In a closed-door meeting on immigration in January, when discussion turned to Haiti, El Salvador, and African nations, U.S. President Donald Trump expressed frustration: “Why,” he asked, “are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?”
Trump suggested instead that the U.S. admit more immigrants from Norway.
These statements, leaked to the press, became instantly infamous. The White House initially did not bother to deny them, but after Trump tweeted a half-hearted disavowal the next day, Senator Dick Durbin, who had been present, confirmed that the reports about the president were true.
“He said things that were hate-filled, vile, and racist,” Durbin stated, adding, “I cannot believe that in the history of the White House and [the] Oval Office, any president has ever spoken the words that I personally heard our president speak yesterday.”
Trump’s comments confirmed something we already knew. This, after all, is a man who has suggested that all Haitians have AIDS, that Mexicans are rapists, and that Nigerians, if allowed into the United States, would never “go back to their huts.”
Perhaps more notable was the response of Durbin and other liberals who sought to paint Trump as an anomalous figure who has trodden upon America’s enlightened norms and traditions.
In truth, sentiments like Trump’s are woven deep in the fiber of American nationalism, and he is hardly the first to express such views of the world from inside Washington’s august offices.
During a 1973 meeting with counselor Anne Armstrong, President Richard Nixon said of Jamaica, “Blacks can’t run it. Nowhere, and they won’t be able to for a hundred years, and maybe not for a thousand.”
He added rhetorically, “Do you know maybe one black country that’s well run?”
In 1947, Congressman Lyndon Baines Johnson, who was later to preside over the Vietnam War, warned that America must not surrender to “the barbaric hordes of godless men in Eurasia.”
For decades, America’s immigration system was based on racially restrictive quotas aimed at preserving “the ideal of American homogeneity,” with particular focus on excluding “Asiatic elements” and those of the “Hebrew race.”
Advancing this system, President Calvin Coolidge championed the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924 with the call that “America must be kept American.”
Of course, Coolidge was not talking about protecting the continent’s indigenous peoples, which the White House had long regarded as primitives to be exterminated or moved elsewhere.
“I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians,” commented President Theodore Roosevelt, ”but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.”
Many decades before, President Andrew Jackson promised that his 1830 Indian Removal Act would “place a dense and civilized population in large tracts of country now occupied by a few savage hunters.”
Considering statements a century or two old, some might excuse their authors as merely the products of their times. But that is the very point: For the bulk of American history, xenophobic racism has been so prevalent as to be utterly unremarkable.
Why, then, should we consider ourselves innocent?
Richard Nixon made his racially coded appeals to the public with the belief that he spoke for the “Silent Majority.” Likewise, after his comments were leaked, Trump sought to gauge whether they might, in fact, play favorably amongst his base of supporters. He was not deluded to think that many might welcome the high-placed validation of attitudes often felt but typically left unspoken, at least in public.
When it comes to defeating shithole nationalism, we are not up against an anomaly. We’re up against a history.
It is a long history of bigotry, ignorance, and disdain. An internationalist vision based on solidarity, human rights, and common dignity must confront it with open eyes.