Was Trump's 'S***hole' Commentary Racist?

The world is aflame with talk of s***holes.

Let’s begin with what we know about the newest scandal to plague the Trump administration: the president’s shocking comments about immigration from countries like Haiti. The Washington Post originally cited Trump’s comments, apparently during a conversation about “protecting immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and African countries.” We don’t actually know the context of the comments – he could have been discussing the visa diversity lottery program, or he could have been talking about the targeted deportation of illegal immigrants from particular countries. That makes a rather large difference in interpreting his remarks. In any case, Trump reportedly stated, “Why are we having all these people from s***hole countries come here?” The Post continues:

Trump then suggested that the United States should instead bring more people from countries such as Norway, whose prime minister he met with Wednesday. The president, according to a White House official, also suggested he would be open to more immigrants from Asian countries because he felt they help the United States economically.

He then reportedly continued, “Why do we need more Haitians? Take them out.” The Post attributed knowledge of these comments to “people familiar with the meeting,” as opposed to participants in the meeting.

The White House didn’t deny the comments. Spokesman Raj Shah stated, “Certain Washington politicians choose to fight for foreign countries, but President Trump will always fight 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.”

Resistance to Trump’s comments has split along two lines, one utterly illegitimate, the other quite legitimate.

First, the illegitimate: people angry that Trump called some countries “s***holes,” because they object to the idea that countries are different. That's idiotic. It is absolutely inarguable that some countries are awful. North Korea is a horror show. Sudan is a dumpster fire. Haiti is, by statistics, a terrible place to live, which is why so many people want to immigrate to the United States. The argument that Trump is wrong to call some countries s***holes comes down to nicety, not truth – which is why Rich Lowry of National Review took Joan Walsh of CNN to the woodshed over whether she’d rather live in Haiti or Norway.

Which brings us to the second complaint: that Trump seems to be slandering immigrants from these “s***holes.”

Now, there are two reasons that Trump could have said he wanted curbs on immigration from those countries. The first is racist: the suggestion that ethnicity dictates the possibility of good Americanism. That’s obviously garbage, and bigoted garbage at that. That’s why Trump’s alleged comment, “Why do we need more Haitians?” is far worse than his comment about s***holes. It suggests that Haitians – who may or may not already be here – are somehow incapable of assimilation. That’s ridiculous. Some of our greatest Americans have been immigrants from s***holes. Immigrants leave s***holes seeking the American way of life, and embrace our Constitutional order, our Western culture, and our perspective God-given freedoms. That’s the essence of Americanism.

The second rationale for restricting immigration from so-called s***holes has nothing to do with ethnicity. It’s quite possible, as the White House suggests, that the president meant that if we’re looking to choose immigrants solely based on country of origin – a dubious and quasi-racist concept that prizes group identity over individual qualification – we should prioritize immigration from countries that have values similar to our own. Great Britain is more likely to send, on average, immigrants who assimilate more easily than, for example, Russia. That has nothing to do with race, and everything to do with culture and language and history; the same president who smacked Haiti said he wanted more Asian immigrants, for example, according to The Washington Post, so this isn't just a question of white vs. non-white. A merit-based individual system would take country of origin into account, but it would certainly not be the primary qualifier.

With that said, Trump must clarify what in the world he was talking about – particularly if the comment about not needing “more Haitians” is accurately reported. The president has a shocking capacity to utter precisely the most inflammatory thing in precisely the most inflammatory way – and it’s no wonder that so many people are interpreting his comments in the worst possible light. He owes it to the country to clarify what the hell he meant.

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