The President of the United States said something racist today. It is news only because he swore.
During an Oval Office discussion on immigration with lawmakers from both parties, Donald Trump became exasperated as the talks drifted to restoring protections for immigrants from El Salvador, Haiti and Africa.
“Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” he asked, because Africa is a country now. He then went on to propose that the United States admit more people from a country like Norway, which is exceptionally whiter. Evidently, the American Dream that can turn anyone from rags to riches really only works on people who come from places starting with the latter.
That the president is racist is not a surprise. Aside from “bankruptcy” or “tasteless,” it is the one word that can summarize the last 40+ years of his public life, from the Nixon Justice Department’s suit against him for violating the Fair Housing Act through his energetic pursuit of every braindead myth about Barack Obama’s place of birth. The difference is in the vulgarity of the packaging, not the vulgarity of the belief.
CNN’s Kaitlan Collins tweeted that some Trump staffers predict that Trump’s language and sentiment will only endear him to his base, and they’re not wrong. That’s because much of Donald Trump’s base is racist. Their reasons are multifarious and often extenuate from misplaced blame — “white working-class anxiety” targeting skin color as the source of their problems instead of elite economic abandonment — but the output is the same. How you solve that problem is up for debate; the problem is not.
To a certain extent, you can also understand why Trump’s supporters would agree with him, outside of the normal dittohead joy of seeing the leader of a Cult of Personality using language as “earthy” as his supporters. For most Americans, moving to many places in El Salvador, Haiti or much of Africa would constitute a downgrade in neighborhood, school zoning and access to small plate bistros. So would moving to many places in America, but ignore that for now.
But, as is the case with the old conservative playbook of claiming that government is the problem and then interfering with the functions of government to make it a problem, the extent to which El Salvador, Haiti and much of Africa could ever be called “shitholes” is because white heroes from the United States and Europe made them that way.
America’s “Greatest Of All Generations” of periwigged slavers responded to the Haitian Revolution of 1804 by embargoing that country and trying to choke it to death. It then spent 20 years of the early twentieth century occupying the island and siphoning its wealth northward in order to guarantee payback of loans to U.S. banks. This history is very incomplete, but if you’re at all curious what this might have looked like in real time, keep watching Puerto Rico.
When it comes to El Salvador, it’s understandable why Trump voters might not want to live there. It’s understandable, too, that they might not ask themselves how much they’d enjoy living in the guard-gated suburban crudscape of a place like The Villages if the United States was funding nun-raping death squads operating in it. Those are the sorts of problems that even an active HOA with strong Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions has trouble handling.
As for Africa, take the conditions of both above, add even more ruinous austerity measures from the IMF and World Bank, multiply the ensuing despair slurry by a thousand, and that will essentially cover the last couple centuries of imperialist vampirism.
Expecting Donald Trump to have any concept of historicity and context is a fool’s errand. What goes through his mind when trying to grasp the flow of history could probably be approximated by filming a mayfly’s head colliding with a windshield. There’s no sense in calling up the White House and screaming about American-led interventions creating instability that sends citizens fleeing to America, because there’s not going to be anyone on the other end of the line. There is never going to be someone on that end of the line.
So what we can do is discuss shithole and enjoy the excuse to spit out the beats of a manifestly evocative word like shithole and go through by now familiar dance of evaluating loathsome attitudes that we all know the president holds but only intermittently colorfully expresses. We can have a one-sided discussion again.
Is the president racist? (Yes.) How racist was this? (Very, but not extremely. Neither novel nor inspired. Technically well executed. 8.9 out of 10, but that’s only because the Russian judge didn’t consider it racist enough.) Now can we call the president a white supremacist? (Yes, but you always could, because he always has been. He’s just making it less ambiguous each passing month.)
But as for whether this will move the president’s supporters to change their minds, that’s something only time can do. With a little luck, a lot of patience and the same voting patterns, eventually they may be able to see the same politics of austerity, corruption, resource extraction, labor exploitation, infrastructural abandonment and militarized occupation turn every neighborhood ringing “Willow Springs at the Glades” into the same kind of shithole.
Then it won’t matter where anyone is from.