“Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?”
Reflections on a provocative presidential question
Some of my best friends come from “shithole countries.” “Oriental,” Latin American and African: they’re not white, wealthy or Christian. They don’t come from countries like Norway. According to the President of the United States, they are undesirables.
When considering immigration, Trump reached, yet again, a new low. The racism and xenophobia were blatant. There was no ambiguity, no dog whistles. Yet, his enablers in the Republican Party remain silent.
I take this personally. I suspect, in fact, that according to the President of the United States, I come from a shithole corner, of unknown shithole countries. My father’s family was very poor. They lived in Russia then, now Ukraine. My mother’s family lived in Austria – Hungary and were less impoverished, Poland for a while, but also now Ukraine. The world of my parents’ parents was poor and riven with anti-Semitism, dangerous, dirty and depressed. My grandparents had no formal education. They never would have earned entry in a merit based immigration system. They had vivid memories of pogroms. On my mother’s side, those who didn’t flee to America, perished in the Holocaust; on my father’s side, they endured Stalinism. Not Norway.
Are we all undesirables?
I have co-taught with colleagues who grew up in townships in Apartheid South Africa. Our students were from similar situations and also from throughout Africa. My work in Poland and Central Europe has meant that I have worked with people from all around the old Soviet bloc, including Central Asia. At The New School, some of my best friends, colleagues and students come from South and Central America, Turkey, Iran, along with other “shithole homelands.” I realize I have lived a privileged existence for having such relationships. Contrary to the President’s racism, they constitute excellence through diverse experiences. This makes for the distinctive intellectual life of my university, The New School, and of the everyday life of my hometown, New York City. In my experience, people from shithole countries make America great, again and again.
Trump’s ignorance of this and his vulgarity are astonishing. Certainly not politically correct, his racism presents a new challenge. I appreciate Marcus Toure B. McCullough’s “meditation on more of the same,”about the unsurprising persistence of American racism in Charlottesville, including Trump’s response, but something new and aggressive is happening as of late. The aggressive, undisguised racism of “America First” presents a profound challenge to any semblance of American democracy and to the prospects for the long struggle for racial justice. Martin Luther King Jr. warned of the dangers of “The False God of Nationalism,” as Vaughn A. Booker emphasized here. That Trump speaks as he does, and that Republicans are following his lead, does indeed make a sermon Dr. King gave in 1953 seem prescient.
Racism persists, and it is resisted. These days that the resistance will prevail is far from assured. Trump has succeeded in bringing xenophobia and racism more explicitly and consequentially into American public life.
The success, I think, is not despite his boorish statements and vulgarity such as yesterday’s, but because of it. He demonstrates the seamy side of the power of affects in democratic politics that Gustavo Hessmann Dalqua wrote about here. Analyzing the novel The Kiss of the Spider Woman, he explores how persuasion is necessarily embodied beyond rational argument. Trump reminds us how pernicious such embodied persuasion can be. He changes his positions from day to day. He apparently spends most of his time watching cable television news and eating cheeseburgers in bed. He transgresses prevailing norms of civility, and persistently challenges fundamental democratic principles. And without thought, he declares that he doesn’t want people from shithole countries coming to the U.S., solidifying among his core supporters explicit and implicit racist solidarity, as he invites international condemnation.
A less pernicious indication of the power of affect in democracies explains what I hope is a brief upsurge in interest in the prospective candidacy of Oprah Winfred to be the Democratic Party’s candidate for the Presidential elections in 2020. In her piece on this, Claire Potter emphasizes that politics should be understood as a profession and that it is deeply disturbing that after a year of misrule by a celebrity novice that another celebrity novice is viewed as being a viable alternative. My guess is that this idea probably peaked sometime earlier this week. But then again, I was profoundly wrong about Trump. This loss of appreciation of experience and specialized knowledge, I see as a general social crisis in democratic culture, my intended topic for this week, which I will postpone until next week, barring another unanticipated outrage from the Twitter in Chief.
Before Trump’s statement yesterday and his weird non-denial, denial today, my working title for today was “Deference, Demeanor and Democracy.” It would have applied Erving Goffman’s classic essay “The Nature of Deference and Demeanor,” to an understanding of Trumpism as an everyday dimension of social life. Following Goffman, I would have argued that patterns of deference and demeanor are key components of how we define ourselves and others, and our situations. I would have then proposed that there is an important political dimension to this that Goffman didn’t study, and that Trump demonstrates this with his distinctive unsettling demeanor and his subversion of deference. And then I would have suggested that his demeanor and deference patterns have had critical consequences for American social, political and cultural life, specifically unsettling the problematic of democratic culture. That post would include a revisiting of arguments I made long ago about the culture of American politics and the politics of American culture in my book The Cynical Society.
Consider this post today as field notes for next week’s.
Jeffrey C. Goldfarb, the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research, is the Publisher and founder of Public Seminar.