WASHINGTON — Sometimes it is necessary to begin with the obvious. The claim that America needs more Norwegian migrants and fewer Africans from “sh-thole countries” is racist. It is not the same as arguing for a higher-skilled immigrant pool. That argument might go something like: “We need a higher-skilled immigrant pool.”
President Trump, according to the compelling weight of evidence, treated African countries (along with Haiti and some other nations) as places of misery filled with undesirable people. That is a prejudice based on a stereotype rooted in invincible ignorance. Why not assume that men and women arriving from poor, oppressed and dangerous countries would love America all the more? Because, well, they are those kind of people. What kind of people? The ones who don’t look like Norwegians.
On this issue, Trump has not earned the benefit of a single doubt. His racial demagoguery in the Central Park Five case … his attribution of Kenyan citizenship to Barack Obama … his references to Mexican migrants as rapists and murderers … his unconstitutional attempt at a Muslim ban … his moral equivocation following the Charlottesville protests and killing … his statement, reported by the New York Times, that Nigerians would never “go back to their huts” after seeing America … all of these constitute an elaborate pattern of bigotry. Trump makes off-hand racist comments, he promotes racist stereotypes and he incites racism as a political strategy.
And still it is difficult for me to write the words: “The President of the United States is a racist.” The implications are too horrible. But unavoidable. It means, for starters, that the president is blind to the contributions of African migrants to our country. It means that the president has undermined American foreign policy across a strategic continent — alienating people disproportionately prone to like the U.S and respect its global role. It means that many Americans of color understandably view Trump as the president of white America, leaving a legacy of distrust that will not quickly fade. It means that bigots also view Trump as the president of white America, providing energy and legitimacy to some of the worst people in the country.
And it means that the American president does not understand or appreciate the American story. It is the story of millions of migrants taken from Africa by force, stacked in ships like coal and transported to a “free” country that stole their labor, broke up their families and denied their humanity. The story of a great nation born with a fatal flaw — a shameful racial exception to its highest ideals. The story of African-Americans who refused to accept their dehumanization, fought for the Union, came up from slavery, defied bombings, police dogs and water cannons to defeat segregation, demanded that the country be true to what it said on paper and made America a better place for all its citizens. This is one of history’s greatest stories of the human spirit. And Trump knows nothing of it. He is indifferent to our defining miracle. And there is no way to lead a country you do not comprehend.
Trump has revealed who he is. Now we reveal who we are. The perfunctory criticisms, self-indicting silences, half-hearted defenses and obvious lies provided by most elected Republicans have been embarrassing and discrediting. Loyalty to Trump now consists of defending the indefensible. His advocates are becoming desensitized to moral corruption. They are losing the ability to believe in anything, even in their own courage.
Yet some Republicans and conservatives will never be reconciled to the Trump presidency. The reason is not a matter of tender sensibilities but of deep conviction. Racism is not one issue among many, to be weighed equally with tax or trade policy. Trump is at war with the central ideal of the Republic — a vision of strength through inclusion and equality that makes our country special and exceptional. The president is wrong — repeatedly, offensively wrong — on the centerpiece question of our history: Are there gradations in the image of God? The only acceptable, American answer is “no.”
This debate will now be decided on countless private battlefields of conscience. Somehow, unexpectedly, we are called to be part of the long American story, helping determine the nature and promise of our country. That is both a burden and an honor. We have no idea how this struggle will unfold. But we know how it must end: with a president who raises our sights instead of lowering our standards.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.