From the standpoint of international relations, President Trump’s interview with the British newspaper the Sun certainly wasn’t very helpful, the equivalent of walking up to a friend’s house for dinner while loudly telling someone on the phone how terrible you think your friend’s house looks.
In the context of domestic politics, though, the more surprising comments were ones addressing the surge in migration to Europe following the Syrian civil war and other regional unrest.
“Allowing the immigration to take place in Europe is a shame,” Trump said. “I think it changed the fabric of Europe and, unless you act very quickly, it’s never going to be what it was and I don’t mean that in a positive way.
“So I think allowing millions and millions of people to come into Europe is very, very sad,” he continued. “I think you are losing your culture. Look around. You go through certain areas that didn’t exist ten or 15 years ago.”
That argument — that immigration changes existing “culture” for the worse — is a staple of white nationalist rhetoric in the United States.
Trump has never explicitly argued that immigration is a threat to white Americans, but he’s made numerous comments in the past that tiptoe around that point. When Trump earlier this year was reported to have disparaged migrants from Haiti and Africa as arriving from “s—hole” countries (preferring migrants from countries like Norway), racists and white nationalists celebrated the description and the distinction he drew. Former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke explained the racist rationale on Twitter: “Immigration, along with nonwhite birthrates will lead to Whites becoming a hated minority totally vulnerable to the political, social, & economic will of anti-Whites.” Nonwhite migrants are seen by these groups as a threat to white culture.
It’s true, of course, that immigration does change the “fabric” of a nation. Where Trump differs from most — and where he seemingly agrees with white nationalists — is that this is a negative.
Our history suggests both that views of undesirable migrants evolve over time and that the introduction and assimilation of immigrants is broadly seen as beneficial to American society. At one time, Italian, Irish and Eastern European migrants to the U.S. were considered undesirable and often turned away. These people are now part of the Europe whose culture Trump is so eager to defend.
Meanwhile, polling suggests that three-quarters of Americans now see immigration as a good thing for the country, with more people supporting increased immigration than at any point since 1965. When ardent Trump supporter Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) tweeted last year that “[w]e can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies,” House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) responded that he “believes America’s long history of inclusiveness is one of its great strengths.”
Trump’s comments to the Sun were specifically about Europe, not the United States. It’s a bit odd to speak about Europe’s “culture” as a monolith, given the existing and increasing cultural diversity of its countries. One assumes Trump is referring to the idea of “Western civilization,” inextricable from Europe’s history — but this, too, is a phrase often embraced by white nationalists as a way of talking about white culture.
This was the hedge used by King in 2016 when he asked on MSNBC during a conversation about the prevalence of older white people at the Republican convention, “where are these contributions that have been made by these other categories of people that you’re talking about, where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?”
“Than white people?” host Chris Hayes asked, prompting King to say that he only meant “Western civilization.”
Trump’s comments to the Sun evoked most immediately his response to the racist protest in Charlottesville last year. After fumbling his initial response, including equating those joining the racist protests with those who showed up in opposition to the white nationalist rhetoric, Trump seized on a more politically viable strategy: Defending monuments to the Confederacy. In doing so, he explicitly suggested that preserving the monuments was a protection of “culture.”
At the time it was noted the incongruity of arguing that removing tributes to a rebellion against the United States was itself something that would tear the country apart. But more broadly, Trump’s conflation of “the Confederacy” with America’s “culture” raised eyebrows: The establishment of the Confederacy was heavily predicated on the obviously racist institution of slavery. The articles of secession drawn up by politicians in South Carolina explicitly cited “increasing hostility on the part of the nonslaveholding States to the institution of slavery” and disparaged Abraham Lincoln as having “opinions and purposes … hostile to slavery.” Slavery and the racism that underpinned it are not a part of American culture generally believed to be worth honoring.
Trump’s past comments have already spurred many Americans to see him as racist. Earlier this month, Quinnipiac University released the results of a poll that included a question about whether Americans viewed Trump as racist. A plurality, about half, said he was. More than 4-in-10 said that racism was the main driver of his views on immigration.
In a news conference with British Prime Minister Theresa May on Friday, Trump repeated his claim that immigration was “a very negative thing” for Europe.
“The U.K. has a proud history of welcoming people who are fleeing persecution to our country. We have a proud history of welcoming people who want to come to our country to contribute to our company and contribute to our society,” she said. “And over the years, overall immigration has been good for the U.K. It’s brought people with different backgrounds, different outlooks here to the U.K. and we’ve seen them contributing to our society and our economy.”
May expressed no concerns about threats to British culture whatsoever.