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The dark subtext of Trump's 'good genes' compliment

Washington(CNN) Genes, genes, genes. If you're President Donald Trump, it's about genes.

"You have good genes, you know that, right?" Trump said at a recent campaign rally. "You have good genes. A lot of it is about the genes, isn't it, don't you believe? The racehorse theory. You think we're so different? You have good genes in Minnesota."

The President was speaking to a nearly all-White crowd in Bemidji, Minnesota, a city that's about 80% White in a state that's even more White.

Notably, Bemidji is the seat of Beltrami County, which in January voted against refugee resettlement.

"Every family in Minnesota needs to know about sleepy Joe Biden's extreme plan to flood your state with an influx of refugees from Somalia, from other places all over the planet," the President said.

But Trump's words recalled a violent history of eugenics, of how the "right" genes have been treated as a signifier of racial superiority.

"For Minnesota Jews, it's chilling to hear this language, which echoes the 'race science' used by the Nazis to justify the extermination of so many of our ancestors," Carin Mrotz, the executive director of Jewish Community Action, a racial and economic justice nonprofit, told the Star Tribune on Monday. "But we recognize that the President is choosing this language intentionally, celebrating the supposed genetic superiority of European immigrants here in Minnesota on stolen Native land that has become home to immigrants from all over the world, to sow division and hatred between us."

Trump has long exploited race as a political issue, including via the conspiracy theories around former President Barack Obama's birthplace. In 2015, he referred to immigrants from Mexico and elsewhere as "killers and rapists."

So while it's not clear what Trump's intent was in Minnesota, this is the context of the President's recent gene comments.

And for decades, he has effused about genes.

"I have Ivy League education, smart guy, good genes. I have great genes and all that stuff, which I'm a believer in," Trump told a crowd in Mississippi in 2016.

"Well, I think I was born with a drive for success," he told CNN in 2010. "I'm a gene believer. Hey, when you connect two racehorses, you usually end up with a fast horse. And I really was -- you know, I had a -- a good gene pool from the standpoint of that."

"You have to be born lucky in the sense that you have to have the right genes," Trump told Oprah Winfrey in 1988.

"(Trump and his family) believe that there are superior people and that if you put together the genes of a superior woman and a superior man, you get a superior offspring," is how Trump biographer Michael D'Antonio put it in the 2016 Frontline documentary, "The Choice."

In using suggestive rather than obvious language, the President left just enough room for plausible deniability.

"I'm not going to criticize Trump for saying that because I think it's just a manner of speech," Rich Siegert, the chairman of the Beltrami County Republicans, told the Star Tribune. "We've got people up here that have a good mentality and they're thinking positively and they're thinking the way (Trump is) thinking. That's what it is."

The tack of playing racial politics by taking refuge in abstraction has a long history in Republican circles.

"You start out in 1954 by saying, 'N****r, n****r, n****r.' By 1968 you can't say 'n****r' -- that hurts you, backfires," the Republican political operative Lee Atwater said in 1981. "So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states' rights, and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now (that) you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is (that) Blacks get hurt worse than Whites."

Trump and his defenders might say that the President was merely talking about genes. But depending on who was listening, he was talking about much, much more.