The president of the United States should not, by word or deed, communicate that he is hostile to or disdainful of entire classes of the American population. It doesn’t matter if such divisive rhetoric helps him win elections, nor if the reaction of his opponents is often overblown. As president, his obligation remains the same: Make your case without demonizing whole groups of people.
This shouldn’t be difficult for conservatives to understand. It’s an argument they’ve been making against Democrats for the better part of a decade. It’s the argument against identity politics.
Virtually every engaged conservative knows the term “bitter clinger.” When Barack Obama spoke at a San Francisco fundraiser in 2008 and offered his amateur sociological assessment that some Americans become “bitter” about social change and “cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them,” conservatives didn’t hear dispassionate analysis. They heard contempt.
Among the terrible effects of negative polarization is the widespread perception — often created by presidents and presidential candidates themselves — that a president governs for the benefit of his constituents alone. Thus, in a very real way, voting becomes an act of self-defense rather than a positive expression of one’s values: Win the election or face the consequences. Indeed, in the aftermath of Hillary Clinton’s “deplorable” comment and her declaration that Republicans were her “enemies,” millions of conservatives were motivated to go to the polls. (Remember “charge the cockpit or die”?)
With all that in mind, how should a conservative react to President Trump’s alleged comments about immigration from “sh**hole” or “sh**house” countries?
First, if you’re spending your time defending the notion that some countries are truly bad places to live, you’re missing the point entirely. Of course some countries are worse places to live than others. But Trump wasn’t talking about which countries he’d most like to visit or retire to. He was talking about which countries’ immigrants should be most and least welcomed by the United States.
Second, these comments must be understood in the context of Trump’s relatively short history as the country’s most visible political figure. From the opening moments of his presidential campaign, Trump has made sweeping, negative remarks about immigrants from third-world nations. Even when he qualifies those remarks (“They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people”) the qualification is weak. Isn’t it reasonable for a Mexican American to assume that when Trump says Mexico is “forcing their most unwanted people into the United States,” he is expressing a negative personal perception of Mexican immigrants?
Moreover, time and again, Trump has engaged in actions and rhetoric that inflame broader racial tensions and betray possible racial bias. As my colleague Ramesh Ponnuru pointed out this morning, the president’s businesses have been credibly accused of racial discrimination, he claimed that an American judge couldn’t do his job fairly because of the judge’s Mexican heritage, he delayed condemning David Duke as long as he possibly could, and after the dreadful alt-right rally and terrorist attack in Charlottesville, he went out of his way to declare that there were “very fine people” on both sides. One doesn’t even have to delve too deeply into Trump’s alleged comparison of Norway with the “sh**holes” of Africa to understand why a reasonable observer would believe that he has problems with entire classes of Americans, immigrants, and citizens of other nations.
At this point I simply can’t see how a conservative could look a concerned third-world immigrant (or descendent of a third-world immigrant) in the eye and assert that this president judges them fairly and without bias.
The fact that modern debate has become extraordinarily stupid does not excuse us from understanding and recognizing the core problem with Trump’s comments. Yes, it’s ridiculous to see a parade of progressives take to Twitter to argue that desperately poor and often terribly corrupt third-world nations are really just lovely and amazing places. Yes, it’s even more ridiculous to see a different group of progressives argue that, wait, America is the true “sh**hole.” But it’s just as ridiculous for conservatives to pretend that the outrage over Trump’s comments truly centers around his assessment of Haiti and Africa when it clearly centers around his assessment of Haitians and Africans. His remarks came amid a discussion of immigration policy, after all.
At this point I simply can’t see how a conservative could look a concerned third-world immigrant (or descendent of a third-world immigrant) in the eye and assert that this president judges them fairly and without bias. The intellectual and rhetorical gymnastics necessary to justify not just Trump’s alleged comments yesterday but his entire history and record of transparent hostility to certain immigrants are getting embarrassing to watch. Some of his comments may “work” politically — divisive comments often do — but that doesn’t make them any less damaging to American political culture as a whole.
For all too many Americans, Trump once again got personal. My youngest daughter is an African immigrant — we adopted her from a desperately poor region of a country that has suffered in the recent past from terrible corruption and oppression. Yet she’s been a delightful addition to our American family, and her story isn’t unique. There are millions of Americans and lawful immigrants who hear comments like Trump’s and understand that he’s talking about them. Why shouldn’t they be angry? Why shouldn’t conservatives unite to ask the president to do and be better?
No one can credibly argue that political discourse before Trump was healthy and virtuous. No one can credibly argue that he’s the first American to intentionally divide Americans by race, class, or religion, either. But a president can make our political culture better, or he can make it worse. And Trump seems determined to make it worse.