social Contract Press remains a pretty old-school media organization. They don’t allow comments on their web articles or YouTube videos and they have no real presence on social media. It’s something McAlpin says he’d like to change.
“I have to say I think we’re a little bit behind the curve on being able to take full advantage of the internet," he says. "But there’s still a role for print media ... for magazines you can hold in your hand and for books you can read.”
Allert Brown-Gort is a fellow at the Institute for Work and the Economy, where he studies immigration. He says the Social Contract Press has done a good job of maintaining its influence in anti-immigration circles. And even if the press isn’t active on Facebook or Twitter, he says it has benefited greatly from social media.
But Brown-Gort says the Social Contract Press faces a different challenge – the possibility of becoming victims of their own success.
“The discourse has gone so mainstream that places like FAIR are losing their clout because … this is essentially what everybody is saying, right?” says Brown-Gort.
So the Social Contract’s ultimate goal – getting anti-immigration thought so mainstream that presidential candidates are all over it – could potentially be their undoing.