The Unexpected Significance of a “Shithole” Comment

People join together, near the Mar-a-Lago resort where Donald Trump spent the last few days, to condemn Trumps statement about immigrants from Haiti and to ask that he apologize to them on January 15, 2018, in West Palm Beach, Florida. Trump is reported to have called Haiti, Africa and El Salvador places People protest near the Mar-a-Lago resort where Donald Trump spent the last few days, to condemn his statement calling Haiti, Africa and El Salvador “shithole countries” whose inhabitants are not desirable for US immigration, on January 15, 2018, in West Palm Beach, Florida. (Photo: Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

White House staff and Donald Trump apologists spent Thursday defending and justifying comments by the president that immigrants from “shithole countries” don’t deserve to be in the US.

While Trump in an early-morning tweet storm tried to deny it, his people never bothered: quintessential Trump.

The man has never tried to hide his disdain for certain immigrants. During a meeting with lawmakers to discuss a bipartisan deal to help young immigrants, he reportedly questioned why the US continues to accept people from “shithole” countries like Haiti and unspecified ones in Africa. He wanted to know why we don’t bring in more people from countries like Norway, whose prime minister Trump had met with the day before.

Of course, the people from countries he describes as shitholes are people of color, while the Norwegians he covets are White. As an immigrant myself, from the British Virgin Islands and a person of color, I find it hard to read the president’s statement as anything but racist. It’s hard not to feel maligned.

Even people who agree with him in spirit may openly denounce what Trump said. The ongoing economic struggle of many of these countries is no secret, and many understand enough to blame US policies for fueling some of the conflicts that have led people to flee their countries in the first place.

But referring to them as shitholes is the talk of barroom bullies or possibly White nationalist family-dinner conversations. You don’t expect it in an open forum by the president of the United States, not even this one.

It wasn’t the first time Trump has used the presidency’s platform to lay out racism and xenophobia as support for national policy. He said recently that 15,000 Haitians who received US visas have AIDS. He said Nigerians would never return to their huts after seeing the US. His campaign speech about Mexicans as rapists and murderers has become a headline for his immigration stance, and Trump is on a never-ending crusade to ban Muslims from the country.

But Thursday’s comment wasn’t just another eye-roll anti-immigrant rant. The United Nations stepped in to call it out, saying that the comment is “about opening the door to humanity’s worst side, about validating and encouraging racism and xenophobia.”

Other nations also denounced Trump’s comments, and our own government’s Africa Media Hub scrambled and issued a statement reiterating our commitment to working with African allies.

And at the same time Haiti is marking the 8th anniversary of the deadly 2010 earthquake, the country’s foreign minister summoned the US Chargé d’Affaires Robin Diallo for clarification on the shithole statement.

Trump’s comments came as lawmakers and his White House are trying to hammer out a deal for young DREAMers, those who were brought illegally to this country as children. Trump is canceling the Obama-era program, officially called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, setting it on a course to expire in March unless Congress comes up with a solution. In exchange for signing off on any fix, he has said he wants funding for a wall. On Thursday he rejected as too weak a bipartisan proposal that addressed border security, the diversity visa lottery, and chain migration.

The White House in a statement defended Trump, saying this is his way of fighting for the American people. “Like other nations that have merit-based immigration, President Trump is fighting for permanent solutions that make our country stronger by welcoming those who can contribute to our society, grow our economy, and assimilate into our great nation.”

Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah, the first Black Republican woman elected to Congress, is the daughter of Haitian immigrants. She called for Trump to apologize. “The President’s comments are unkind, divisive, elitist, and fly in the face of our nation’s values,” she said. “This behavior is unacceptable from the leader of our nation.”

She probably knows better than to expect an apology from Trump, who on Friday denied he made the comments. He’s proven he lacks the capacity for atonement, but more disturbingly it’s also clear the president is playing to his base — that segment of the country that worries about the gradual browning of America.

What does it say about this country’s democracy that we have a president who believes his base is more important than the majority nation’s opinion, or the world’s opinion? How many people who voted for him could rationalize everything that he’s done and remain with him? Polls show the numbers are dropping. And this could likely drop them more.

Perhaps there’s an opportunity here — one of many, and of many more surely to come — for this president to grind his base down to the smallest nubbin of a demographic. Or perhaps this is the painful way our nation will slowly figure out who it is, and who it is not.

Trump earned unusual praise from Democrats as well as the media for his handling of a rare televised meeting with lawmakers on Tuesday, in which he seemed eager to reach compromise on a deal for DREAMers and offered to take the heat for both Republicans and Democrats on a measure for comprehensive reform. But that idea didn’t play well with his supporters. So by Thursday he was taking it back: “shithole countries.”

I chose to stay in this country after college because I, like many immigrants, liked the opportunities it gave me. I chose to become a US citizen because I wanted to participate fully in its democracy. And while during the last year, under Trump, I have been made to feel increasingly unwelcome, I intend to stay, alongside immigrants from all those other “shithole countries” who demonstrate the resilience and hope that America still represents to me.