“Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?”
Those words, uttered Thursday at the White House in front of lawmakers and reportedly directed at Haiti, El Salvador, and countries in Africa, reverberated around the world, and have sparked a troubling question: is the president of the United States a racist?
President Donald Trump issued a vague denial Friday morning, but Democratic Senator Richard Durbin, who was among the lawmakers present, confirmed reports of the presidents words said shortly after a White House meeting on immigration. “He said those hate-filled things and he said them repeatedly,” Durbin said.
The idea that an American president would hold these views is perhaps not so shocking. President Richard Nixon openly courted the “silent majority,” that group of Americans not protesting the Vietnam War or participating in the Civil Rights Movement.
Tapes of his conversations in the Oval Office, released after his death, revealed racist views often expressed with profanity. “Do you know, maybe one black country that’s well run?,” Nixon said to Henry Kissinger in one phone call. Speaking about Jamaica, Nixon added: “Blacks can’t run it. Nowhere, and they won’t be able to for a hundred years, and maybe not for a thousand.”
Presidential historians noted that Trump’s comments were notable for how openly they were expressed. “He was without question anti-semitic and said many deeply racist things in those tapes,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian and professor at Rice University, about Nixon. “But he said it in the privacy of the Oval office, whereas Trump has made racism the modus operandi of his campaign.”
“Trump is the most overtly racist president since Woodrow Wilson”
Historians said to find a president who openly articulated similar views in public, you have to go further back in history. “The point is that since the New Deal, since the beginnings of modern civil rights era, no president has ever said anything publicly as explicitly racist as what we’ve heard from President Trump,” said Daniel Rodgers, a historian and emeritus of Princeton University.
Trump has said plenty of racially-inflammatory things in his short political career. When announcing his candidacy from Trump Tower in 2015, he referred to Mexicans as “rapists” and “drug dealers.” He initially refused to denounce white supremacists following the violent events in Charlottesville, Virginia last August that left three dead and dozens injured.
“Trump is the most overtly racist president since Woodrow Wilson,” said Brinkley. “All presidents have tried to not flash their bigot card as clearly as Trump does.”
Wilson served as president during World War One and was a self-avowed progressive, but he was also an unapologetic racist who resegregated federal buildings and screened the KKK-friendly film “Birth of a Nation” at the White House. Brinkley sees similarities between Wilson and Trump’s vein of racism. “They are proud of it,” he said. “They use it as a way to demean and dehumanize others. It’s done out of a feeling of white superiority.”
Joshua Zeitz, author of Building the Great Society: Inside Lyndon Johnson’s White House, puts the marker even further back, all the way to Andrew Johnson, who became president after Abraham Lincoln was killed, serving in the post-Civil War years from 1865 to 1869. Johnson is often remembered for obstructing political and civil rights for black Americans. “I think it’s fair to say that we haven’t seen a president deal so casually in racist invective since Andrew Johnson,” said Zeitz. ”That was 150 years ago. Certainly in the modern era, elected officials understood that there were certain things you simply could not say.”
None of this is to say that modern presidents — even recent ones — have not carried racist views and expressed them privately in the White House.
“I can't think of any president going public with such a statement and I don't think that Trump intended to do so but many presidents have used crude and racists language in private; Woodrow Wilson to LBJ and Nixon,” said Doug Wead, conservative commentator, historian and former advisor to George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush. “In fact, I have served and been with presidents in private when they have used such language.”
The Statue of Liberty, a gift from France, was erected in 1875, but it wasn’t until the Immigration Act of 1965 that the United States ended a decades-long policy of prioritizing immigrants from Europe.
“Since then, every president in both parties has at least tried to unify the country and respect our tradition of accepting the “huddled masses” from all foreign lands, as was done by even racist presidents for most of our history,” said Jonathan Alter, author of “The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Day and the Triumph of Hope.” “Is President Trump arguing that America was 'great' when—from 1924 to 1965–we discriminated in favor of immigrants from white European nations? Apparently so, and that’s un-American in today’s world.”