We’re All From “Shithole” Countries, Mr. President

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.

24 thoughts on “We’re All From “Shithole” Countries, Mr. President

  1. rich

    I’m not sure how much credibility I attach to the statements of Dick Durbin, Senator, hailing as he does from his own Shithole, the totally corrupt state of Illinois!

    He may be making it up to make Trump look bad!

    1. David Meyer Lindenberg Post author

      MAGA!!

      Dude, it’s not just Durbin (I put in the “at least one” language because his is the most detailed, but far from the only statement.) Even if you think Durbin’s lying, the White House’s meandering and contradictory response plus the stuff people like NRO’s Rich Lowry have been saying make it most unlikely Trump didn’t say it or something very like it.

  2. Mike G.

    Seems to me y’all have a little problem with immigrants from “shithole” countries yourself. You know the one’s I’m talking about. The immigrants who move in, refuse to assimilate and basically make their new home into an exact copy of the “shithole” they just left.

    1. David Meyer Lindenberg Post author

      It remains to be seen how well Germany’s refugees will assimilate. The best estimate I’ve seen of their impact on the economy suggests they’ll be a net positive in around twenty years. But in general, I think the current government’s approach is likely to hinder their efforts to integrate.

  3. B. McLeod

    Trump’s father’s family migrated from a poor village in Bavaria. Trump’s mother’s folk have longstanding connections to Norway, from a time when the progenitor of their line married the daughter of a Norse chieftain.

  4. Richard Kopf

    David,

    In an effort to maximize MAGA, I specialize in sentencing people from “shithole” countries. That is for the crime of illegal reentry after deportation.

    You will be pleased to know that I can do so very fast, particularly when it comes to garbage truck drivers, as I recounted on Hercules some time ago. To wit:

    “Yesterday, while the lawyers and the jury were out having lunch, I conducted a sentencing in an immigration case. I was able to complete sentencing in a new world record time of about four minutes. It was an immigration case. Since the guy had been in custody for several months, everyone knew the sentence would be time served with no supervised release to follow. That’s essentially what the Guidelines called for. Indeed, the government agreed that such a sentence was appropriate. The defendant apologized but noted he had returned to the US to support his three children who were American citizens. He did so working on a garbage truck. Anyway, ICE will now pick him up, and since he waived a deportation hearing, off he will go across the border on a bus. If I were him, I would quickly return to continue to support my kids. I would dive a little deeper into the shadows, but I would return. The present drill seems pretty useless. But what do I know.”

    All the best.

    RGK

  5. Billy Bob

    Getting off to a good start there, David, in the absence of the Master Blaster of the blawgospherical conundrum. You are *entertaining* in His absence. Keep up the good work. We don’t really care if you’re from one of those ____ _____ countries which was once our enemy not too many decades ago. (Japan too, let’s not forget!) What goes around, comes around. Is it possible that the U.S. of A. is fast becoming a ____ ____ country? Oh wait,… it’s happening as we speak! Some of us white Anglo-Saxon Protestants may be forced to seek *political asylum* in some godforsaken African country if things keep going the way they’re going,… namely *police state* full-steam ahead. (And I’m not talking “state of mind”. I’m talking “real time”.)

    Nice job, nice job. The Host will be proud. I.e., you have failed to disappoint?!? So far. Mr. Prez signalling to the world that we no longer want “your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” [Statue of Liberty Plaques, New York Harbor,… ironically a place which Mr. Prez Trump has never visited–and we’re not talking *fake news*].

  6. JRP

    Who hasnt said something less than PC with an expectation that it wouldnt be repeated outside the room?

    Yes the President should have had more sense, especially in his environment. But going straight at him for what was probably an offhand comment just to have a “gotcha” moment forces him to stubbornly double down rather than learn facts.

    I doubt his base cares about facts anyway. They see those that are other and those that are not.

  7. JAV

    I wish I remember where I first heard it, but there’s an argument that American Exceptionalism is a not a reference to the wealth and power of the US, but how distinct our form of government was at the time of it’s founding and the people it’s attracted ever since.

    In other words, why did you bury that particular goodness in the penultimate paragraph?

    1. David Meyer Lindenberg Post author

      Oh, it’s not originally about wealth and power, just often used in that sense these days. You’re quite right.

  8. CLS

    David:

    First, even as an outsider, did you expect anything less of a comment from America’s first reality TV star President?

    Second, the best explanation of the comment I’ve heard from conservative circles is the President made an off the cuff remark about our country’s policies on what are called “chain migration” and “diversity visa lotteries,” two programs I frankly consider horrendous.

    Finally, have you seen the amount of American press coverage that remark’s received? One would think news anchors and journalists never heard the word “shithole” until it passed the President’s lips. Major mainstream media outlets like CNN even refused to censor the word, which would be the norm in any other situation.

    Looking at this from a detached perspective, if “collusion” is a thing, I smell a coordinated effort between the American Left and legacy media outlets to pressure President Trump into signing a clean DACA bill, no strings attached. If this happens, his base with an immigration concern will abandon him in 2020.

    And we could end up with President Kamala Harris. God help us all if that happens.

    1. David Meyer Lindenberg Post author

      *Nope

      *Bullshit

      *Agreed, it’s been very silly

      *Legacy media are Democrats, but I doubt that’s the goal

      *:(

      1. delurking

        Yes, absolutely we should support President Trump because if we don’t we might wind up with someone worse. That is a very likely outcome of Trump not being reelected.

        1. David Meyer Lindenberg Post author

          The context you need here is that I have a rule-of-law beef or two with Harris from back when she was Cali AG. I join Chris in praying Dems won’t run her.

  9. john_barleycorn

    Just saying… but a little less aggregation is a little less aggravation.

    You can do it Dave!

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HWoEVuzyZHQ

    P.S. That gentleman from Nebraska doesn’t have a horse but he wants one. You and him should sPaRk up a skype a pow wow or something. Clock is ticking!

    Original content parties are hard to come by these days….

  10. Bruce Godfrey

    Noel Ignatiev is a good resource for the history of how fugitives from shitholes in Europe were for periods of time and in certain places considered non-white until they or their homelands or both got wealthier. Finns, Irish, Hungarians and even Swedes were at times distinguished from “whites” until they got money.

    It reminds one of South African apartheid: Japanese visitors got white privilege by law and Chinese didn’t.

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