Notes From a “Shithole” Superpower

Photo by davitydave | CC BY 2.0

Most of Donald Trump’s vicious and moronic statements are best ignored. Some, though, are unavoidable.

Where to begin in processing the horror and idiocy of Donald Trump’s comments during a meeting with U.S. congresspersons late last week? Trump ripped immigration to the U.S. from “shithole countries” like El Salvador, Haiti and “Africa.”

“Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” Trump said. “Why don’t we get more people from places like Norway?” (I paraphrase…we do not have the precise quote, but the basic gist and content is clear).

Norway must have been on Trump’s disordered mind since he had just met with Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg on Wednesday.

The “stable genius” gave yet more cause for growing concern over his epic and abject stupidity by referring to the continent of Africa (home to 48 sovereign nations) as a “country.”

Trump’s comment was transparently racist.  As anyone with elementary cognizance of his  bigoted background knows, the president’s preference for white Norwegians over brown and Black people from Central America, Haiti and Africa is all about white supremacism.

Trump’s comments stand in dark refutation of the United States’ longstanding if largely false claim to be a haven for people fleeing poverty and oppression abroad. The “America First” president seems to have no appreciation of how the United States’ exceptionalist national narrative is linked to the ideal of (U.S.-of) “America” as a glorious magnet for desperate masses in other and supposedly inferior nations. White U.S. America is populated by people descended from immigrants seeking to escape terrible (“shithole” if you like) conditions in Europe, seeking new opportunities and liberties in the New World.

By contrast, Black Americans – people Trump sees as a “law and order” problem – are all too unmentionably descended from people brought here in chains, to be mercilessly exploited in highly profitable forced labor and torture camps called plantations.

A spoof by Andy Borovitz on The New Yorker’s Website is titled “Trump Demands Poem on Statue of Liberty Should be Revised to Exclude Shithole Countries”:

“Speaking to reporters, Trump said that the poem as it currently stands ‘is basically an open invitation that says, like, if you come from a shithole country, welcome aboard…I don’t know the entire poem, but it’s something like ‘Give us your tired, your poor, your yadda yadda yadda,’ he said. ‘We could keep all that but then put in, right at the end, in big letters, maybe, ‘except if you’re from a shithole country. I think if a boat from a shithole country came and saw that poem with those words at the end, they would turn around and go right back to wherever they came from,’ he said.”

How dimwitted does Trump have to be to wonder why the U.S. gets more immigrants from desperately poor parts of the world than it does from Norway, which enjoys the world’s highest standard of living?

It isn’t just that Norway and other Scandinavian nations have high levels of per-capita wealth and income.  It is also that wealth and income are distributed in relatively egalitarian fashion in these nations, which enjoy advanced social-democratic welfare states that feature universal high-quality health care and that otherwise protect their people from poverty and insecurity

I jokingly posted Trump’s Norway query on U.S. social media.  Why, I asked, don’t we have Norwegians flocking to the U.S.? Here are some of the answers I got:

“Remember Gore Vidal’s classic line, ‘Something tells me it’s been a long time since a Swede applied for a green card.’”

“Because there is nothing here they need that they can’t get where they are?”

“Even if they came they wouldn’t flip our burgers or clean our toilets. They can do that in Norway. For decent pay and with health insurance.”

“Those ‘Norwegian people’ Trump prefers as immigrants have a civilized and thriving social Democracy like the one Senator Sanders promotes …Why would they want to emigrate to this ‘shithole’?”

“They’d hack 4 years off their life expectancy, for starters.”

“Why would they want to come to dog-eat-dog world?”

“As my friend Giorgio says, ‘At Trump’s getaway down in Florida he has hired many Haitian workers. I wonder how much extra a year of keeping his resort well-maintained would cost him if he had to pay blonde haired blue-eyed…Scandinavians to keep bathrooms spotless, serve food for all the guests, make the beds, water the flowers, etc.’”

“I can’t imagine that there are any Norwegians that would want to live in this shithole”

Here is a clever Tweet from Binyamin Applebaum,

Attention Norwegians! Are you sick of universal health care? Do you hate public spending on high-quality infrastructure? Do you wish your neighbors were less happy? A lot less happy? Have we got a country for you!Attention Norwegians! Are you sick of universal health care? Do you hate public spending on high-quality infrastructure?  Do you wish your neighbors were less happy? A lot less happy? Have we got a country for you!  (This add paid for by the United States of America).

There’s this from Swedish commentator Christian Christianson:

Of course people from Norway would love to move to a country where people are far more likely to be shot, live in poverty, get no health care, get no parental leave, or subsidized day care and see fewer women in political power.

Borovitz ends his satire this way:

Shortly after Trump made his remarks about ‘shithole’ countries, representatives of the countries he designated as such released a joint response. ‘We do not understand President Trump’s aversion to so-called shithole countries, since he is doing his best to turn the United States into one,’ the statement read.

The problem with Borowtiz’s conclusion is that the U.S. was already there – “shithole” status, by comparison with its relevant reasonable peer nations (other wealthy and industrialized or “developed” states) – before Trump came in. In 2010, the leading British public health researchers Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett published The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, a brilliant and wide-ranging study of economic disparity and its consequences for public, social, and individual health in the world’s rich and industrialized nations. Wilkinson and Pickett processed a remarkable amount of comparative data to show that the more unequal national societies were, the more medical, mental, social, and environmental problems they faced. The many problems Wilkinson and Pickett investigated included depression, anxiety, suicide, alienation, isolation, narcissism. violence, homicide, disease, low trust, racism, life expectancy, obesity, incarceration, addiction, infant mortality, illiteracy, high school dropout rates, low intergenerational social mobility, and overwork.

These problems, Wilkinson and Pickett found, were “three to ten times as common in the more unequal societies” than in the more egalitarian nations.  The nation that led in both inequality and in the negative social and individual health indicators that go along with extreme disparity was, by far and away, United States, where the top tenth of the upper One Percent now possesses as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. The rich countries that were least plagued with social, personal, and public misery were found in the relatively egalitarian and social-democratic nations of Scandinavia, with Norway commonly scoring the highest of all.

The United States was the least equal and the least healthy nation among the world’s richest states under Bill Clinton, under Barack Obama, and under George W. Bush.

Trump can’t turn the United States into the biggest “shithole” among the world’s rich nations. It was already there.

In his conservative 2006 campaign book The Audacity of Hope, the neoliberal Wall Street Democrat Barack Obama lauded the virtues of American capitalism (source of what the future president called “a prosperity that’s unmatched in human history”) by holding up U.S. living standards positively against those in Third World nations like Kenya and Nigeria. It was a revealingly inappropriate comparison.  Four decades earlier, Obama’s supposed hero, the democratic socialist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., offered a different and far more fitting comparison for the United States – Sweden and other Scandinavian nations, where, King noted, poverty had been eliminated and inequality reduced.  The United States could do the same, King new, but for its “perverted national priorities,” which valued “the crucifixion of Southeast Asia” (Noam Chomsky’s term at the time) over ending child poverty in Appalachia and on the West Side of Chicago.

King knew something else worth remembering as we celebrate the national holiday granted in his name.  He was intensely aware that the poverty and misery prevalent in places like Haiti and much of Africa reflected U.S. imperial policy on behalf of a deeply racialized world capitalist system.  That is still the case today, in a time when the giant U.S. military budget continues to function like what King called in 1967 “a demonic suction tube…to draw men and skills and money” away from the meeting of social and human needs at home and abroad – this while expanding the scale of need through massive violence.

As King would certainly note were he alive today, the poverty and misery that is so prevalent in Haiti today has been inflicted mainly by the United States, which demonized Haiti from the start because it had the audacity to combine national independence with a revolution against black chattel slavery.  The slavery-fueled Yankee Superpower has repeatedly intervened in Haiti to keep its people deprived and desperate in this and the last century.

You would never have known this from reading The Audacity of Hope, which included long passages amounting to an obsequious whitewash of supposedly benevolent U.S. foreign policy.  Consistent with that whitewash, Obama kept the U.S. imperial machine “set on kill” (Alan Nairn) during his height years in power. He dramatically expanded the U.S. military’s regressive and murderous presence in the desperate nations of Africa.  He left Haiti to stew in the same desolation that Bill Clinton and George W. Bush helped maintain there.

Donald Trump is a vicious and racist moron who should be removed from the White House and sent to a solar panel-manufacturing penal camp as soon as possible.  But the U.S. capitalism-imperialism that has made the U.S. into a “shithole” for many of its own citizens (there are neighborhoods in Obama’s own “home town” of Chicago where more than half the children are growing up at less than half the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level) while spreading blood and shit the world over is a longstanding and richly bipartisan affair. The Democrats, it should be noted, have signed on fully to Trump’s increase in U.S. military spending.

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Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).