Meeting with leaders from both parties yesterday to craft a bipartisan immigration deal, President Donald Trump uttered words that are likely to define his presidency. When lawmakers raised the issue of protecting immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador, and African countries, the president reportedly asked, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” He added, “Why do we need more Haitians? Take them out.” He suggested the United States should take more immigrants from countries like Norway.
Trump tweeted a partial denial on Friday.
Media outlets have been blunt in their assessment of the president’s alleged comments. “The president of the United States is a racist,” Don Lemon declared in the opening of his program, CNN Tonight. “It is clear that ignorance and racism are the inspiration for our president’s latest round of uninformed commentary,” Christine Emba wrote in The Washington Post. “Even so, our president has now stated outright that he wants more white immigrants and fewer ‘shithole’ black and brown ones.”
Trump’s remarks reveal the scope of his racism. Trump is not just setting up a domestic racial hierarchy of preferable Americans, with whites at the top and black and brown people at the bottom. By describing certain countries as “shitholes,” Trump is outlining a global racial hierarchy, one that has profound implications for American foreign policy.
At the simplest level, Trump’s insulting words are going to antagonize many nations. The Haitian government has already made its displeasure known:
Insulting other countries is a natural outgrowth of Trump’s unilateralist approach to foreign policy. He considers international relations to be a dominance game in which other countries are trying to exploit the U.S., and thus has little interest in earning the good opinion of mankind. Rather, he seems to believe that flexing power—whether by declaring Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel or threatening nuclear war against North Korea—is the only way to earn respect.
Trump sees the immigration system itself as part of a conspiracy to hurt the U.S. “They give us their worst people, they put them in a bin,” Trump said in December, describing the visa lottery program. “But in his hand when he’s picking them is really the worst of the worst.”
Foreign policy in America, a white settler nation built on ethnic cleansing and slavery, has often been inflected with racism. As historian Matt Karp has demonstrated, slave owners played an outsized role in antebellum America, working hard to protect slavery not just in the South but also in Brazil, Cuba, and the Republic of Texas. The imperialist turn in American foreign policy begun during the Spanish-American War of 1898 was shaped in no small part by Social Darwinist ideas about the need to assert Anglo-Saxon superiority.
The rise of anti-imperialism in the twentieth century forced the U.S. to confront its own racism. This was especially true during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union was quick to point out the hypocrisy of America claiming to be a democracy while treating African-Americans as second-class citizens.
As Secretary of State Dean Acheson admitted in 1947, “the existence of discrimination against minority groups in this country has an adverse effect upon our relations with other countries. We are reminded over and over by some foreign newspapers and spokesmen, that our treatment of various minorities leaves much to be desired…. We will have better international relations when those reasons for suspicion and resentment have been removed.” Seeking to create an international order and win allies in South America, Africa, and Asia, Cold War presidents from Harry Truman to Lyndon Johnson pushed for civil rights at home and anti-imperialism abroad.
American leaders continued to harbor prejudices about other nations, but they wisely kept those private. The diplomat George Kennan’s private diaries revealed him to be a bigot, but his nasty opinion of foreigners (he described an Italian he met as a “typical dago ... talkative in a weak, ignorant, furtive, sneering way,” and called Iraqis “a population unhygienic in its habits”) came out only after his death. In private conversations with President Richard Nixon in 1971, Henry Kissinger said, “Well, the Indians are bastards anyway” because they were trying to call attention to violence in East Pakistan carried out by an American-friendly regime. That same year, Kissinger, in a memo, called Bangladesh a “basket case.” When these insults were leaked to the press, they caused the administration much diplomatic embarrassment.
But Kissinger’s indiscretion was a personal foible, while Trump’s “shithole” remark speaks to his broader beliefs. Trump sees the world through a racial lens, which fuels not just his desire to keep out non-white immigrants, but also his contempt for the nations they come from. Unlike the Cold War presidents, Trump doesn’t care about America’s international reputation. He demonstrates no appreciation of soft power or the value of America holding the high moral ground—and the nation slipped further from that perch with Trump’s comments on Thursday.