During a recent White House meeting, Donald Trump asked why the US gets so many immigrants from “sh*thole” countries, referring to Haiti and several African States and so few from countries “like Norway.” These comments were rightly condemned both as racist and vulgar. Lost in much of this criticism was that this position has been one of the few about which Trump has been consistent and adamant since he announced his campaign for the presidency in summer of 2015. At that event, he posited that many Mexican immigrants were “rapists.” The desire to reverse demographic change in the US and somehow return to the times when our population was much whiter and more Christian lies at the absolute core of the worldview of both Trump and his voters.
Trump’s descents to into the most blatant forms of racism and anti-immigrant sentiment are now frequent enough that the responses are predictable. His apologists assert that he was misquoted or that he is simply saying what many Americans believe. The former approach is essentially dishonest, but the latter explanation is significant. There is a fair amount of truth to the belief that many Americans disparage countries whose populations are largely non-white, but that does not make Trump’s remarks less offensive. Instead it is evidence that racism is not some rare condition that Trump happens to have, but rather a widespread set of opinions that remains a cancer on American politics and society.
One of the other predictable responses to Trump is that his opponents fall into paroxysms of self-congratulatory patriotism where they retell the story of their own immigrant families or selves invariably ending with the sentiment that this would only be possible in America. This helps Americans dull the pain of knowing our President is a foul mouthed racist, but these comments can be damaging in a different way. It is true that many Americans have inspiring immigration tales that often reflect American values and opportunities. It is less true, and increasingly unhelpful to think that this kind of thing could only happen in America. The US is by no means the only country in the world that has benefited from, and afforded opportunities to, immigrants from other places. We may have done this more, or for longer than other countries, but we are not exactly unique in this regard.
It is not uncommon in Europe for immigrants or the children and grandchildren of immigrants to become powerful people and hold elected office. The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, is the son of immigrants. Nicolas Sarozy, the former French President, is the son of an immigrant. Today, many European countries have immigrants who have come there seeking a better life and who have become successful businesspeople, politicians, cultural figures and academics, just like in the US. By ignoring this in favor of the shopworn “only in America” narrative, Americans allow themselves to believe myths about the US, rather than to confront our problems. It also allows us to continue to deny the extent to which the world has changed and to which tolerance is a value that many countries hold and where the US is now lagging behind.
The instinct to see the American story as unique is shared by many Americans across the political spectrum and is additionally malignant because it makes it more difficult for us to see our challenges in a global context. For example, while the election of Donald Trump and the subsequent democratic rollback during his first year in office is without precedent, it is part of a broader global trend. Understanding Trump and Trumpism in this context is essential to combating it, but is difficult for Americans who are not accustomed to looking beyond our borders to understand and solve our internal problems.
If Americans believe that both our problems and our strengths, the latter of which includes having millions of citizens who trace their roots very directly to impoverished immigrants in the not too distant past, are unique, we will not be able to forge solutions that draw on 21st century realities. When confronted with racism, falling back on feel good myths about America may in fact make us feel good, but they further remove us from the reality of the world today. Central to Donald Trump’s vision is the idea that America is unique, should only be out for itself and that the rules don’t apply to him or, by extension, his country. When we celebrate our immigrant stories without recognizing that these stories could happen in many other countries in the 21st century, we inadvertently provide fodder for that vision.
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