Francis Amasa Walker had fought to preserve the Union in the Grand Army of the Republic, but by 1896 he saw its doom in the huddled masses coming from Eastern Europe. The “immigrants from southern Italy, Hungary, Austria, and Russia,” Walker lamented in The Atlantic, were “beaten men from beaten races; representing the worst failures in the struggle for existence,” people who had “none of the ideas and aptitudes which fit men to take up readily and easily the problem of self-care and self-government, such as belong to those who are descended from the tribes that met under the oak-trees of old Germany to make laws and choose chieftains.”
More than a century later President Donald Trump would put it differently, as he considered immigration from Africa, wondering, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” instead suggesting that America take in more immigrants from places like Norway.
These remarks reflect scorn not only for those who wish to come here, but those who already have. It is a president of the United States expressing his contempt for the tens of millions of descendants of Africans, most of whose forefathers had no choice in crossing the Atlantic, American citizens whom any president is bound to serve. And it is a public admission of sorts that he is incapable of being a president for all Americans, the logic of his argument elevating not just white immigrants over brown ones, but white citizens over the people of color they share this country with.
Already the president’s defenders lurch from one argument or another in transparent bad faith. No one is offended by the president’s use of profanity; it is the substance of his remarks, and not the specific word he employed, that is appalling. It makes the president’s remarks no less racist to say that many who voted for him share the same sentiments; it merely means that those voters subscribe to the same racism. The president was not making an assessment of the relative quality of life in Haiti or Norway, he was condemning entire populations of people of as undesirable because of where they were born. Trump’s remarks do not merely express contempt for foreigners; but also for every American who shares their origins.
The president’s focus on the nationality, rather than on the personal merits, of immigrants suggests what he means by “merit-based” immigration: Not accepting those immigrants who have mastered science or engineering or some other crucial skill, but instead a standard that finds white Scandinavians acceptable, while ruling out Haitians, Salvadorans, and Africans. The only “merits” here are accidents of birth and geography, owing to no individual accomplishment at all.