Americans never used to have “national conversations” — we only used to call for them. But, now thanks in no small part to President Trump, we get to have real national conversations — passionate, messy, even angry ones — all the time.
Though he is without doubt the most prodigious liar in American political history — The Washington Post‘s Fact Checker has counted over 2,000 false and misleading statements he made in his first year in office — Trump can’t help but engage in his own brand of bracing straight talk. Not possessed of the filter of caution and sense most politicians work hard to maintain, Trump is unable to keep the contents of his brain from pouring out his mouth. When it happens, the media reports it, everyone reacts in shock, and before you know it, Americans across the land are having a vigorous debate on some vital social or political issue, like sexual harassment or immigration.
That’s the silver lining of Trump’s remark in a recent meeting with congressional leaders that we should stop allowing in immigrants from “shithole” countries in Africa and instead bring in people from places like Norway. He also made a point of objecting to the idea of letting Haitians remain here under the Temporary Protected Status they were granted as a humanitarian move after the 2010 earthquake there.
Some of Trump’s defenders, thinking they’re oh so clever, have been asking liberals, “So would you rather move to Haiti or Norway? Huh? Huh?” But that, of course is beside the point. The question isn’t the relative merits of the bookstore/cafe scenes in Oslo and Port-au-Prince, it’s about the people moving here. Trump has said he wants “skills-based” immigration, but in the heat of the moment he reveals himself, saying not that we should have more engineers but that we should have people from places like Norway.
No one seriously doubts Trump’s racial agenda. Just last month The New York Times reported that in another White House meeting on immigration, he complained that Haitian immigrants “all have AIDS” and that once Nigerian immigrants had seen the United States, they would never “go back to their huts.” Just for the record, Nigerian immigrants are one of the most highly educated groups in the United States.
None of this is a surprise, in both Trump’s personal views and the policies his administration is pursuing. The agenda is clear: Immigration should be as limited as possible, and if we have to allow in anyone at all, it’s much better if they’re white.
Another response Trump’s defenders have made to this controversy is to say that even if you disagree with Trump’s words, they’re no different from what you’ll hear from millions of Americans sitting around the kitchen table, the bar, or the water cooler. Which is undoubtedly true. But it’s also true that they’re in the minority. For instance, a 2016 Pew Research Center poll found that 59 percent of Americans said immigrants “strengthen our country because of their hard work and talents,” compared to 33 percent who said immigrants “are a burden on our country because they take our jobs, housing, and health care.”
There’s an increasing partisan divide on that question, but not because Republicans are growing more anti-immigrant. Their views haven’t changed much in the two decades Pew has asked the question, but the views of Democrats have: In 1994, only 32 percent of Democrats said immigrants strengthen the country, but by 2016 that figure had climbed to 78 percent. The Democratic Party is increasingly diverse and young while the GOP stays old and white, which is why even smart Republicans acknowledge that their party is going to have more and more trouble winning elections in the future.
During the 2016 primaries, a Public Religion Research Institute poll found that 64 percent of Trump supporters agreed with the statement, “It bothers me when I come in contact with immigrants who speak little or no English,” a figure much higher than for supporters of any of the other Republican candidates. If that’s how you felt, there was no doubt who your choice was: He’s the guy who opened his campaign saying Mexicans are rapists, proposed banning Muslims from entering the country, and wanted to build a wall on our border.
We’ve been debating immigration pretty much since the first European immigrants landed at Jamestown in 1607, and there’s a civics-class answer to the question “who is an American?” that might sound like a cliché but is still true. It says that unlike citizens of most other countries, we define ourselves by adherence to a core set of ideas, not by race or ethnicity or family history. But it’s not just about freedom, which you can find in plenty of other countries. We’re not only “a nation of immigrants,” as the saying goes, we’re a nation defined by immigration in a way no other nation is.
Even with all our problems, America is still the place dreamers the world over yearn to come to. And what the president and many of his supporters fail to grasp is that ours is the most dynamic country on Earth precisely because of the courageous, entrepreneurial, risk-taking, ambitious people we attract. Nothing Trump ever did in his life is as difficult or frightening as leaving everything you know and setting off for an uncertain future in a new country (to listen to him, you’d think his arduous journey from Queens to Manhattan was an act of superhuman daring). The people willing to do that are the people we want and need.
That steady supply of new immigrants is why America remains the most influential and important country in the world — economically, militarily, culturally, scientifically, and in so many other ways. But immigration means change, and that’s what Trump and people like him are so afraid of. So Trump will do what he can in his time in office to close us off. But even he won’t be able to stop people around the world from imagining their future in America.