Why that ‘sh*thole’ comment really matters

Lynda Tran

There has been a great deal of righteous outrage among many Americans since the news broke last Thursday that President Trump allegedly referred to immigrants from Haiti and African nations as hailing from “sh*thole countries.” The latest back and forth as we emerge from a holiday weekend that saw Republican Senators Tom Cotton (AK) and David Perdue (GA) vehemently deny the president made the comment during an Oval Office meeting is whether the word he used was “sh*thole” or “sh*thouse.” Yet all of the discussion around the vulgarity Mr. Trump used runs the danger of missing the point.

Yes, the president’s comment flies in the face of expected presidential decorum yet again. But its real significance is in what it reveals about the inner thinking of one of the biggest power players in the current debate over comprehensive immigration reform. Coming on the heels of a televised immigration meeting that was staged just days beforehand to afford Mr. Trump public avowals like “I’ll take the heat” from conservatives, it’s no surprise there has been so much focus on what he said behind closed doors. The “sh*thole” moment tells us a great deal about how President Trump picks winners and losers when it comes to immigration policy.

On immigration policy as on other issues, the president’s views appear astonishingly binary: Norwegians good, Haitians bad. Muslim nations bad, Christian nations good. However, both his “sh*thole” comment and his approach so far to immigration policy is consistent with what we’ve seen so far about how he sees the world writ large – you’re either with him or against him, and if you’re against him, you are clearly deeply flawed somehow.

This black and white view of the world and the boiling down of complicated relationships and points of view into as simplistic terms as possible may also in part explain his recent “where are you from” query to a career intelligence analyst and hostage policy expert and his conclusion that “the pretty Korean lady” should be negotiating with North Korea, regardless of her actual expertise. President Trump’s stark cultural insensitivity doesn’t explain his gendered assessment of the analyst, but it does hint at how his brain approaches problem-solving and the importance of basic categories in how he assesses the challenges he faces.

It’s not a great leap to conjecture that somehow in his life journey Mr. Trump failed to absorb the importance of race, culture, and identity – much less how to embrace individual diversity. Where his nonchalance leaves us is with a president who felt compelled to say “I’m not a racist” and an upcoming State of the Union address that will feature the empty seats of civil rights icon John L. Lewis (D-GA), Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Maxine Waters (D-CA), and freshman U.S. Representative Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), an immigrant herself and the first Indian-American woman elected to Congress.

There’s no doubt there are many elected leaders on both sides of the aisle who want to see a meaningful path to citizenship for the millions of undocumented immigrants currently working, contributing, and living in our communities. From the Gang of 8 discussions that began under the Obama Administration to the current bipartisan distress over the fate of our Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, both Democrats and Republicans have repeatedly and increasingly called for an overhaul of our immigration system that honors our American values of inclusivity and the belief that people who work hard and give back to our country should have a chance at the American Dream. But for Donald Trump, the immigration debate has been little more than an opportunity to test his skills at stagecraft – in fact, he reportedly called his supporters to discuss whether his “sh*thole” comment played well with his base, initially unconcerned with the larger fallout at all.

This week, we learned more conclusively than ever before that President Trump will never be able to represent all Americans – because he doesn’t believe he needs to. This perspective doesn’t bode well for DACA much less for a broader immigration policy that respects our values and honors the role of countless immigrants over the course of our melting pot history. That’s bad news for the overwhelming majority of Americans who support DACA – 70 percent according to a CBS News poll this month – and bad news for anyone hoping to see an overhaul of our immigration system any time soon.

One can’t help but wonder how Mr. Trump’s own immigrant grandparents would have reacted were they here to witness it all.

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