Gage Skidmore / Flickr ann coulter...
Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Donald Trump this past Tuesday held a bipartisan meeting in the White House to discuss immigration reform. To clarify, this was before he wondered out loud on Thursday, at another White House meeting, why America had to take people from “shithole countries” like Haiti and those in Africa, and why we couldn’t have more Norwegians instead—we’ll get back to the connection between what he said at the Tuesday meeting and those vile, racist remarks in a bit.

At the Tuesday meeting, Trump made a statement in support of passing comprehensive immigration reform. Now, if he actually understood what that meant, this would have demonstrated some significant political courage. His level of understanding of the issue is, to put it mildly, open to question, as evidenced by the Trump-whispering role Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) had to play during the meeting whenever the erstwhile leader of the free world got his own position on immigration wrong. So, here’s the aforementioned statement:

“If you want to take it that further step, I’ll take the heat, I don’t care,” Trump told lawmakers about a broad immigration bill. “You are not that far away from comprehensive immigration reform. And if you wanted to go that final step, I think you should do it.”

It was a nice sentiment. It reminded me of when Ferris Bueller’s best friend Cameron Frye destroyed his father’s classic car (a 1961 Ferrari 250GT SWB California Spider), and Ferris offered to “take the heat for it.” Cameron, finally showing some backbone to the man who had intimidated him for years, replied: “No, I’ll take it.” Was this a Cameron Frye moment for Donald Trump? Would he actually be willing to risk angering his nativist, racist base by supporting a long-term solution to the immensely complex immigration issue? Would he be able to succeed where George W. Bush and Barack Obama were unable to?

If Trump intends the answer to that question to be yes, he’s got a funny way of showing it, and not funny like how John Hughes movies are funny. At first, he reacted positively on Thursday morning to Senators Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) when they presented a compromise on immigration negotiated by a bipartisan group of senators, but then dumped on it when they met at the White House that afternoon, the same meeting where he made the “shithole” remark:

The reactions from right-wing media voices like Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh—each of whom laid down the law in a different way—tell me that the chances of Mr. 46 Percent of the Popular Vote ever supporting comprehensive immigration reform are about as likely as the chances he’ll release his tax returns.

On Coulter, Jeet Heer at the New Republic described her relationship with Trump thusly: “Trump has had no bigger media boaster, not even the lick-spittling Sean Hannity, than Coulter.” Bearing that in mind, here’s what she had to say about Trump’s supportive remarks on Tuesday about immigration reform:

Amnesty is the word that signifies surrender. Amnesty makes a politician dead to the nativist right. Another right-wing bigwig, Mark Levin, used that word as well this week and added that Trump’s remarks amounted to “complete surrender.” To return to Coulter, she had previously noted in her book In Trump We Trust: “There’s nothing Trump can do that won’t be forgiven. Except change his immigration policies.” In other words, if you want to keep your base, don’t do it, Donnie. 

You’ll also notice Coulter’s reference to Michael Wolff. Rush Limbaugh’s reaction to Trump’s statement on immigration reform put Wolff and his Fire and Fury book front and center:

I think the meeting about immigration was the thing, not immigration. I think this was a calculated move. It was a brilliantly conceived and flawlessly executed rebuttal to this stupid Wolff book.

The pictures tell the tale. Trump is in the room dominating it, controlling it. He is cooperative. He is open. He’s tolerant. He’s understanding. He’s in total command of over 45 minutes of televised meeting on immigration. He is totally informed on the issues. He’s going back and forth with the Democrats on whatever mundane aspect of it they bring up. He is in total command of his position on this.

[snip] So after you watch this, how would you react to anything in the Wolff book characterizing Trump as just the opposite of this? And this was the purpose of this today.

Leaving Limbaugh’s lies about Trump’s command of the issue aside for a moment, we see him talking to the nativist base about Trump, whereas Coulter spoke for them to Trump. As the segment drew to a close, Limbaugh took the nativists by the hand, patted them on the head, and told them everything would be all white—I mean alright:

Just look at it this way, folks, if you’re nervous. What happened today really had nothing to do with immigration. He didn’t say anything today that he can’t walk back. He didn’t say anything today that he’s gonna have to walk back, either.

Between Coulter telling Trump to get back in his little box, and Limbaugh reassuring his listeners that he wouldn’t actually be leaving that box, the message was clear enough: Trump had better not betray his base. And really, how could he, given that his racist message on immigration is what he started his campaign with, and it’s what truly differentiated him from the rest of the Republican field in 2015 and 2016.

Either way, Trump this week needed to deal with real anger on the right (seen in what Coulter said) and fear on the right (demonstrated by what Limbaugh needed to say). What better way to deal with this than to remind his base that he thinks just like they do? Hence, the “shithole” remarks. Denying he said them is only for public relations purposes—in private he bragged about it. But the real Trumpers know better, and they are the ones he was talking to. Don’t believe me? Here’s what Trump’s own people inside the White House had to say:

Trump knew exactly what he was doing. He made a strategic decision to use racist language about Haitians and Africans as a dog whistle to reassure his racist base. He and his advisers seem to believe it will work. White nationalist Richard Spencer and the neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer loved the remark as well, with the latter triumphantly proclaiming: “This is encouraging and refreshing, as it indicates Trump is more or less on the same page as us with regards to race and immigration.” Ann Coulter herself said that the “shithole” line was a direct attempt to “win [her] back,” and showed her support in the following tweet, which speaks for itself in terms of moral value:

Other right-wingers—in the media and in Congress (did you expect any less from Rep. Steve King (R-IA)—also defended the “shithole” remarks, although some other Republican elected officials did actually condemn them. In particular, Lindsey Graham showed some real principle and backbone by telling Trump to his face, right after he made the comments, that they were unacceptable. Graham added: “America is an idea, not a race,” and pointed out to Trump that the Senator’s own ancestors had come from “shithole countries with no skills.” This righteous act does not undo or mitigate what Graham, in concert with Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), did in the matter of the Steele dossier a week earlier, or his general support of Trump and Trumpism—something that represents a 180 degree turn from the opinion of Trump he expressed during the presidential campaign. Nevertheless, it’s important to note when a Republican does something worthy of praise.

Two other Senators who had also attended the Thursday White House meeting failed to meet the bar Graham set. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and David Perdue (R-GA) stated afterward that they “do not recall the President saying these comments specifically,” and then went on to defend Trump in general on immigration. However, not even that mealy-mouthed support of Trump’s false denial sufficed for those who desire the Orange Julius Caesar Seal of Approval,TM because Sunday morning both Cotton and Perdue stated unequivocally that their Dear Leader did not make the “shithole” remark.

And, as if that wasn’t enough, Cotton was unable to resist adding that Durbin—who had vociferously denounced the remark—“has a history of misrepresenting what happens in White House meetings.” Although they didn’t mention Graham’s name, they essentially branded him a liar as well. Finally, under the category of always meeting low expectations, we have Fox News’ Jesse Watters, who offered this nugget of wisdom: “this is how the forgotten men and women in America talk at the bar.” This is what Trump has made of Republican politics here in good old 2018.

Forrest Gump said, “I’m not a smart man, but I know what love is.” Donald Trump wouldn’t admit to this, but although he is not a smart man, he knows what hate is. After Trump heard from Limbaugh and Coulter, he spewed forth words from his shithole that demonstrated exactly that.

Ian Reifowitz is the author of Obama’s America: A Transformative Vision of Our National Identity (Potomac Books).

Here’s video of me discussing the immigration issue earlier this week:

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