President Trump speaks. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Editorial Writer

According to a cohort of conservatives online, liberals are making a mountain out of a shithole.

President Trump’s comments about immigrants from El Salvador, Haiti and African nations had finally started to fade from the conversational front lines, if not our collective vernacular. But the furor over an American Conservative essay by Rod Dreher has dragged the debate back to the battlefield. Dreher, who initially denounced Trump’s language, was trying to critique the self-censorship of those who recognize differences but refuse to articulate them for fear of appearing racist. Instead, he offered a lesson in, well, racism.

The ire directed Dreher’s way focused on one passage in particular. Admitting he’s sympathetic to the argument that “political correctness keeps people from saying things that are true,” Dreher presents an example: “If word got out that the government was planning to build a housing project for the poor in your neighborhood, how would you feel about it? . . . Do you want the people who turned their neighborhood [into] a shithole to bring the shithole to your street?”

If Dreher didn’t know what was about to hit the fan, he found out pretty fast. Slate’s Jamelle Bouie put it best in a series of tweets, beginning with: “barely paraphrased rod dreher: ‘i hate the poor and you do too, don’t pretend like you don’t.’” To which Dreher has fired back, over multiple posts continuing into Tuesday, that the progressive hypocrites tearing his piece apart don’t appreciate his nuanced argument. The problem is, he’s the one missing the nuance. And as Dreher restates his point, he makes that clear: “Some countries and cultures really are worse than others, but we can’t talk about it.”

Here is where Dreher’s argument falls flat. The night after The Post reported Trump’s comments, Tucker Carlson made a similar point on Fox News: Democrats, he said, can’t support preserving the protected status of Haitians, Salvadorans and others and at the same time condemn Trump for casting aspersions on those countries. If these places weren’t “shitholes,” Carlson claimed, liberals wouldn’t shrink from sending their citizens back there. So it’s dishonest not to say the word.

But calling the conditions in a country “shit” and calling a whole culture “shit” aren’t the same thing. Dreher lumps the two together, exposing how his and Trump’s thinking differ from the thinking of the liberals who would let Salvadorans stick around.

Those liberals identify harsh realities in El Salvador that make it cruel to deport people whose families depend on remittances. Trump, on the other hand, uses those deplorable realities as a reason to keep those people away — and keep, yes, the “culture” he thinks they’ll bring with them away, too. It isn’t about where these would-be immigrants are. It’s about who they are.

Of course, when it comes to poor countries and poor American communities, that kind of thinking is worse than just offensive: It’s also wrong. Low-income areas that struggle with crime didn’t “turn their neighborhood into a shithole”; they and their neighborhoods suffer from destructive policies, past and present, that set them up for dysfunction. South American and African countries suffer, too, from a history of colonial exploitation that ended in misdrawn borders and a political landscape primed for systemic corruption.

The “success stories” of immigrants who came to the United States and changed it for the better aren’t exceptions to some rule that dooms nonwhite people to failure because of their innate cultural flaws. They are examples of what can happen when someone enters an environment whose structures allow them to excel.

There’s an element of truth to Dreher’s argument: If we aren’t willing to admit some people live worse lives than others, we’re never going to make those lives better. The problem is, as Dreher’s misbegotten defense makes clear, that isn’t what Trump was saying. He was saying that to live in a shithole is just what these people deserve.