It’s not Donald Trump labelling other sovereign countries, including, it seems, every nation in Africa, as “s***holes” that is so disturbing so much as the knowledge that so many Americans out there think he’s right; that he’s speaking their minds as well as his own. And that he knows it.
Every time this happens you wonder if he’s finally gone too far. Whether even his most ardent fans will wake up and feel that same dreadful gagging sensation the rest of us do. Actually, we were asking it before he became President. When the tapes came out with him boasting about grabbing the genitals of women. When he smeared Mexicans as rapists and criminals.
Trump's racism is not a new trait. Recall how he strove to delegitimise Barack Obama by contending he couldn’t possibly be American because he didn’t seem to have a birth certificate to prove it and therefore had really come from Kenya. Or from some other you-know-what of a country.
And don’t forget the five black and Latino men accused of raping a white woman jogging in Central Park in 1989. Trump paid for full-page ads in four Gotham papers demanding the return of the death penalty. “Muggers and murderers,” he told the papers’ readers, “should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes.” He didn’t name the men, but he didn’t have to. The code was clear to all. He just had to pay $85,000 (£62,000) to get it out.
But here’s the worse part. After each of the so-called Central Park Five was exonerated thanks to new DNA technology and compensated financially by the city, Trump doubled down. “The fact that that case was settled with so much evidence against them is outrageous,” he told CNN in 2016. “And the woman, so badly injured, will never be the same.”
Running for President made taking out newspaper ads unnecessary. He had the attention of the entire country, and even before he started he was tapping out the same code again. He was the candidate for anyone who already felt that ethnic diversity was the main reason their lives weren’t what they wanted them to be. The ones who thought making America great again necessarily meant making it white again. Or as white as possible. It is, of course, a racist code. See it and you see why Trump beat Hillary Clinton when so few of us thought it possible.
And so it is now with Trump as President. In so far as he tries to encrypt his hateful messaging, he sometimes gets sloppy. That happened last August when he let slip that he thought both sides shared equal responsibility for the Charlottesville disturbances, the white supremacists snaking through town chanting Nazi slogans and the thousands who had come to stage a counter-protest against them. One of those, a woman called Heather Heyer, you recall, was run down and killed by a far-right sympathiser in his car, but still Trump thought both sides were to blame for it all.
Trump tried to claim he never said those things last week in the Oval Office. No one bought it and the battering of him wasn’t just by Democrats at home (and a few Republicans too, though not all of them). The outrage was global, in fact. Two things stood out: the use of “s***hole” to describe other nations, yes, but also his suggesting that if America must take in immigrants, why not from somewhere like Norway? You know, a whiter, more prosperous place.
But as I say, that’s not the worst part. I suspect first that Trump, in Mar-a-Lago for the weekend, is enjoying even this kerfuffle, however harsh the criticism of him. Because he is the centre of everyone’s attention again but also – and I suggest, more importantly – because he will be convinced that even this won’t be enough to make his supporters doubt him. In other words, when they are told that Trump referred to these countries as “s***holes” they thought, “right on”.
There is one family north of New York I occasionally canvas when we have eruptions like this, even though to do so is dangerous because they worship Trump and because our friendship is important to me. Here we were again. No, they could see nothing wrong this time either; Trump had not erred. Jarringly, they cited ads on TV from charities seeking help for children in the world’s most blighted regions, usually in Africa, as proof of the President’s point. The kids had flies buzzing about their heads, so these places must be sh**holes. How ironic. Advertising designed to kindle America’s generous spirit instead is encouraging it to turn its back.
This happens when a country raises its children on the myth of exceptionalism that says the United States is the only place on earth that has God’s blessing. The only place that matters. It happens in a country where exotic travel means crossing a state border for cheaper booze and where a passport is less important than a Sam’s Club membership card. It happens in a country where ignorance about the rest of the world is allowed to endure.
Above all it happens when a country elects a leader who instead of using his position to marshal its best instincts revels in doing the opposite. Trump may be right to think that far away from the opprobrium-filled parlours of New York and Washington there is a large segment of America that is on his side even in this controversy. But if he were even a slightly more decent man, if he were a better leader, he would recognise that as a very bad and sad thing, not a good one.
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