Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Opinion: Our racist in chief

Imagine that you’re sitting at a bar, and you glance at the guy on the barstool next to you. He looks like he’s had four or five beers already, and before you know it, he strikes up a conversation.

About immigration.

He launches into a crude rant, complaining about immigrants from places like Africa, El Salvador and Haiti. “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” he asks, demanding an answer. “Why don’t we have more people from places like, like, Norway! Huh? Why’s that?”

How do you respond?

Do you buy the man another beer in hopes that he will drop further pearls of wisdom and enlightenment? Do you ask your new friend over to the house for dinner Friday night, so he can meet the family? Do you introduce him to your boss as someone she might want to hire?

Unfortunately, for tens of millions of Americans, the answer was to elect that man president of the United States of America, to make him our leader and our representative to the rest of the world, the exemplar of American values.

Some of those who voted for Donald Trump -- too few, but some -- might say today that they just didn’t know. But they knew. Everyone knew.

The man rose to political prominence by claiming, without evidence, that Barack Obama could not be president because he was not born in this country. He opened his campaign with a speech ranting against Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals. He complained that a federal judge born in Indiana was unqualified to sit in a court case against him because of his Mexican-American heritage. He promised a ban on Muslim immigration. He surrounded himself with proud and open white nationalists, naming them to top positions in his campaign.

And as far back as 2013, in a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference, Trump was publicly advocating more immigration from European countries, and less from Latin America. “Nobody wants to talk this, nobody wants to say it,” Trump said as he said it.

So they knew. We all knew.

And even if they claim that they didn’t know in November, they know by now. After his “good people on both sides” comments about Charlottesville, after his attacks on black athletes and the widow of a black soldier, and now after this, we all know. And despite of this behavior -- and in some cases because of this behavior -- they will continue to support him.

Tellingly, the Trump White House is not attempting to deny the comments, but to justify them.

“Certain Washington politicians choose to fight for foreign countries, but President Trump will always fight for the American people,” spokesman Raj Shah said in a statement. “.... Like other nations that have merit-based immigration, President Trump is fighting for permanent solutions that make our country stronger by welcoming those who can contribute to our society, grow our economy and assimilate into our great nation.”

The implication is that we can judge the merits of individual potential immigrants, their ability to assimilate and work hard and contribute, by their country of origin. “Shithole” countries produce “shithole” people, apparently. The claim is that Trump is “fighting for the American people” by trying to cut off immigration from these “shithole countries,” which also happen to be non-white countries.

The diplomatic blowback in those countries is likely to be significant. They have pride, just as we do. They want to be respected, just as we do. And when America comes to them seeking assistance or cooperation, it’s going to be a little harder to come by.

It also lifts a veil on the debate underway here at home.

In the past few weeks alone, the Trump administration has announced the forced removal of hundreds of thousands of people who have lived here for a decade or more as refugees from Haiti and El Salvador. Now we can see more clearly the animus leading to that cruel decision.

As recently as two years ago, the claim of most anti-immigrant activists was that they didn’t oppose immigration or immigrants per se, but only those who came here without going through the proper of channels. When challenged that their real motivation was more ugly, the rejoinder was familiar:

“What part of ‘illegal’ don’t you understand?”

You don’t hear that much anymore, because people no longer feel the need for pretense. Trump has validated a more full-throated, open condemnation of immigration in general and more specifically immigration from a particular type of country, and his latest remarks are only going to accelerate that rhetoric.

So I guess I have a question of my own I’d like to ask:

What part of racism don’t you understand?

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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.