Racism is a word that people throw around a lot, even in calmer political times — and when the American president referred to a selection of countries inhabited predominantly by black people and Latinos "shithole countries," then, there was almost no way to escape it. Many people immediately jumped onto the racist tone of such a statement — while others rushed to make mind-bending
defenses of Trump's racist remarks.
Racism, by Merriam Webster's definition, is "a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race." Racism is a belief, so one could argue that only Trump himself is truly able to define whether or not he holds it — and Trump, for his part, claims that he is the
"least racist" person ever. His behavior patterns and manners of expressing himself on the subject of race have led outside observers to a different conclusion, though, and the way he's acted and spoken about race has not changed over his life, or, indeed, since he took his oath of office.
Trump made his political debut by insisting that the
nation's first black president was born outside of the country and was secretly a Muslim, and thus he was illegitimate. In the 1970s, he and his father were named as defendants in a Justice Department case alleging that they had declined or buried tenant applications for their buildings because of the applicants' race. In the late 1980s, Trump took out full page ads in multiple newspapers insisting that five Latino and black teenagers deserved the death penalty for a crime that they would eventually be proved innocent of. He opened his campaign calling Mexican immigrants "rapists" and then later said that a judge of Mexican descent couldn't handle his case because of his ethnic background.
But the president still has his defenders when it comes to race. Here are some of the more outlandish ways people have tried to defend remarks like the now infamous "shithole countries" line.
He Just Says What He Thinks
Iowa junior Sen. Jodi Ernst responded to a question about Trump's remark calling Haiti, El Salvador, and African nations "shithole" countries. “Deep inside, no, I don’t think he’s a racist. I think he’s brash. I think he says things that are on his mind, but I don’t believe that he’s a racist," she said, before going on to say that questions about the president's rhetoric were taking up time from other, more productive questions.
Sarah Sanders Uses An Unrelated Argument
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that having been on TV or having donated to Democrats in the past nullifies all accusations of racism. “Why did NBC give him a show for a decade on TV? Why did Chuck Schumer and all of his colleagues come and beg Donald Trump for money?” Sanders said in defense of the allegation that her boss is racist.
Denying It Ever Even Happened
Pool/Getty Images News/Getty Images Republican Sens. Tom Cotton and David Perdue haven't actually said that Trump isn't a racist during their effort to deny that he ever made the "shithole countries" comment. But they have said, at various times, that they didn't recall him making any racist comment (shithole) or that he made a different racist comment (shithouse) than what everyone else is claiming.
Rand Paul's Sense Of Fairness
Alex Wong/Getty Images News/Getty Images
"I think it's unfair then to sort of all of a sudden paint him, 'Oh, well, he's a racist,'" said Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, before telling the story of how Trump once helped pay for a trip for Paul, an ophthalmologist, and other surgeons to go restore vision to some people in Haiti.
I don't think the comments were constructive at all. But I also think that to be fair, we shouldn't draw conclusions that he didn't intend.
Former Trump campaign and transition spokesman Jason Miller said that it was really just an issue of passion. "Obviously he was fired up, so there was salty language back and forth. So ... he said some of the places around the world might be s-hole countries,"
Miller said on CNN. "Well guess what! There are a lot of s-hole countries."
Ann Coulter On The Attack
Conservative thought leader Ann Coulter, who had previously somewhat broken with Trump, really came to bat for him on this issue. In just one appearance on Fox, her
defenses of the "shithole" remark ranged from comments on how many Haitian vs. Norwegian immigrants were in the prison system (more Haitians, she claimed, citing her own book as proof) to the claim that "We want westerners who can speak English." Ralph Freso/Getty Images News/Getty Images Former sheriff Joe Arpaio, a longtime Trump supporter known for keeping hundreds of illegal Latino immigrants in what he referred to as a "concentration camp," used the "I'm not psychic" defense. "How do you know he said that? Is that what he said he said? Someone heard him say that? Or did you read that in some book? I presume you got that from a book," Arpaio said in an interview on MSNBC, before host Ari Melber informed him of the source.
"I don’t know if he said it. I’m not going to read his mind, I support him regardless of what he says," Arpaio then said.
Tucker Carlson Thinks It's About ... Corruption?
Roy Rochlin/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images Fox News host Tucker Carlson inferred that Trump was simply making an objective statement about Norway's superiority to Haiti, rather than an opinionated and racist one. Those places are dangerous, they're dirty, they're corrupt, and they're poor, and that's the main reason those immigrants are trying to come here, and you would, too, if you live there ... If we have gotten to the point where we all have to pretend that every country is exactly as nice as every other country, then we are being dishonest.
A Racist Wouldn't Like Asians This Much
common trope among Trump defenders is that someone supporting increased immigration from East Asia, which Trump has done, can't possibly be a racist (or a white supremacist, another charge that some have lobbed at him).
characterizing Asian immigrants as desirable based on certain traits that they are presumed to exhibit — they're hardworking, or they have strong family bonds — also presumes that immigrants from other regions in the world do not exhibit those same traits.
It's Economic, It's Not Racist
Conservative Cato Institute fellow Ilya Shapiro used liberal Harvard professor Lawrence Tribe's words to make the argument that calling those countries "shitholes" referred to their economic status rather than their most populous race.
Tribe, talking about his family background in Russia and experience living in China, said that those two nations were "shithole countries not long ago," which Shapiro then said was proof that Tribe understood Trump's statement as economically focused.
Ivana: He's Silly, Not Racist
"His Heart's In The Right Place"
Zach Gibson/Getty Images News/Getty Images
There Are Pictures Of Trump With Black People
Going back to the definition of racism, it does not necessary require hatred of other races. Instead, it's a belief that one race is inherently superior to another. A photograph — even one of the accused racist with people of the race they are accused of holding a bias against — only captures a single moment, capturing nothing of the belief systems of the people pictured.
Actually, The Liberals Are The Racist Ones
This argument takes various forms on the right, but it all falls into one theme:
liberals are the real racists because Democrats make us think about people in terms of their race, or because Lincoln and MLK were Republicans, or because the Democrats reigned over the Jim Crow South. Justin Merriman/Getty Images News/Getty Images
Trump's middle son, Eric, spoke up when his
father referred to Sen. Elizabeth Warren using the nickname "Pocahontas" while appearing at an event to honor the Navajo code talkers who played a big part in winning World War II.
"The irony of an ABC reporter (whose parent company Disney has profited nearly half a billion dollars on the movie “Pocahontas”) inferring that the name is “offensive” is truly staggering to me,"
Eric wrote in a tweet.
An "Atmosphere Of Hatred"
Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images News/Getty Images
Donald Trump Jr. spoke up after his father's statements about the white supremacist march in Charlottesville, saying that the president had adequately censured the Neo-Nazis, and that all of the criticism coming his father's way was because of an
"atmosphere of hatred" on the left. Don Jr. claimed: He condemned ... the white nationalists and the left-wingers. That should not have been controversial, but it was.
And Finally, From The Man Himself
When asked about how he responds to
claims that he is racist, Trump replied, "No, no, I’m not a racist. I am the least racist person you have ever interviewed, that I can tell you."
This comment, like the more vulgar one that prompted the question in the first place, has received much public criticism. Trump has a history of actions that refute this claim — but if he has the will, there is still time left in his administration for him to prove it.