One of the joys, and believe me, there aren’t many, of being an observer of American politics is that you get to watch the teams fumble the ball in real time. To recap, Trump, at a Jan 11 Oval Office meeting on DACA, reportedly asked the following question:
Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?
The Washington Post’s scoop on the meeting was completely unsourced, as is unfortunately now par for the course at major papers, but at least one politician who was there, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), has since confirmed it happened. Per the original story, the countries to which Trump was referring as “shitholes” were Haiti and several in Africa. What’s more, the WaPo claims he said he’d prefer immigrants from Norway and “Asian countries.”
Assume that Trump’s question wasn’t an honest request to be educated on the benefits of African immigration. It therefore implies a two-part statement: 1) there are “shithole” countries and 2) immigrants from those countries are less desirable than those from majority-white and -Asian places.
Which of these two claims strikes you as the more reprehensible, the less defensible, the more at odds with American self-understanding? And which do you think Trump’s opposition, with unerring instincts for how to squander an opportunity to actually stand up for immigrants, chose to attack?
After much shedding of crocodile tears over Trump’s insult to the governments – not the people, but the governments – of countries like Botswana, South Africa and Haiti, all of which Americans public and private pay vast sums to support, it was instructive to watch the opposition struggle to describe, say, the situation in Venezuela. For a long time, Democrats have dodged the word “socialism” when discussing the collapse of the Maduro regime; now there’s another pithy s-word for them to avoid.
Though it’s obviously not good manners or politics, the fact is that many if not most countries, thanks to their illiberal forms of government, can be described as “shitholes” by comparison to the States. America just has it that good. What’s derided as “American exceptionalism” is often better understood as shorthand for America’s massive lead over the rest of the world in terms of prosperity and freedom. No country’s as economically, politically or militarily powerful. (Even on a per-capita basis, the only countries with higher GDP are tiny petrostates like, yes, Norway and financial havens like Switzerland – a remarkable feat considering America’s huge population.)
Again by virtue of its liberal design, no country makes a similar commitment to individual rights, even if America’s various governments do sometimes honor that promise mostly in the breach. And despite Donald Trump in the Oval Office, the political stability on offer in the States is the stuff of dreams for people the world over.
As someone from a country that rejected democracy each time it was offered and had to have it imposed by force, it strikes me as utterly remarkable that America’s been peacefully handing off power for a quarter of a millennium. Heck, the mere fact that the United States continues to function and lead with someone so patently ignorant in charge of the executive branch is a testament to the strength of the republic.
So if referring to less well-designed countries as “shitholes” is undiplomatic, it’s also not grounds for an enormous brouhaha over the veracity of the word. Worse, focusing on “shitholes” gives Trump a pass on by far the more reprehensible part of what he said: that coming from a “shithole” like Haiti or a country in Africa makes one a less desirable American.
First, Trump’s notion that Africans make worse immigrants than Norwegians is at odds with reality. Some of America’s most successful immigrant groups come from Africa: a notable example are Nigerian-Americans, whose families comfortably outperform the average American household in terms of income. As a group, Africans are actually the best-educated of all immigrants, better even than East Asians.
Meanwhile, Norwegian-American households, though they also outperform the average, are much less likely than Nigerian-Americans to be better off than their counterparts in the old country, because Norwegian-Americans are less likely than Norwegians to be sitting on a geysir of oil.
The commonality between the two groups, otherwise so different, is that they’re desirable to America: they do an above-average amount to help it prosper. Why, then, is it the Africans’ ability to contribute that Trump singled out for scorn? Why did he unfavorably compare them to a largely white group that’s the same on that critical metric, if not for some combination of bigotry and ignorance?
Second, as we’ve seen, the definition of a “shithole country” is very broad if the yardstick’s America. For much of the 20th century, before the oil began to flow, Norway was impoverished by comparison to the States. What’s more, it sent over its poorest and least-educated; a hundred years ago, Norwegian-Americans were one of the country’s least successful immigrant groups. Yet America afforded them the ability to thrive, and so they did. Even groups that have yet to meet with much success in the States, like Haitian-Americans, may well develop along Norwegian lines; there’s plentiful evidence that they will.
Finally, even if it’s largely the economy, stupid, neither Norway nor Haiti is exactly the Republican party’s political style. One’s driven to ask if Trump, that self-styled fearless opponent of socialism and critic of Maduro, knows he just expressed a preference for importing more people from one of the most socialist countries on Earth.
Of course, being from a socialist country doesn’t disqualify one from becoming a successful American, any more than being from a poor one does. On the contrary. The American story is one of people born in all kinds of “shithole countries,” whether religiously repressive England or famine-stricken Ireland, dysfunctional Haiti or dystopian Venezuela, coming together in a place that afforded them the opportunity to be wealthier and freer than their native governments would ever have allowed.
You’d hope the President, whose family immigrated from a poor village in the Kingdom of Bavaria, would understand that. You’d hope he wouldn’t be motivated in what he says by poorly informed national, maybe even skin-color bias. But as with all things Trump and governance, you’d probably hope in vain.