DISCLAIMER: In dealing with the subject of presidential language, I do not use pejorative terms gratuitously, but I do not use euphemisms when dealing with direct quotes. It is important to hear the feel the full impact of the exact wording.
As expected, the never-Trump media jumped on President Trump’s description of unspecified African nations as “shitholes” as further proof of racism. Trump claims, with support of some in attendance, that the reported term was not the words he used. Others in attendance say they are. Those of us not in attendance will make judgments of believability largely along political lines. Trump generally loses the I-said/he-said debate because his credibility is not very good.
As a constant critic of Trump’s personality, I think Trump’s use of language is misleading, unfortunate and counterproductive, to say the least. He destroys his own credibility – a critical asset for a President – on three personality flaws; excessive ego, pugnacious style and provably inaccurate statements. What is disappointing is that the resources these traits to engage in battles over largely irrelevant issues. As Richard Nixon once said, “They stabbed us in the back, but we gave them the knife.” Unfortunately, Trump’s ego prevents even that level of honest self-assessment.
To be fair, Trump’s lashing out can be somewhat attributed to the unprecedented one-sided attacks by what was once known as a free and unbiased press. There is an old saying that just because you are paranoid, it does not mean they are not out to get you. Trump is not wrong in believing he is being treated unfairly, but he is wrong in how he deals with it. It brings out the worst of his less than stellar personality.
President Reagan was named “the Great Communicator.” It was not because he was the most eloquent of speakers or that he had the rhetorical skills of an Oxford debater. It was because he connected with a broad range of everyday Americans. He did not play to his base, he drew others into it.
Reagan’s traits were the opposite of Trump’s. He expressed personal humility, seeing himself a merely a vehicle representing the greatness of the American people. He believed that the presidency was bigger than the person who temporarily held the office. Reagan emulated the style of another great American communicator, Abraham Lincoln. They both treated adversaries with understanding and respect. They bested their political enemies by “killing them with kindness” rather than berating them with the street-thug language employed by Trump. Reagan and Lincoln never resorted to name-calling or focusing on trivial and meaningless issues.
Trump seems to believe that he comforts the American people by assuring us that he, and he only, is defending us from threats to our national security and from the destructive policies of the liberal establishment. It is not comforting, however. Those of us who like the administration appointments, policies and unheralded accomplishments are weary for the personality. Unwilling to engage in the almost impossible task of defending his more outlandish tweets and comments, we are left to doing what the elitist never-Trump media will not do – drawing attention to the litany of accomplishments. Rather than building on his record, Trump distracts from it.
He is not, as Democrats and media personalities contend, mentally unstable, crazy or unfit to serve as President. I do not believe he is a racist, sexist or any of the other “ists” his enemies claim. He is, however, inept in his understanding of the unique, intense scrutiny that befalls a President. His imprecise use of language is his political Achilles Heel and he leaves it exposed as a target for his enemies.
Trump habitually says things that can be interpreted in different ways, and yet he seems to be oblivious to the fact that the Democrats, naturally, and the elitist media, dishonestly, will give the worst possible meaning to his imprecise and maladroit syntax. He seems to not recognize that he cannot speak candidly in the locker room with Democrats who are eager to run to the press to further destroy Trump’s creditably and undermine his presidency. Like Nixon and Reagan, Trump faces a toxic media, and like Nixon, he plays into it. He does not have Reagan’s skill in circumventing media character assassination.
Before addressing the specific issue of the “shit-hole” controversy directly, we should understand that most presidents speak very differently in private than they do when facing the public. This was evident when all of America could read or hear the private remarks of President Nixon after the tapes of his Oval Office conversations were released. In fact, when the recordings were published, the repeated insertion of “expletive deleted” in the transcripts became a cliché and the subject of national satirical humor.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke demeaningly of blacks, Jews and Asians. Of course, FDR’s white supremacist views proved to be disastrous for Japanese Americans who were rounded up and sent to concentration camps even as German prisoners of war in Texas were treated with freedoms denied our own black soldiers.
Harry Truman was well known for using salty and even truly racist language in private, although it was never quoted in the popular press. Biographers, however, have noted his calling leaders and the people of other nations sons of bitches, and describing the suggestions of others as “bullshit ideas.” His pejoratives against the Japanese were far more racist than any reference to the Germans even though the U.S. was at war with both.
There is a story, which may be apocryphal, that some lady friends implored Mrs. Truman to get her husband to stop using the term “horse manure.” Bess informed them that she had spent years just to get him to use that wording. In his early political career, President Truman regularly used the n-word. As a candidate for public office, he once said ”I think one man is just as good as another so long as he’s not a nigger or a Chinaman.”
President Lyndon Johnson may rank as one of the most vulgar presidents in terms of his private conversations. One biographer referred to him as the “connoisseur of the n-word.” Even as he was calling for the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, he commonly described it as “the nigger bill.” He explained his War on Poverty welfare legislation to fellow southern legislators by saying, “it will keep niggers voting Democrat for 200 years.”
While candidate Hillary Clinton caused public outrage for referring to half of America as a “basket of deplorables,” there was little to negative media condemnation when President Obama put down his opponents as people who only “cling to their guns and bibles.” There was no prolonged media condemnation when Jesse Jackson referred to New York City as “hymie town” or in response to the frequent anti-Semitic rants of Louis Farrakhan. Of course, all that happened at a time when the ugly and unprofessional partisan bias that characterizes so much of today’s reporting was still in its infancy.
So, what about this latest brouhaha over the “shithole nations” comment.
It was a terrible choice of words, even in private. Other than a dubiously related mention of Haiti, Trump made no reference to specific nations – although his comments, if true, did suggest that he was thinking of at least some African nations.
While such wording is excessively and needlessly vulgar and unfortunate, was there a seed of truth in Trump’s comment? The very press that criticizes his remark to the point of mischaracterization has long reported negatively on many African nations – referring to them as brutal and corrupt dictatorship rife with violent oppression, starvation and genocidal tribal warfare that has evolved into international terrorism – places where human rights are routinely violated and women are virtually chattel. They are places where crime and disease run rampant.
As men, women and children poured over our southern border, the same news media that now condemn Trump’s finger pointing wrote heart-wrenching stories of the awful conditions in the nations from which these migrants were fleeing.
Since as long as I can remember, American media reported on the miserable conditions in Haiti due to official corruption, poverty and crime – long before the earthquake. In a number of my own conversations with Haitians over recent years, there has been a common theme. They confirm the media reports of oppression and terrible living conditions. The wealth and quality of life between the elite ruling class and the people make American income inequality seem picayune. Some Haitians have even described the homeland island nation as a “hell hole” – which might have been a better choice of words.
We have seen so many reports on people escaping the violence nations in Africa, South America and Asia. When sympathizing with the flow of immigrants from these regions, our news media graphically describes the horrors and hardships of life in these countries. But, when Trump makes an admittedly overly vulgar reference to conditions in these same nations, the American left does a hypocritical u-turn – proving that all things involving Trump must be described with the most extreme and darkest interpretation. Professional balance and objectivity are abandoned.
Every good American should hope and pray that Trump, the Democrats and the elitist liberal media will begin to appeal to the angels of our better nature rather than prod the demons of our darker nature into a partisan schismatic conflict that shatters our tradition of E Pluribus Unum.
We can only hope.
Larry Horist is a conservative activist with an extensive background in economics, public policy and political issues. Clients of his consulting firm have included such conservative icons as Steve Forbes and Milton Friedman, and he has served as a consultant to the White House under Presidents Nixon and Reagan. He has testified as an expert witness before numerous legislative bodies, including the U. S. Congress and lectured at Harvard University, Northwestern University, Florida Atlantic University, Knox College and Hope College. An award winning debater, his insightful and sometimes controversial commentaries appear frequently on the editorial pages of newspapers across the nation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.