Coincidentally — or, I’d like to think, providentially — I came to understand something critically important about racism in America on Martin Luther King weekend, and I don’t mean the supposed difference between shithole countries and shithouse countries.
And I don’t mean the not exactly revelation that our president is a racist, either. Come on, we’ve known that for, like, forever. It’s not groundbreaking at this point to say that among the key reasons Donald Trump was elected president was his appeal to those voters who were vulnerable to a dog-whistling (and worse) demagogue.
I am always hesitant to call people racists because who knows what people actually think or whether they even know what they actually think. Apparently, many people voted for Barack Obama and, four years later, for Donald Trump. There’s no explaining that.
But I do have to laugh when people talk about the difficulty of knowing what’s in someone’s heart. That’s certainly not a problem with Trump, a guy who thinks it’s funny to mock a disabled reporter.
The plain truth is that Trump is an ugly bully whose behavior is such that reports that he paid off porn stars to be quiet in the runup to the 2016 election barely even register. This isn’t a question of a charge of fake news, as Trump will tweet at us. It’s that this is Trump and everyone knows it’s Trump. He’s a bully. He’s a misogynist. He’s racist. These are all of a piece.
And no one can really believe that Trump didn’t use shithole or shithouse or some other scatalogical term to describe countries he’s never visited and about which he knows only that most people living there are black. (Which gives him a leg up, at least, on Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen who testified Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee that she didn’t recall Trump saying shithole in the meeting. Nielsen also said — seriously — that she didn’t know Norway is predominantly white. I just wish someone had asked her if she knew polar bears are predominantly white.)
The real issue is acceptance of Trump’s racism by the Republican Party, the party of Lincoln. That acceptance is apparent in some Congress members’ willingness to lie about what Trump said or stay quiet about what he said or mildly criticize what he said but do absolutely nothing about it. Our own Cory Gardner is one of those to offer the most tepid of criticisms, which are as effective as the old duck-and-cover drills in Cold War days. They don’t mean, or accomplish, anything.
The defense of Trump here is more than enabling behavior. It is condoning behavior. It’s an assault on the essence of, to borrow a phrase, what, in fact, makes America great.
We’ve long known this problem in theory thanks to the cowardly Paul Ryan and the squirrelly Mitch McConnell and the many other congressional enablers. But never has it been so clear as it is in the case of Trump’s shithole-gate.
When Trump was elected, many worried that his behavior would soon be normalized. That hasn’t actually happened in the way I assumed. Most Americans — if you trust the polls — continue to be outraged by every single Trump outrage. But what has happened, in the Republican Congress, is the normalization of Trump’s bigoted behavior that recalls the very worst of America.
For making this absolutely clear, we can thank Sens. Tom Cotton and David Perdue, who were surprise participants in the shithole meeting. Their last-minute presence was apparently required to buck up Trump so he wouldn’t be rolled by the Gang of Six, whose dreamers/immigration proposal Lindsey Graham and Dick Durbin were set to present to the president. (The six-senator gang, by the way, includes Colorado’s Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner.)
When The Washington Post broke the shithole story, Cotton and Perdue penned a joint release saying they couldn’t recall Trump saying that word. The do-not-recall dodge is timeless, but, wait, it gets worse. Soon after, Durbin revealed that Trump did use shithole and that his words in general were vile and racist. Durbin also said that during the meeting Graham had bravely stood up to Trump for using the language that Cotton and Perdue couldn’t recall.
So, Cotton and Perdue, who on one day couldn’t recall what Trump had said, went on the Sunday shows to say that, magically, they had both not only simultaneously regained their memories but that Trump, it turned out, never said shithole. After which, The Washington Post revealed that, in Cotton’s and Perdue’s memory, what Trump actually said was shithouse.
Seriously. That was their defense. He didn’t say shithole countries. He said shithouse countries – an expression I’ve never heard.
Were they lying? What would you say?
Lindsey Graham — who had said the reports on Trump were “basically accurate” — had the line of the week, saying his recollection hadn’t, uh, “evolved” like those of his colleagues. Of course, Graham has been spending weeks futilely sucking up to Trump, presumably to get him to sign on to the immigration proposal. We can see how well that worked out. Meanwhile, Perdue and then Trump accused Durbin of totally “misrepresenting” what Trump said, meaning they were accusing Durbin of lying — and, of course, Graham, too.
That this happened on the Martin Luther King holiday weekend makes the shameful behavior even more shameful. That many of the same people who defended Trump, or who didn’t mention the shithole comments at all, were obligatorily praising King may be even more shameful yet.
There was a powerful cover on The New Yorker last week by Mark Ulriksen, in which King was imagined linking arms on a football field with protesting football players Colin Kaepernick and Michael Bennett. There’s no question where King would be on such issues were he alive today.
There’s also no question that Trump would be attacking King were he alive today, just as he has attacked civil rights icon John Lewis.
Lewis had said that in light of the shithole comments, he won’t be attending Trump’s State of the Union speech. There will be a few other boycotters, too. But that’s no problem for Trump. As the cameras roll, the room will still be packed, and at least half those in the audience will no doubt jump to their feet to cheer him.
Flickr Creative Commons photo by Spencer Means.