There have been four justifications made by GOP and FOX apologists for Donald Trump’s outrageous characterization of Haiti and the countries of Africa as “s***holes.” The excuses range from the duplicitous to the cynical:
He didn’t really say it: Only the true believer believes this obvious lie. No one has denied that Trump used that word and several witnesses have confirmed it.
These countries really are “s***holes,” or hellholes as many journalists are now using in its place. So what? We’re talking about people, not the countries they come from. We investigate every refugee and immigrant for terrorist tendencies or a criminal past. Why should the economic condition of the country matter? If anything, one could rationalize a preference for people fleeing hellholes over those from cushy countries. If you’re unhappy in the utopia that is Norway, what kind of malcontent or socially maladjusted person are you anyway? Whereas, if you have the gumption to leave a “hellhole” and better yourself, you’re the type of person we want and need.
That’s the language average Joes use in bars. That doesn’t make it right. The President is supposed to uplift the level of discourse, not debase it to the lowest common denominator.
It appeals to his base. Which is why the base and Trump are so dangerous. We can’t forgive or justify a racist comment by saying it’s okay because some people like it.
These attempts to forgive, explain or contextualize Trump’s remark avoid the uglier truth behind the ugly statement: that the only countries the Donald labels as “s***holes” have primarily black populations. While his comment denigrated African countries and Haiti, it also communicated that Trumpty-Dumpty believes that the people from those countries are inferior. The not so hidden subtext was a slam at African-Americans, a group that Trump has long abused both verbally and with his actions. We thus cannot regard his remarks as solely anti-immigration, or anti-immigration from certain countries. The remarks also manifest an explicitly anti-African American mentality. When Trump called Haiti and African countries “s***holes,” he was also calling the people who come from there “s***” and he meant every African-American.
The last person as racist as Donald Trump to be afforded the majority of votes by the Electoral College was Woodrow Wilson, who as president re-segregated washrooms, cafeterias and work areas throughout the federal government, in the process terminating or downgrading the employment of thousands of African-Americans. His many actions and comments disparaging blacks and elevating whites gave permission to the growing racist sentiments of the progressive era. It’s no surprise that it was during Wilson’s presidency and afterwards that the KKK got its second wind, becoming an important social and political force not only in the South, but also in the Midwest and West. About the KKK, Wilson said, “The white men were roused by a mere instinct of self-preservation—until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country.” He sympathized with white supremacists who hated the Reconstruction period ”because the dominance of an ignorant and inferior race was justly dreaded.” Wilson also feared and hated East Asians, as witnessed by this choice nugget: “Oriental Coolieism will give us another race problem to solve and surely we have had our lesson.”
In his new biography of Ulysses Grant (who may have done more than any other white person to advance the cause of blacks in America), popular historian Ron Chernow builds the case that no American president has held as openly racist views as Andrew Johnson, who ascended to office after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. One quote from Johnson should suffice: “This is a country for white men and by God, as long as I am President, it shall be a government for white men.” Johnson actually told Congress that “negroes have shown less capacity for government than any other race of people.” In private remarks, Johnson often used the n-word, which may be next on the list of taboo words and phrases that Trumpty-Dumpty rehabilitates now that we can say “s***hole” in public discourse without too much embarrassment. As president, Johnson tried to slow down the Reconstruction process of integrating freed slaves into Southern economies and governments, for which he was impeached and almost convicted.
Both Johnson and Wilson managed to whip up hope among the significant minority of Americans who believed that whites were superior to blacks and that blacks posed a threat to white America’s way of life. During both their administrations, violence against African-Americans, especially in the South, while the federal government pulled back on their protection of the civil rights of minorities. It’s no surprise that we’re seeing the same thing happen under the current administration. The head of government sets the public conversation and is one of the main forces in determining what is appropriate and inappropriate in the marketplace of ideas. There may be several points of view on any given issue, but one of them is always the president’s.
While racism has played a quietly growing role in Republican ideology since Goldwater, no recent national candidate before Trump had the gall and lacked the good taste to play up racist ideas in an explicit manner. Trump makes himself absolutely clear even to those not attuned to the subtle degradations of racial coding. When he says, “Make America great again,” no one has any doubt that his true message is “Make America white.”It won’t happen, because within three years, he’ll be impeached, resign or lose the next presidential election. But while in power Trump and his minions will do a lot of damage to our minority and immigrant populations that will last years after he is gone. Moreover, he has opened the same Pandora’s box of racism that Andrew Johnson refused to shut after the Civil War and Wilson helped to pry open again in the Progressive Era.