Sarah Kendzior is a St. Louis, Mo.-based commentator who writes about politics, the economy and media
No one should be surprised by Donald Trump's comments Thursday – denied by the President but confirmed by multiple senators – that Haiti, El Salvador and various African nations are "shithole countries" and that America should accept fewer immigrants from there and more from places such as Norway – a white-majority country admired by the Third Reich. There is a direct line from Mr. Trump's birtherism to his campaign launched on denigrating Mexicans to his tolerance of neo-Nazis to his latest vile remarks – remarks backed up by equally vile immigration and travel policies that are tearing U.S. families apart.
But just because you are not surprised does not mean you should not be alarmed. Mr. Trump is a racist. He has always been a racist. His first lawsuit over racial discrimination goes back to 1973 and was followed by decades of racist comments and actions. What has changed in the past two years is not Mr. Trump's racism, but American acceptance of white supremacist movements and the insertion of white supremacists into positions of executive power.
It's hard to believe, but as recently as the summer of 2015 declarations of rancid bigotry carried real consequences for Mr. Trump. When he proclaimed in June of that year that Mexicans were rapists and criminals, he was promptly fired by NBC Universal due to his "derogatory statements."
But Mr. Trump and his extremist backers spent two years pulling the political fringes into the centre, shifting from insulting immigrants to praising neo-Nazis and indulging the Ku Klux Klan. Swift and vigorous condemnation of his bigotry became a rarity during the campaign as the media embraced Mr. Trump as a ratings bonanza. Consequences for his behaviour disappeared – and then, as President, he became able to better set the terms of any consequences he faced.
Having failed to hold Mr. Trump accountable for his bigotry, Americans are now stuck with him as President – and the priority should not be policing his profanity, but protecting the rights of non-white and non-Christian Americans. Some callously call his racist remarks a "distraction," ignoring that his racism underlies actual policy such as the DACA repeal and the Muslim travel ban. Mr. Trump's racism is not mere rhetoric; backed by a GOP that abides it, his racism ruins lives.
His racism is dangerous not only for immigrants and foreigners but for any American who is not white. For decades, he has described U.S. cities with substantial black and Latino populations – in particular, Chicago – in the same derogatory language he used on Thursday. Mr. Trump sees not only non-white immigrants but also non-white, native-born U.S. citizens as people who do not belong in his America. In his mind, being American is synonymous with being white. This view came through most clearly in his years-long crusade against president Barack Obama, whom Mr. Trump insisted must be a foreigner – admitting only in 2016 that Mr. Obama was an American. But one can also witness it in his attacks on other non-white citizens he deemed either illegitimate, such as Mexican-American Judge Gonzalo Curiel, or unpatriotic, such as the numerous black celebrities he berates.
After his comments spurred an outcry on Thursday, CNN reported that White House staffers were pleased, as the xenophobic attacks would resonate with Mr. Trump's base. While this is likely true and is disturbing in its own right, the broader implications are also concerning. Mr. Trump is the most unpopular president in U.S. history, with a 67-per-cent disapproval rating, and his base is small and shrinking. Only 26 per cent of Americans voted for him, and the number who remain hard-core supporters is likely much lower than that.
Mr. Trump's base may be overwhelmingly white, but by 2020 non-whites will be the majority of America's children. Given this shifting demographic, one would normally expect a president and his party to tone down racist rhetoric in a midterm election year and instead try to expand the voter base. That Mr. Trump remains blatantly racist shows not only personal mendacity but a lack of concern for the will of the public – a nonchalance best explained by the numerous suppression mechanisms the GOP has designed to disenfranchise voters.
Mr. Trump and his backers have abandoned the idea that America is for everyone – a fundamental precept of the United States. Though this ideal has never been fully upheld in practice, it has never been so vigorously opposed, both in rhetoric and policy, by a president. Mr. Trump's racism is not new, but this anti-American presidency is.