The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The bottomless vulgarity of Trump’s immigration politics

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It was a perfect sign of the times that the annual long American weekend spent commemorating the life and struggle of Martin Luther King Jr. was consumed by President Trump's purported racism. As you are doubtless aware, in a Thursday meeting with lawmakers on immigration policy, Trump allegedly dubbed Haiti, El Salvador and several African nations “shithole countries.”

The remarks were apparently made while Trump was reacting with frustration to existing protections for a number of immigrants from countries affected by war and natural disaster. Instead, Trump urged for more immigrants from nations such as Norway — that is, white ones, as the implication seemed to be.

After days of media hand-wringing, Trump and his allies are now saying that he was misrepresented by Democrats in the room. But the White House didn't deny on Thursday that Trump used such crass, disturbing language. That evening, a Trump spokesman issued a deflecting statement, pointing to Trump's “fight for the American people” and outlining the administration's case for a stricter, merit-based system of immigration. (Though it's not explicitly clear what in Trump's view makes Norwegians more meritorious than Haitians.)

President Trump said "I am not a racist" Jan. 14, and blamed Democrats for the delay in passing a deal on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. (Video: The Washington Post)

In private, Trump reportedly gloated to confidants that reports of the “shithole” slur would galvanize his base. And sure enough, pro-Trump pundits on television and talk radio played down or even embraced Trump's alleged word choice.

Regular readers of Today's WorldView should be all too familiar with the stark reality at this point: The president of the United States has repeatedly pandered to the far right, winking at white nationalists while advancing a baldly nativist agenda. And his long history of offensive comments and actions on race suggests that it's not just cynical opportunism behind those tactics.

There's also a logic to it. As two political scientists noted in The Post's Monkey Cage blog over the weekend, racial attitudes have increasingly influenced U.S. public opinion over the past three decades. “White racial resentment has remained remarkably stable over time. But that racial resentment has become much more highly correlated with particular political attitudes, behaviors and orientations,” Adam Enders and Jamil Scott wrote, citing years of polling and survey research. “More and more, white Americans use their racial attitudes to help them decide their positions on political questions such as whom to vote for or what stance to take on important issues including welfare and health care.”

Trump's political success has been the result of harnessing this white resentment. On social media, at least, Trump's loyal if rather narrow core group of supporters seemed to exult. The slur aimed at countries such as Haiti and El Salvador was simply a reflection of “how the forgotten men and women of America talk at the bar,” Fox News host Jesse Watters argued.

But for journalists elsewhere, the gloves came off. Numerous TV anchors and newspaper columnists branded Trump a “racist” — a revelation, many insisted, that ought to be no surprise. 

“Trump’s racism stretches back to his time as a real-estate mogul and casino owner, when he said he didn’t want to have a black accountant because he believed black people were lazy. Then came his political rise over the last few years, which was built on — and there is no other accurate way to describe it — racism,” wrote David Leonhardt of the New York Times. “He became a star on the right by promulgating the lie that the nation’s first black president was born in Kenya. Trump then launched his presidential campaign with a speech describing Mexicans as rapists. His signature proposals were building a wall to keep out Mexicans and banning all Muslims, including American citizens abroad, from entering the country.”

Trump described himself over the weekend as the “least racist person” out there, then rounded on Democrats for supposedly spoiling the prospect of a deal that could resolve the fate of hundreds of thousands of young immigrants whose parents brought them to the United States illegally. Trump chose to end the Obama-era protections provided to the “dreamers,” the term for this group of immigrants, as part of a broader ultranationalist offensive within his administration. On Saturday, amid a firestorm of criticism, Trump tweeted his campaign motto — a tweet that read almost like a primal scream.

Trump makes it harder to separate the cultural animus lurking behind his positions on issues of immigration from the substantive policy positions advanced by his lieutenants. The White House is aggressively pushing to end “chain migration,” the process by which families slowly migrate in phases to the United States, even though the entire American experience — indeed, the experience of Trump's own family — can be told as a story of chain migration.

The points-based system advanced by the administration would drastically narrow the field of people who could potentially move here. “If [Trump] were an immigrant, there’s a decent chance he’d get kicked out of the country,” wrote Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell, who calculated Trump's score for immigration under his administration's own mooted scheme.

Then, of course, there's the incessant rhetoric of Trump and many of his allies, who demonize immigrants, participate in fearmongering over Islam and cast the rest of the world as a realm of threats and cheats. There's no space for acknowledgment in Trump's coarse worldview of just how much the United States has gained through its dealings with the parts of the planet that Trump crudely insults. Countries such as Haiti and El Salvador have seen their political fates manipulated and tossed about for decades by a domineering Washington.

The denizens of the supposed “shithole” countries were not impressed by Trump's xenophobia. Numerous U.S. ambassadors were summoned over the weekend to carry out the thankless task of explaining their president's comments. The African Union issued a statement expressing its “shock, dismay and outrage” over the alleged comments. It chided the supposed leader of the free world: Trump's “remarks dishonor the celebrated American creed and respect for diversity and human dignity,” the statement read.

And on the day honoring the most famous champion of the American Dream, Martin Luther King Jr.'s friends lamented the current state of affairs. “We have come so far. We made so much progress,” said civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.). “And I think this man, this president, is taking us back to another place.”

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