Trump wasn’t Talking about Countries. He was Talking about People.

I didn’t really want to write another Trump post. There have been so many of them, and when he decided to refer to African countries as “shitholes,” I was anything but surprised. He continues to do and say the same things he’s always done and said. Expressing shock or disappointment at this point seems pretty redundant. And this post isn’t really going to be about Trump, believe it or not.

It’s about the rest of us. It’s about how we respond to Trump, and what that says about us.

Because in the days after his shithole comment, there have been a variety of responses. Outrage and disappointment were expected, but what was not expected were the ones where people tried to continue to defend the man. I know I shouldn’t be surprised by that, but I am. And I have seen two main arguments used to try to excuse his remarks. Both leave much to be desired.

First, Trump and some of the Republicans in the meeting are saying he didn’t actually say “shithole.” Instead, this is what each are claiming:

  • Trump: “The language used by me at the DACA meeting was tough, but this was not the language used.”
  • Senators Cotton and Perdue: “We do not recall the President saying these comments specifically”
  • Homeland Security Secretary Nielsen: “I don’t recall him saying that exact phrase.”

And in each case, the defender then tries to deflect the conversation back to what’s “really important,” which is immigration and how impassioned Trump is about it, and how we have to blah blah blah. And there are other Republicans who just aren’t saying anything, and some who are ignoring the comment altogether, skipping straight to focusing on what’s “really important.”

I go to a lot of meetings. Day in, day out. Meetings. And if I were ever in a meeting where the person running it used the word “shithole” in the middle of the meeting, I would remember. It would be blazed across my mind, because the people I go to meetings with just don’t use that kind of language in formal settings. So to have even the defenders hemming and hawing about it, spouting out about strong language and exact phrases? Even if I believed them, all it adds up to is Trump used some comment other than shithole. Not only that, but he uses such foul language in meetings on a regular basis that “shithole” doesn’t really make a lasting impression on people. I wonder what would.

So this defense pretty much agrees with the fact that he used terrible language to describe some countries. So much of it that “shithole” as a single adjective kind of blended in with the rest, perhaps.

“Tough” language indeed.

But let’s move on to the second defense. I’ve seen multiple people (some of them friends of mine) try to excuse Trump’s remarks by saying he was just crudely stating what many people believe anyway. To them, “shithole” is shorthand for “economically challenged, corrupt, unstable nation with severe infrastructure problems.” And as I look at that definition, it seems to fit “America” more and more with every passing day.

Except what people try to make this mean is that there are some countries we’d rather visit or live than others. That anyone who’d rather go to Norway on vacation is just as “racist” as Trump. Except that’s not how this works. There’s a huge difference between preference and labeling, especially when you’re the leader of a major geopolitical power.

I have traveled a fair bit in my life. I have seen places where people are living in abject poverty. Where they don’t have enough money to provide heat and food for their families. But even in those dire circumstances, the people I’ve met and talked to have always impressed me. They’ve been outgoing, passionate, and generous. Even in the worst of circumstances, I’ve found places to admire and wonder at. History that amazes me. Adventures all over the globe. And the more I’ve traveled, the more I’ve seen that people are people, no matter where you go. There are great people, and terrible people. Motivated people, and lazy people. I don’t care what country you’re from. Your life is what you make it. Your culture might be different, but that just means we’ll have a bit more trouble understanding where we’re both coming from, not that my culture is better than yours.

But even after we take all of that into account, we’re missing the point. Because Trump wasn’t having a conversation about where he wants to go on vacation this year. He was talking about immigration, and who is coming to our country. We must not forget for one moment that Trump wasn’t just referring to the countries when he said “shithole.” He was asking why we want more people from these shithole countries.

It wasn’t about the countries. It was about the people who live in them.

And that’s where the charges of racism stick and no amount of wiping will clear them away. All of Trump’s defenders have been so focused on that one shithole word that they didn’t realize words themselves are fleeting things. It’s what we use those words to say which is far more important. According to reports, Trump wondered why we couldn’t get more people from “good” countries like Norway, as opposed to all these “shithole” countries like African nations. He wasn’t talking about places he’d like to live, or where he’d love to go on vacation. He was saying people from Norway are better than people from Africa. More desirable to have in our country.

If that’s not racist, I don’t know what is.

And yet people continue to defend the man. People I know. And instead of talking about what we should do about Trump–how we might mitigate the damage he’s doing to our country–we end up discussing the words he uses. He continues to do and say terrible things while we waste time being outraged. And we get tired. And we don’t want to talk about it anymore. I know I don’t. I’m so sick of hearing what he’s up to that I just want the next three years to be over and done with. Except ignoring it doesn’t help. It just lets him have an easier time of it.

So don’t be fooled. Don’t let them switch the conversation, or change the meaning of what he said. Remember that it wasn’t about the word (though the word was bad enough as it was). And it wasn’t about the countries (though that too, would have been awful). It was about the dismissive thoughts he had about the *people* in those countries. When  you can dismiss entire countries of people with such ease, how are you anything but a racist? And you’re one step closer to treating people like commodities, not individuals, something which I think Trump already does. The more we focus on the word and not the meaning, the more we allow ourselves to be inundated with his ideology. We begin to normalize it, and it becomes that much easier for racist groups to thrive in  our nation.

Words have consequences. They lead to actions. We need to keep our leaders accountable not just for what they do, but what they say.


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