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Defining the Presidency Down

C. Gourgey, Ph.D.

“What do we want Haitians here for? Why do we want all these people from Africa here? Why do we want all these people from shithole countries?”

“We should have people from places like Norway.”

These words spoken by the President of the United States hardly need an introduction. They have reverberated across the world like a global sonic boom. They were spoken in the Oval Office in front of witnesses.(1)

Of course they caused an immediate uproar. The initial White House reaction is telling. No one denied it. In fact, they justified it. This is how Deputy Press Secretary Raj Shah responded:

Certain Washington politicians choose to fight for foreign countries, but President Trump will always fight for the American people. Like other nations that have merit-based immigration, President Trump is fighting for permanent solutions that make our country stronger by welcoming those who can contribute to our society, grow our economy and assimilate into our great nation.

And presumably fair-skinned Scandinavians are the only immigrants who can help Make America Great Again.

Make mo mistake - if Trump were not convinced that his words would play well with his base, he would have denied them immediately. Instead he waited an entire day, until the firestorm became so great that even he could no longer defend his statements. His denial was equivocal and mealy-mouthed but probably his best effort, given the circumstances, to fabricate an outright lie:

The language used by me at the DACA meeting was tough, but this was not the language used. What was really tough was the outlandish proposal made - a big setback for DACA!

The language used was not the language used? The only clear thing in this odd statement is that, whatever Trump did or did not say, the real object of our indignation should be the Dreamers. His best defense of this foul language: brag about “a big setback for DACA!” So if Trump must appear to walk back a statement endearing to his base, at least he can throw them an acceptable substitute.

After observing Trump’s first year in office it should be obvious that truth means nothing to him and that his word is worthless. And people (not enough of them in the US, unfortunately) are catching on: increasingly no one believes a word he says. Senator Dick Durbin, a Democrat, who was present at that meeting and an earwitness, affirmed that Trump actually did use precisely the foul language that was reported: the President of the United States, Durbin stated, “said these hate-filled things and he said them repeatedly.”(3) A couple of Republican Senators, Tom Cotton and David Purdue, who were also there, were less committal, taking refuge in the time-worn phrase of cowards and liars throughout political history: “I don’t recall.” No one actually denied it. However, days later they started arguing about whether Trump said “shithole” or “shithouse.” Apparently that’s their way of showing sensitivity.(4)

“Conscience does make cowards of us all” said Hamlet, and so does the lack of conscience. Some Republicans, I assume, are good people. How can so many of them fail to speak up when the leader of our nation does such damage to its image, not caring whom he hurts or what the effect will be on both our society and relations with other countries?

The only conceivable answer is they are afraid of the one third of this country who elected Trump, and who elected them. They are in fear of people who love this President because “he talks like us” and “he says what we feel.”

How pathetic that a political party would care so much about pleasing the worst of its constituents, regardless of the consequences to our national welfare, that it would shred whatever is left of its dignity. It is playing a losing game, because time and history are against it. We may not witness the outcome tomorrow or next year, but the demographics of this country are changing, and the white supremacists who support our current regime will be outnumbered by people who are willing to stand up to them, including people who were born or whose ancestors were born in “shithole” countries.

The xenophobia that so gratifies the Republican base is hurting us, in many ways. We are losing talented people, who will enrich other countries at our expense. We are losing many people who have dedicated themselves to this country, as the immigration police root them out like vermin. We are losing our soul, as we become oblivious to the pain we are inflicting on families, including young children, by tearing them apart, when so many of them have committed no crime (except to come here seeking refuge) and have made positive contributions to our society. And as we condone the misery we are inflicting on poor people by blaming them for their poverty and cutting vital services they depend on. Those who indulge the fantasy that some people are beneath them, are less human than they are, and do not deserve even a token of respect, are without realizing it corroding themselves inwardly.

So now we can finally say it. From his birtherism, to his calling Latino immigrants “rapists” and “murderers,” to his encouragement of neo-Nazis, to his labeling of “shitholes,” it is clear that the President of the United States is a racist. There can no longer be any doubt that his persecution of immigrants in this country is motivated by racism. And that millions of Americans are OK with it. This President who hails from the “Party of Lincoln” has become the Great Divider. His divisiveness and racism may not only reflect who he really is, it is also a strategy. He consolidates his power by driving a wedge through our society, making it sick, by turning people against each other, encouraging us to attack each other, as if his presidency were the ultimate edition of The Apprentice. (Anyone who saw that show will recognize the tactic and should not be surprised by it.) And his cruel flair for irony is unparalleled: after ending protections for people under DACA, and after doing all he can to terrorize immigrants in this country, he bragged about the “love” he is going to show them.(5)

Perhaps even more shocking than Trump’s vulgar language is the fact that so many are willing to enable him. Many are defending him and what he said (just watch Fox News): they only want immigrants who can make positive contributions, as if only white people possessed that capability. And they have a new favorite word to use against Trump’s critics: “hysterical.” People who are justifiably outraged by Trump’s outrages are “hysterical.” For them, that settles the argument.

That is just one tiny example of how political discussion in this country has been coarsened. Trump has degraded any ideas we had of what we can and should expect from a President. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan would say, he has defined the Presidency down. Will we ever again choose a President based upon his or her qualifications? Or will the Presidency of the United States become the one important job in the world for which qualifications, experience, and even decency no longer matter?


(1) Lisa Mascaro, “Trump Complains About Allowing Immigrants from ‘Shithole’ Countries,” Los Angeles Times, January 11, 2018.

(2) Caroline Kenny, “Trump Denies Making ‘Shithole Countries’ Comment,” CNN.com, January 12, 2018.

(3) Kylie Madry and David Jordan, “First Baptist Pastor Robert Jeffress Says Sentiment of Trump’s Vulgar Immigration Remarks ‘on Target,’Dallas Morning News, January 12, 2018.

(4) Ben Mathis-Lilley, “But Isn’t ‘Shithouse’ Actually More Insulting Than ‘Shithole’?,” Slate, January 16, 2018.

(5) E.J. Dionne, “Trump Accidentally Discovers a Truth About Immigration,” Salt Lake Tribune, January 11, 2018.

January 2018