The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Republicans, do you want a race-based immigration system, too?

Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), left, and Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).
Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), left, and Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

President Trump's intent could not be more explicit: He wants immigration policies that admit white people and shut the door to black and brown people. That is pure racism — and the Republican Party, which traces its heritage to the Abraham Lincoln era, must decide whether to go along.

Silly me. The GOP seems to have made its choice, judging by the weaselly response from most of the Republicans who were in the Oval Office on Thursday when Trump made vile and nakedly racist remarks.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) heard the president clearly: Trump referred to African nations as "shithole countries," the shocked senator reported. At another point, while discussing potential relief for groups of immigrants — including Haitians — who are losing their temporary permission to remain here, Trump reportedly said, "Why do we need more Haitians? Take them out."

According to Durbin, Trump asked why the United States wasn't welcoming more immigrants from places such as Norway, whose prime minister had visited the White House a day earlier.

To Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), the president's message apparently came through. His colleague, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who was not at the meeting, said that Graham told him Durbin's account was "basically accurate." Graham himself would say only that "I said my piece directly" to the president, and that "I've always believed that America is an idea, not defined by its people but by its ideals."

Follow Eugene Robinson's opinionsFollow

Other Republicans at the meeting cravenly claimed either deafness or memory loss. Perhaps they simply agree with Trump's race-based approach to immigration.

Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and David Perdue (R-Ga.) issued a joint statement saying they "do not recall . . . specifically" the "shithole countries" slur; Perdue later went further, flatly denying the words were spoken. Kirstjen Nielsen, the secretary of homeland security, said she did not recall "that exact phrase," while House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) apparently have been stricken mute.

I mention them all because they deserve to be enshrined in a Hall of Shame.

I suppose I should also mention that Trump now denies making the statements, but there is absolutely no reason to believe him. On the subject of immigration , he has been remarkably consistent: At another White House meeting last month, according to the New York Times, the president said that Haitians "all have AIDS," and opined that once Nigerians saw the United States, they would never "go back to their huts."

Trump ridiculously told reporters on Sunday that "I'm the least racist person you've ever interviewed." In fact, his long history of racism is well documented, going all the way back to the 1970s, when he and his father were sued by the Justice Department — Richard Nixon's Justice Department, no less — for refusing to rent apartments to African Americans.

Without the support of Republicans, President Lyndon B. Johnson never could have pushed through the landmark civil rights legislation that outlawed discrimination and put an end to Jim Crow. That was then. This is now, when minorities overwhelmingly vote for Democratic candidates because they perceive the GOP as either indifferent or hostile.

There is nothing inherently racist about the free-market conservatism that Republicans cherish and advocate. But there is everything racist about the white ethnocentric theory of American identity that Trump champions with remarkable frankness.

That is what the immigration battle is really about. When Trump and his allies say they want to end "chain migration" — in which family members sponsor other family members for entry — they mean they want to halt the influx of immigrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries. When Trump says he wants to bar Haitians and Africans, he aims to admit fewer black people. When he pines for more Norwegians, he wants to welcome more white people. (Not that Norwegians, at the moment, are very eager to move to Trump's America.)

Republicans say they want a "merit-based" system of immigration. That has a nice, neutral sound. Who can argue against merit?

But Trump has made clear that what he means to do is halt or reverse the demographic trends that are making this nation increasingly diverse — trends that are wholly consistent with U.S. history.

A century ago, there were nativists who railed against Irish, Italian and Eastern European immigration, claiming that unwashed hordes from poor countries were "mongrelizing" the nation. We now have a president who rejects American ideals of diversity and inclusion in favor of racial purity.

Sens. Cotton and Perdue, Secretary Nielsen, Reps. McCarthy and Goodlatte, do you want a race-based immigration system, too? Please don't pretend you didn't hear the question.

Read more from Eugene Robinson's archive, follow him on Twitter or subscribe to his updates on Facebook. You can also join him Tuesdays at 1 p.m. for a live Q&A.

Read more on this issue

Jonathan Capeheart: After Trump's 'shithole' obscenity, my president doesn't exist

Gary Abernathy: Some U.S. towns get called 'shitholes' too. It's not racist.

Jennifer Rubin: Two senators do backflips to protect a racist president

Editorial Board: 'Shithole' wasn't the most offensive part of trump's Haiti comments