Let me take a moment to speak up for the word “shithole” which is seeing its reputation damaged by association with Donald Trump. We went to this dive bar. It was a total shithole. That town? Total shithole, never want to go there again. It’s a dump. Closer to President Trump’s ugly usage, Trump wouldn’t be the only American to call a poor or underdeveloped country a shithole. That’s not okay. But my point here is that there’s nothing inherently wrong with the word – nothing more than any other not for polite conversation swear word. And even this ugly usage doesn’t capture the essence of Trump’s meaning. The context and import of President Trump’s remarks are not simply that the countries are “shitholes.” It’s much more than that. It’s that we don’t want people from those countries because the awfulness of the countries attaches to the people themselves. Speaking of whole classes of people, specifically people of color, as basically garbage – is not only disgusting but entirely of a piece with the campaign President Trump ran in 2016 and the policies he is implementing as President today.
There are many examples in history of politicians who have moved the country forward in policy terms toward greater rights, inclusion, and equality but who nonetheless harbored various racist beliefs, used racist language or were simply racists. You can say that makes them hypocrites. A more generous and in many cases more accurate take is that we can’t always control or amend our ingrained impulses and prejudices. We all have prejudices which compromise us. Every single one of us. But the instinctive and ingrained is not the entirety of who we are. We also have the ability to see beyond our own limitations, shortcomings, and acculturation to see what is fair, what is right and what the future can and should be.
With President Trump, using the most denigrating language to say we don’t want immigrants from African or African diaspora countries but want white people instead is clearly and ably captured in his policies. Scare immigrants off, work the internals of the immigration system to expel a few hundred thousand Haitians here, a few hundred thousand Salvadorans there. Listen to President Trump, his key advisors and key congressional supporters and the issue is often dressed up as a matter of ‘culture’. Too many immigrants from different cultures will overwhelm and wipe out the America we know. Here President Trump, along with Steve King and the rest of the more or less open racists on Capitol Hill is just making the point explicit. They want to keep the US a majority white and culturally homogenous country. That is Stephen Miller’s core policy agenda. He remains one of Trump’s closest advisors. It is simply keep America as white as possible.
This is also what’s behind a ‘merit-based’ immigration policy and an end to ‘chain-migration’. On its face, the idea of a merit-based policy doesn’t sound so crazy. We certainly want the best scientists and engineers and doctors and entrepreneurs to come to America. But we already do that. A big part of the immigration system is geared around doing just that. Maybe we should do more of that – though there are obvious downsides to importing say computer programmers when we have a lot of native-born Americans who want jobs as programmers too. But the key point is that if your whole immigration system is based on “merit” you’re going to exclude a ton of people from countries where the kinds of advanced degrees, training and wealth that constitute “merit” in this sense just aren’t available. Overwhelmingly those will be countries that are poor and don’t have white people.
Trumpism is ethnic-nationalism, rightist ethnic nationalism, specifically white ethnic nationalism. That’s been crystal clear from day one with the talk about Mexico sending its rapists and murderers to America, with the hyper-politicization of crimes committed by immigrants and especially undocumented immigrants. There are more than 10 million undocumented immigrants in the country. Obviously, a percentage of them will commit crimes, even heinous crimes, though there’s substantial evidence that immigrants commit less crime than the native-born. It isn’t about crime. It’s a form of racialized incitement.
The heart of Trumpism has always been fueled by panic over the decline of white privilege and a rapidly changing demography in which whites are no longer the overwhelming majority of Americans and in a few decades likely won’t be a majority at all. (The uncertainty is not so much numerical as taking into account the fluid definition of whiteness itself.) This need to yell “stop!”, to turn back the tide to an earlier America is the beating heart of Trumpism.
In the shithole remarks we see it very unadorned: why do we want more low-quality non-white people? To Trump, it is an obvious and urgent question. Arguments about cultural assimilation are often prettied-up in right-leaning policy journals as concern that too rapid immigration doesn’t give enough time for assimilation and thus threatens social stability. That may be true at extremely high levels of immigration, though here in New York City we have a massive immigrant population (documented and undocumented) and we seem to do fine as the safest big city in the country. But with shithole you get to the heart of it which isn’t these prettified, intellectualized theories but rather a voice of contempt and dehumanization about people who – let’s just say it – aren’t white.
“They are taking over” is the backdrop of Trumpism. The shithole comments make that crystal clear. It’s not just exclusion but a palpable dehumanizing contempt. The words only matter in as much as they illustrate the ugliness of what is currently happening and that is real and much more important than mere words. Trump administration policy means to and is in the process of, implementing the “shithole” mindset which is to say get rid of as many “outsiders” as we can and keep new ones from coming in.