TUCSON – Donald Trump’s epithet was not just racist and vulgar. Far worse, it revealed the depths of an ignorant man, devoid of character, whose ability to empathize with humanity goes no farther than what he sees in a mirror.
“Shithole” is part of any foreign correspondent’s lexicon. It refers to a place, not to the people trapped there who badly need help from a more fortunate outside world that is largely responsible for their fate.
America’s development aid, $31 billion, is the stingiest among major donors, per capita one-tenth of Sweden’s. Trump wants to slash that and build a pointless $70 billion wall that would heighten yet further global contempt for his America.
My first shithole was the Congo, where I spent two years in the 1960s. Baudouin Kayembe, my assistant, edited a local weekly with integrity and courage until Joseph-Desire Mobutu put him in prison, where he died at his captors’ hands.
Mobutu ruled for 32 years, adopting the name Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga. That means, roughly: All-powerful warrior who because of his endurance and inflexible will to win goes from conquest to conquest leaving fire in his wake.
He was a cowardly tyrant who stole billions and murdered multitudes, with close U.S. ties. A State Department official explained that to me using Franklin Roosevelt’s line about a Nicaraguan despot: He’s a son of a bitch but he’s our son of a bitch.
Since then, I’ve seen people in shitholes across the world keep their faith, share last handfuls of food among extended families, lose their lives to defend meager rights and work at menial jobs with an ethic that puts a smug “First-World” to shame.
Analyzing the broad context takes a book, not a brief dispatch, and plenty of good ones have been written. A true leader reads them, along with detailed reports from diplomats, intelligence agents and journalists who gather news at firsthand.
All presidents make calamitous mistakes. Kennedy led us into Vietnam, and his successors waded deeper toward quagmire. Clinton let Bosnia and Rwanda descend into genocide. Bush II opened Pandora’s Box in Iraq. Obama bungled Syria.
Carter championed human rights and alternative energy but was inept at Washington politics. Reagan was the reverse, a popular leader who nonetheless pitted rich against poor at home while supporting repressive right-wing generals abroad.
But each tried to do the right thing, according to ideologies made clear to the voters who elected them. For all its failings, America offered leadership to a world that badly needed it. Today, when that matters so much, we are a toxic rogue state.
We alone oppose the Paris climate accords. Only a few arm-twisted nations back a stand on Jerusalem that our allies realize puts Israel and Mideast peace at grave risk. Trump is trying to sabotage the Iran accord, splashing fuel on smoldering embers.
Partly this is about putting short-term profit ahead of anything else, along with a simplistic analysis of complex geopolitics. But America’s old friends and new foes see a gratuitous meanness in Trump’s bullying us-first approach.
Paul Krugman had it right in the New York Times, writing about domestic policy, Republican opposition to a social safety net for the poor: “Is it really about the money?” he wrote. “No, it’s about the cruelty…Inflicting pain is the point.”
Writ large, that translates to a simplistic Trumpian worldview. People who shit in holes are innately inferior to those with gold-plated bathroom fixtures. We don’t need them so they are on their own.
Trump and a clueless Congress have a free hand because so many Americans today know little about the world we are setting adrift. And so few of us think that matters.
I recently noted an exchange on KTAR-FM, Phoenix news-talk radio, about Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury. Before getting to it, two hosts batted around a Business Insider story they had misread about climate change and chocolate.
Scientists say West African rainforests are drying and by 2035 more than half the world’s cacao might have to be produced in different climes. The KTAR duo took that to mean they were declaring that in 2035 there would be no more chocolate.
The news talk focused on whether they could survive without Snickers. One laughed as she tried to pronounce Côte d’Ivoire, not having looked it up so she could add to her listeners’ knowledge. Both agreed that was “fake news.” And neither reflected on the larger issue.
They were in a city already so hot in summer that planes sometimes can’t take off. If Côte d’ Ivoire can no longer grow cacao, imagine what Phoenix will be like. And if a thriving African state becomes an impoverished shithole, how many more desperate people will be banging on richer countries’ doors?
Vulgar language is hardly new in the Oval Office. Now, however, we have a president who is crudely callous about hundreds of millions of people who must find a way to survive, even if we ignore them – and too dumb to see the danger that poses.