One barnyard epithet, and the leader of the free world was now definitively a racist or, alternatively, was back in the good graces of those who had worried he was wavering in his nationalism.
One ugly denunciation of the population of much of the planet, and President Trump had once again propelled himself to center stage — boxing out discussion of any number of world crises and, more immediately, freezing progress toward a bipartisan deal on immigration policy.
Trump’s slur Thursday against the “shithole countries” from which he would rather the United States take fewer immigrants sparked a louder-than-usual tempest Friday, but the storm took a very familiar shape.
Each side reacted more or less according to script: evermore frustrated expressions of outrage from those who believed that the president had confirmed his racism; and evermore fervent defenses from those who supported Trump in the first place because, as many of them have argued for two years, he says what many Americans think.
“Well, being president, I think he should be more careful with what he says,” said Marjorie Caddick, 93, a longtime Republican who lives in Munster, Ind., and voted for Trump. “He’s laughable, and he doesn’t get the respect that he should have because he says these things.” But Caddick said that even if Trump is “too loose with his tongue . . . he means well.”
She also agreed with Trump on the need to tighten up on immigration: “These are poor countries, and . . . we’ve given them so much money, and it doesn’t get better.”
The storm over Trump’s comments — in which he was bemoaning immigration from Haiti, El Salvador and African countries rather than from wealthier nations such as Norway — has taken the year-old debate over his demolition of presidential tradition to new terrain. For the first time in diplomatic history, nations around the world inserted a gutter vulgarity into official statements. The United Nations’ human rights spokesman, Rupert Colville, declared that “there is no other word one can use but ‘racist.’ ”
“With one word,” wrote the New Yorker’s Robin Wright, Trump “has demolished his ability to be taken seriously on the global stage.”
But did he, really? Is Trump’s latest comment a showstopper — or just another scene in a long-running production that wins audiences through pugnacious behavior, profane language and all manner of provocation?
“This is par for the course,” said former House speaker Newt Gingrich, a supporter of the president who is writing a book about Trump’s America. “Trump relies on the fact that his opponents are so nihilistic and elitist that they’ll react hysterically to something like this. And his base isn’t remotely corroded by this. Almost anything he does that is outside the establishment resonates in the end with people who say, well, at least he’s sticking it to the powerful.”
Gingrich said the normal concerns that presidents and other politicians have about their legacies and reputations don’t seem to apply to Trump, who has made smashing conventions the core of his brand for nearly half a century.
Critics of the president argued that the main issue is not Trump’s language or even what’s in his heart, but rather the policies he’s enacting and the midterm elections coming up this year.
“We’ve got to get beyond the antics and address the policy,” said the Rev. William J. Barber II, a member of the NAACP’s national board who has been rallying progressives to “put checks and balances on Trump’s power by changing the makeup of the Congress.”
“It’s not just Trump,” Barber said. “Everyone in his administration . . . is participating in systemic racism. . . . We turn our outrage into sustained organizing, protests, voter registration and voter mobilization.”
The Rev. Al Sharpton, the civil rights activist and TV talk show host, said the fact that Trump’s slur came during a meeting on immigration policy put it in a different category from past controversial remarks. “Some of the stuff he said in the past was just as offensive and insulting,” he said, but this time, Trump was “framing 21st-century Jim Crow immigration law.”
Sharpton plans to campaign for a congressional censure of the president. “The threat is not his rhetoric; it’s what he’s doing,” he said. “He’s making laws out of this. . . . We have trade agreements with people in Africa. We work on security issues with African nations; that’s where ISIS is, that’s where al-Qaeda is. What do we get out of Norway? . . . If we insult everybody in Africa, how can we have intel on the ground for fighting ISIS and al-Qaeda?”
To Tiffany Mock, 50, a teacher and Trump supporter who lives in Cumberland, Md., the president was simply noting that many more people from impoverished countries want to immigrate to the United States than from affluent nations such as Norway.
“I don’t like the language or the comments that he made, but I do like that he’s putting America first,” Mock said, adding that she didn’t hear Trump favoring white immigrants over other races. “I didn’t take it as racist. He’s not a racist. I’m not a racist — although they say you’re a racist if you say that you’re not a racist.”
Right-wing extremists and white supremacists welcomed Trump’s comment. Former Ku Klux Klan leader and Louisiana legislator David Duke said on Twitter that the president “restores a lot of love in us by saying blunt but truthful things that no other President in our lifetime would dare say!”
On cable TV and social media, Trump’s language became fodder for round-the-clock hardening of long-standing views about his unsuitability to hold office, or, conversely, his heroic championing of ordinary Americans.
“The president of the United States is racist,” CNN anchor Don Lemon began on his broadcast Thursday night.
But on Fox News Channel, Jesse Watters concluded that “this is how the forgotten men and women in America talk at the bar. . . . Is it graceful? No. . . . Is it a little offensive? Of course it is. But you know what? This doesn’t move the needle at all. This is who Trump is.”
For career politicians in his own party, confrontations with Trump’s vocabulary of insults and exaggerations make for repeated awkward moments. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) on Friday called Trump’s choice of words “very unfortunate, unhelpful” and praised African immigrants in his home town but said nothing about racism.
Before Trump won, Ryan was more pointed in his criticism. During the 2016 campaign, the speaker called Trump’s attack on a federal judge because of his Mexican heritage the “textbook definition of a racist comment.”
Although this week’s example of Trump’s rhetoric was not intended for public consumption, it mirrored a number of incidents when the president has attached stereotypes to people based on their backgrounds: his comments about Muslims; his description of blacks as living in urban war zones and having nothing to lose; his singling out of a lone black man at a rally as “my African American.”
Last March, at a meeting with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, Trump asked his guests if they knew Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson, the only African American in his Cabinet, NBC News reported Friday, citing sources who were in the room. The president was surprised when it turned out that none of the lawmakers knew Carson.
The same report also said that Trump suggested during a briefing that a career intelligence analyst should be negotiating with North Korea because she was a “pretty Korean lady.”
In the tumult following the report of Trump’s immigration comment, which he seemed to deny in a tweet Friday morning, a few voices broke through party lines. Former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele, asked if he thought Trump is racist, said in a TV interview: “Yeah, I do. At this point, the evidence is incontrovertible.”
In a separate interview with The Washington Post, Steele said the difference between Trump’s past slurs and this one was the connection to national policy: When Trump launched his campaign in 2015 by stating that Mexican immigrants were “bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists,” he was “speaking in broad brushes, reflecting his own internalized view of Mexicans,” Steele said. “This time around, it’s in the context of policy. This is about using the resources of the federal government to aid and assist people who are seeking a better life for themselves . . . and his view of this is ‘Why should we help them? They’re from shithole countries.’ ”
Steele called it “disappointing as hell” that Republicans in Congress have not had “a more forceful rhetorical response to the president, particularly by the members who were in the room and heard it.” This fall, he said, voters will hold their representatives to account.
“This is no longer about Donald Trump, what he said and did,” Steele said. “All presidents come to reflect America, our values, reflect who we are, and the question we have to ask ourselves is: Is this an accurate reflection of who we are?”