President Reagan on immigration, 1982: “I have always believed there was some divine providence that placed this great land here between two great oceans, to be found by a special kind of people from every corner of the world.”
Trump on immigration, yesterday: “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?”
As recently as 357 days ago, a president was expected to summon the best angels of our nature, and to honor the American values that have long made us the envy of huddled masses everywhere. It was unthinkable — until now — that someone in that office would embody the worst of our nature, trashing our American values with the kind of racist drivel you might have the misfortune to overhear in a dirtbag saloon.
But that’s where we are, at Year One of the occupation. Trump would love to limit the American dream to white Nordics (he says he’s fine with more immigrants from Norway) — as if any rational Norwegian would want to pull up stakes to come live here under the heel of a hateful racist.
The damage this guy is doing to our country — starting with the fact that American children have to be shielded from quoted vulgarities on the evening news — is arguably matched by the damage he is doing to our standing in the world. Haiti, El Salvador, and the continent of Africa are not our enemies, but labeling them “shitholes” will sour grassroots relations. And this so-called president is so loathed abroad that he has canceled a visit to Great Britain, one of our closest allies, because he rightly fears a hostile street reception.
We know by now that Trump is hostage to his own ignorance (as most racists are), so it would be futile for his advisers to educate him with actual facts — stuff that’s true, as opposed to the daily spew from “Fox & Friends.”
It just so happens, for instance, that immigrants from “shithole” African nations are more highly educated than the general American population, “with a particular focus on Science, Engineering, Technology, and Math. Forty percent of African immigrants have at least a bachelor’s degree — making them 30 percent more likely to achieve that level of education than the U.S. population overall.” It just so happens, according to the Russell Sage Foundation, that Americans of “shithole” Nigerian ancestry are more educated than the general population; roughly 25 percent have graduate or professional degrees — more than double the percentage of whites.
And we certainly don’t expect the congressional Republicans to enlighten the racist. A handful have harrumphed about Trump’s remark, but, at this writing, not a single party leader has done so. Indeed, congressman Mark Sanford of South Carolina has spoken for most of his brethren: “It is what it is.” They all revered Ronald Reagan back in the day, they applauded his expansive pluralistic view of the American dream, but at this point in their moral devolution they’re incapable of uttering a peep of protest — because they’re too deeply mired in Trump’s white nationalist shithole.
And that’s because they’re still in thrall to the 35 percent who would follow Trump into nuclear war. The debasement of American values takes second place to placating the base. The base takes its cues from Fox News, where, last night, Trump was given a pass. One host said: “This is how the forgotten men and women of America talk at the bar.” Undoubtedly, many do. But they don’t have to deal with the consequences; they can simply slap five with their fellow bigots and order more beer. A president has to deal with consequences; earlier today, in an official statement, the normally friendly leaders of Botswana demanded to know whether Trump’s “reprehensible and racist” remark applied to their country.
Until now, presidents typically sought to raise our standards, not to echo and validate our lowest instincts. But that’s precisely how Trump wound up with the nuclear codes. His ascent was fueled at its core by racism — his manifest lie that the first black president was not an American — a lie that was (at worst) endorsed, or (at minimum) tolerated by a plurality of Republican primary voters. They greased his path to power. They share the responsibility for his trashing of our highest values, for the toxic poison he has injected into the body politic.
And unless we say no to racism in November, unless we show up en masse to reclaim the expansive American dream, we will betray Reagan’s vision of “the shining city on the hill.” We will instead be the vulgarism that Trump ascribes to other lands.