Trump's 'deplorables' moment
If you want to throw President Trump a lifeline in the roiling debate over what he and his White House have belatedly come to see as a problematic statement, argue over whether he called Haiti, El Salvador, and several African nations "shithole" countries or "shithouse" countries. That's exactly what two Republican senators, Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and David Perdue (R-Ga.), are doing right now.
In a meeting last Thursday on immigration legislation attended by one Democratic senator, Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), and both Cotton and Perdue, Trump asked something along the lines of: "Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?" He later singled out Haiti. "Why do we need more Haitians? ... Take them out." Trump said instead that he wanted immigrants from places like Norway and Asia. While the White House never denied Trump made the statement, the Republicans in the room seem to be hung up on whether or not he used that "exact" phrase.
I lived in rural Central America for a fascinating couple of years, and the infrastructure and government services weren't great. People often brought their live poultry on the bus. But that wasn't Trump's point. Trump's point was that the people in those countries are unworthy of living in the United States. And it doesn't really matter how he said it. It is still, you might say, a deplorable notion.
Singling out Norway as a model for U.S. emigration and ruling out El Salvador and regions populated mainly by black people is probably racist, but Trump has also been explicitly clear that he is only interested in immigrants who will bring money into this country, not pull themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps and create wealth through sweat and ingenuity. The president, who was born a millionaire, calls this "merit based" immigration, but it ignores the intrinsic worth of humanity and also what's generally thought of as the American Dream.
Most or all of our ancestors — Irish, German, African slaves or immigrants, Italian, Mexican, Norwegian, Syrian, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Eastern European, Korean — would have failed Trump's test at some point in recent American history. Trump's grandfather would have failed it. The amazingly generous and hardworking Central Americans I lived with apparently fail it now.
"Trump makes off-hand racist comments, he promotes racist stereotypes, and he incites racism as a political strategy," Michael Gerson writes at The Washington Post. But he also "does not understand or appreciate the American story. ... It is one of history's greatest stories of the human spirit, and Trump knows nothing of it. He is indifferent to our defining miracle. And there is no way to lead a country you do not comprehend."
This fits with Trump's version of "nationalism" — judging the world exclusively by what it can do for him, and by extension America — but in deeming Salvadorans, Haitians, and Africans unworthy and irredeemable, Trump is, in the words of my colleague Matthew Walther, engaging in "a degree of punching down that does not verge upon but actually evinces sociopathy." You don't have to be a proponent of a more liberal immigration policy to recognize that many of these tired, poor, "huddled masses yearning to breathe free," as Emma Lazarus imagines the Statue of Liberty saying, are the people America has welcomed for more than a century, often with resistance but almost always to America's benefit.
"Why not assume that men and women arriving from poor, oppressed, and dangerous countries would love the United States all the more?" Gerson asks. "Because, well, they are those kind of people. What kind of people? The ones who don't look like Norwegians."
Trump's "shithouse" exclusivism is the kind of thing Hillary Clinton was trying to shoot down in her unfortunate Sept. 9, 2016 speech, in which she said "half of Trump's supporters" could be placed into a "basket of deplorables." These were the "racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic" people that Trump had lifted up and given voice to, and "some of these folks, they are irredeemable," Clinton said. She walked back the statement the next day, saying that she shouldn't have said that "half" of Trump's supporters — roughly 31 million Americans, based on the 2016 vote — are "deplorable," but the damage had already been done. Some Trump supporters still wear the "deplorable" badge, proudly or defiantly.
Clinton's sin was dehumanizing people and calling them "irredeemable." Everyone is capable of redemption. Even if her quote was taken out of context, it was still a lousy thing to say. Now Trump has gone further. And so far, almost all elected Republicans have reacted to Trump's "deplorables" moment with an "embarrassing and discrediting" mixture of "perfunctory criticisms, self-indicting silences, half-hearted defenses, and obvious lies," Gerson writes.
Redemption is possible for these Republican officials, too. It starts with recognizing what was wrong with Trump's vulgarity — and it wasn't his choice of words.