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Trump’s defenders are willfully ignoring the broader context of his “shithole” comments

Conservatives want to know why Trump can’t refer to poor nations as “shithole countries.” Here’s an answer.

President Donald Trump. Ron Sachs/Pool via Getty Images

Why can’t you call Haiti and African nations “shithole countries,” as President Donald Trump reportedly did? Isn’t the whole reason that people leave those countries and come to the US that those countries are, in fact, poor and crime-ridden?

That’s the argument that conservative pundits, such as Fox News host Tucker Carlson and Fox News contributor Tomi Lahren, are now pushing. Their case: These countries really are in a terrible state, so it doesn’t make sense to let their people into the US and act as a drain on American resources when the US can take people from wealthier nations. (This view of immigration as a drain on society is popular among Trump supporters, but, as Matt Yglesias has explained, the research shows immigration creates jobs, wealth, and growth overall.)

This framing may make Trump’s remarks more reasonable to some people, but it misses the point and broader context of what Trump said — context that makes it very clear that Trump’s remarks were built on bigotry.

Trump suggested the problem isn’t just the countries, but their people

First, the problem is not just that Trump called these countries bad; it’s that Trump suggested these countries’ people are all bad.

Read Trump’s reported comments, which he reportedly made during bipartisan talks about immigration reform in the context of Haiti and African nations: “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?”

Trump is not just saying that Haiti and African countries are shitholes. He’s indicating that the (predominantly black) people from these countries are themselves bad — to the point that the US should not accept them as immigrants. (Though Trump has now denied making the comments on Haiti, but he has not denied disparaging African nations.)

Then consider Trump’s point of comparison. After he raised his question, Trump reportedly suggested that America should take more people from “countries like Norway.” This is his remark about African countries and Haiti in reverse, explicitly singling out predominantly white nations as favorable.

Characterizing not just a nation but its people as inherently bad is prejudice, pure and simple. This is so widely accepted that it’s actually illegal to discriminate against workers and tenants based on national origin under federal law.

But it’s even worse when that person singles out predominantly black countries, as Trump did.

If Trump’s real concern was getting the most skilled, productive immigrants, as his defenders suggest, then why would he write off entire nations and their populations?

A country in dire economic straits can still produce skilled workers, and immigration policy can, as it has attempted to do throughout US history, try to attract those skilled workers in particular. That Trump is going further and suggesting we shouldn’t take anyone from those countries indicates that his interests go much further than just barring the supposedly unskilled workers from these places.

(Not to mention the humanitarian argument for taking in people in need of help, and the possibility that someone can rise from a dire situation if given the right opportunity — a popular view in Republican economic circles.)

Trump’s own staff gave away the game here. A White House official told CNN that, despite whatever the press thinks, the remarks will resonate with Trump’s base. The White House official drew a comparison to Trump’s attacks against NFL athletes, who have demonstrated against systemic racism in the US by kneeling and otherwise silently protesting during the national anthem.

The only connection between these two topics — the NFL protests and Trump’s “shithole” comments — is race. They have nothing to do with each other otherwise. This is the White House acknowledging the racist element of Trump’s comments, and then saying that Trump’s supporters will like the remarks.

Trump’s broader history of racism can’t be ignored

There’s also the broader context of what Trump has said and done. This is a man who launched his political career by questioning whether the first black president of the US is truly American, and reportedly has continued doing so in private.

He launched his presidential campaign by suggesting that Mexican immigrants are “rapists” who are “bringing crime” and “bringing drugs” to the US. He called for banning all Muslims from entering the US. He said that a judge should recuse himself from a Trump University case solely because the judge was of Mexican descent — which House Speaker Paul Ryan called “the textbook definition of a racist comment.”

Since becoming president, this kind of behavior has continued. Trump stereotyped a black reporter in February 2017, telling April Ryan that she should set up a meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus for him even as she insisted that she’s “just a reporter.”

After white supremacists violently protested in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year, Trump repeatedly said that “both sides” were to blame for the violence, drawing a moral equivalence between white supremacists and anti-racism protesters — and said that there were “some very fine people” among the white supremacists. And over the past year, Trump has repeatedly attacked NFL players who protested against systemic racism.

This isn’t even close to a full or comprehensive list. (You can find many more examples of Trump’s racist remarks in Vox’s explainer.)

This is the context that surrounds Trump’s comments on Haiti and African countries. It is the context that his defenders have tried to ignore: Trump’s history of racism.

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