It was hardly surprising when the Washington Post reported Thursday that President Donald Trump had referred to Haiti, El Salvador, and African nations as “shithole countries” in an Oval Office meeting.
“Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” Trump reportedly asked in a conversation about immigration with members of Congress.
Trump has denied making the remark (kind of), but it certainly fits right in with his history. After all, this is the president who kicked off his campaign by claiming that Mexico was sending “rapists” to the United States. He’s also the person who was caught on tape boasting that “when you’re a star,” women let you “grab them by the pussy.”
These comments have been excused by Trump’s supporters, and those excuses set the stage for comments like the “shithole” remark, as author and advocate Greg Hogben pointed out on Twitter:
When they normalized “grab them by the pussy” as locker room talk, it clearly told Trump there would be no consequences for anything he says. He called them “shithole countries” because he believes he can say whatever he wants, knowing the GOP will do *nothing* to confront him.— Greg Hogben (@MyDaughtersArmy) January 12, 2018
Ever since Trump’s comments on the Access Hollywood tape became public in October 2016, his supporters have dismissed his remarks as merely vulgar, an unvarnished version of how other people talk every day. After all, Trump’s supporters have long heralded his ability to “tell it like it is.” But the problem with Trump’s speech isn’t the form, it’s the content, which is frequently racist, misogynist, or xenophobic. And what’s truly frightening about the “locker room talk” narrative of Trump’s language is that it accepts racism, misogyny, and xenophobia as normal.
The “locker room talk” defense set the tone for supporters’ reactions to Trump
When news of the newly discovered Access Hollywood tape broke in 2016, Trump tried to explain his comments away by calling them “locker-room banter.” Others soon took up the talking point. “Why are we even talking about locker-room comments from 11 years ago when there are so many important issues at hand?” asked Minnesota state Sen. Carrie L. Rudd, a Republican, according to the Washington Times.
Demetra DeMonte, a former national secretary for the Republican National Committee, told the Washington Times that Trump was “not the first nor will he be the last to utter foul language in the privacy of their home or locker rooms.” Last year, retired boxer Floyd Mayweather, who has voiced support for Trump (and has been to prison for domestic battery), said that Trump “speaks like real men.”
All these comments imply that talking about grabbing women by their genitals, while objectionable, is normal and common. Indeed, Trump has long gotten credit from his supporters for being unfiltered or saying what others are thinking, but are too polite to admit.
In fact, the Access Hollywood tape revealed a man talking gleefully about his ability to sexually assault women. Complaining about immigrants from “shithole countries” coming to the United States is bigoted and racist. The problem with these comments is not the words the president used to convey his message — another question he reportedly asked at the same meeting, “Why do we need more Haitians,” was just as racist and offensive. It’s that the ideas he expressed should have no place in American policy.
But, of course, those are Trump’s ideas. And a number of his supporters seem to share them.
On Friday morning, Trump appeared to deny he made the “shithole” comment. But according to CNN White House reporter Kaitlan Collins, staffers are unconcerned about potential fallout:
Staffers inside the White House aren't that worried about Trump's "shithole" remark -- with some predicting it will actually resonate with his base, not alienate it, much like his attacks on NFL players who kneel during the national anthem did.— Kaitlan Collins (@kaitlancollins) January 11, 2018
Collins also reports that Trump is excited about media reactions to the comment:
Trump spent last night phoning allies and friends, asking them how they thought the “shithole” remark was playing out in the press. One White House official referred to it as a “victory lap.”— Kaitlan Collins (@kaitlancollins) January 12, 2018
And really, why shouldn’t Trump be excited? If this particular news cycle plays out the way the Access Hollywood story did, Trump will receive some opprobrium from his word choice (a meta-debate is already swirling around whether news outlets should reproduce the word “shithole”). But supporters will quickly come forward to defend his underlying message — in fact, they are already doing so.
Of course, many people have called out the president for his racist remarks. And many people would never dream of talking about the glories of sexual assault with their locker-room buddies, even if they might use vulgar language or banter about sex. But the genius of the “locker room talk” narrative is that it casts the president as normal and his critics as naive or schoolmarmish. (In his statement on the Access Hollywood tape, Trump also said, “Bill Clinton has said far worse to me on the golf course.”) Suddenly, we’re all just supposed to accept that this is how “real men” talk.
By brushing off racism and sexism as vulgarity, Trump and his supporters have not only pushed aside comments that would likely have torpedoed any other politician. They have also promulgated the notion that the sentiments behind those comments are entirely acceptable and normal — that Trump’s view of the world is the way the world really is. That’s a lot more dangerous, and more lasting, than a few curse words.