Update: Early on Friday morning, President Trump tweeted a vague denial of the precise word that he is alleged to have used in disparaging Haiti and African countries, but reinforced his opposition to immigrants from those places.
An immigration proposal presented to him, he said, meant that the U.S. “would be forced to take large numbers of people from high crime countries which are doing badly.” This aside is revealing: Trump’s consistently used unfounded accusations of rampant criminality as a rationale for his opposition to nonwhite populations. In our initial assessment of Trump’s “shithole” comments, we made that point from the outset. Trump’s new tweets making clear how “high crime” is a stand-in for “undesirable” adds new context to the first paragraphs below.
Donald Trump’s presidential campaign began — within the first five minutes — with his accusing immigrants from Mexico of being criminals. Not all of them, mind you; some of them, he assumed, were good people. Some. A few. This ended up being a prominent theme in his presidency, painting immigrants as criminals with a broad brush, such as when he traveled to Long Island to position the violence perpetrated by the MS-13 gang as an unavoidable result of immigrants entering the country illegally.
A few months into his campaign, Trump shared an image on Twitter that suggested that the vast majority of killings of white people in the United States were committed by black people. This isn’t at all true. Most white people are killed by white people. But Trump never apologized or corrected the tweet, instead quietly deleting it. The same theme cropped up repeatedly afterward, including his constant tying together of black Americans, inner cities and violent crime.
A month after that tweet, Trump declared that the United States should disallow entry to anyone who is Muslim. No other caveats or subcategories were identified, just “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” full stop. Once in office, this became his ban on immigration from Muslim-majority nations, a ban that multiple courts understood as nothing more sophisticated than what he’d proposed in December 2015.
Nearly every time a Muslim is accused of terrorism, Trump seizes on it as a way to link Muslims to terrorism. Last month, he kicked up an international incident when he retweeted misleading anti-Muslim videos from a racist British activist. (When a white supremacist was charged with terrorism last year, the administration was all but silent.)
All of that context — that Hispanics, Muslims and black Americans are dangerous — is worth considering in light of the comments that have trickled out of the White House over the past few weeks.
On Thursday, The Washington Post reported that during an Oval Office meeting earlier in the day, Trump had angrily lamented “having all these people from shithole countries come here.” Those countries were ones like Haiti, El Salvador or African nations, our Josh Dawsey reported — not like Norway, whose prime minister Trump met with Wednesday and whose citizens he expressed comfort in allowing across our borders. Trump followed up his thoughts with a question: “Why do we want people from Haiti here?”
That view of immigrants is in keeping with his description of the visa lottery as a system that selects the “worst” immigrants for entry into the United States. Trump sees immigrants as belonging to one of two categories, good or bad — and the bad immigrants are often the ones who aren’t coming from Europe.
The comments reported by Dawsey also bring to mind a report from the Times about a similar meeting in June, during which Trump allegedly referred to Afghanistan as a terrorist haven, described residents of Haiti as all “hav[ing] AIDS” and migrants from Nigeria as being unlikely to “go back to their huts” once they came to the United States.
The White House press secretary denied that Trump made those comments. In a statement sent to Dawsey, the White House did not explicitly deny that Trump made the “shithole” comment.
We dance around the word “racist” a lot, because calling someone a racist is a heavy charge that’s often nearly impossible to prove. New York radio host Jay Smooth once drew an important distinction that’s worth remembering. Instead of saying someone is racist, it’s more useful to point out that the things they said are racist, because that is both more defensible objectively and less likely to seem like an ad hominem attack.
So: Saying that Haiti and African countries are shitholes, unlike Norway, and claiming that Nigerians live in huts and that Haitians have AIDS and that Afghans are terrorists — and, for that matter, that Mexican immigrants are criminals and that black Americans live in the crime-ridden inner cities and that Muslims are too dangerous to allow into the country?
Those are racist statements.
Americans, perhaps unfamiliar with Mr. Smooth’s distinction, are generally willing to ascribe racial bias to the president. Half the country thinks he’s biased against black people, according to a November poll conducted by The Post and ABC News. A Quinnipiac poll last month found that 57 percent of Americans think Trump doesn’t respect people of color as much as he respects white people — a finding that’s certainly bolstered by the comments Dawsey reported today.
Those polls came in the aftermath of the unrest in Charlottesville in August, during which a woman was killed when a man slammed his car into a crowd of people peacefully protesting a white supremacist rally. After that violence, Trump equated the views of the neo-Nazi and racist protesters with the views of those who turned out to oppose the white nationalist views. Days after the protests, he called out the racism as unacceptable — and the next day declared that there were “very fine people on both sides,” including the side protesting arm in arm with the Nazis. Trump didn’t like to call the racists racist, but, as our Chris Ingraham noted, was often willing to call black people racist on Twitter — three times as often as he used the term to describe white people.
Racial tension is why Trump is president. His excoriation of illegal Mexican immigrants — and the fight with corporate entities and celebrities that ensued — built up a core base of support within the Republican Party that helped him earn the party’s nomination. Analysis of the general election found that a key reason that less-educated Americans were more likely to support his candidacy was racial attitudes. In swing states, voters preferred Hillary Clinton on the economy — and Trump on the issues of terrorism and immigration.
Often, successful presidential candidates shed their campaign-trail rhetoric in search of a message that can be used to unify the American people behind the presidency. Trump has never made any effort to do so. He has the same attitudes now as he did on the campaign trail, clearly, and those attitudes seem to be that blacks, Hispanics and Muslims are dangerous or otherwise undesirable.
Call that what you will.