The Day Shithole Entered the Presidential Lexicon

In insulting certain countries, Trump revealed the hierarchy he imposes on the world.

Editor’s Note: This article is one of 50 in a series about Trump's first two years as president.

On January 11, 2018, during an Oval Office talk with several U.S. senators about protecting immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador, and African countries in a new immigration package, President Donald Trump unleashed a word that Americans aren't accustomed to hearing from their president.

“Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” Trump reportedly asked. (He later denied having said this.)

Months earlier, Trump had reportedly complained that Nigerian immigrants would never “go back to their huts” and Haitians “all have AIDS.” He doubled down at the Oval Office meeting. “Why do we need more Haitians?” Trump said. “Take them out.”

In their stead, Trump spoke of taking in immigrants from great European countries like Norway, and also from Asian countries, since they could help America economically.

The private conversation leaked. Shithole snatched the headlines. But what made this moment historic, what made this moment unprecedented, was not merely the misuse of a vile word. It was the racial hierarchy Trump constructed with that language. He placed whites over Asians, and both over Latinos and blacks from “shithole” countries.

White House staffers immediately predicted that the leaked conversation would resonate with his base. Perhaps it did. Perhaps it still does. Perhaps racist Americans see the browning of America as the shitholing of America. Perhaps, as former Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Cedric L. Richmond responded, they hear “Make America Great Again” as “Make America White Again.”

On the other hand, Americans should take from that moment its bracing clarity. Trump’s administration is not pursuing a “hardline immigration policy.” That phrase obscures Trump’s soft immigration policy for white people from countries like Slovenia, the homeland of Trump’s recently naturalized in-laws. It obscures history.

Before the 1924 Immigration Act, before the Civil War, the exclusionary lines drawn by Know Nothings, Anglo-Saxons, and eugenicists were much more restrictive than Trump’s MAWA. In much the same way that Trump demeans and blocks Latino, black, and Muslim immigrants, the old immigration hard-liners demeaned and banned nearly everyone, including the very same eastern Europeans and Asians whom Trump now welcomes.

Trump’s predecessors were more anti-immigrant than pro-white. Trump’s “shithole countries” remark is evidence that he is more pro-white than anti-immigrant.