When, in the service of discriminating against migrants from Haiti, El Salvador, and the whole of Africa, the world’s most powerful leader refers to his victims as unworthy losers from “shithole countries,” the U.S. press senses an important possible question: Might this be considered racist?
Indeed so far are we from a popular understanding of white supremacy as being about systematic oppression, as opposed to personal foible, that it is Trump’s wording that comes to be the issue, the occasion to look into his alleged heart and at the memories of older white men. In its latest twist — I’m writing noonish on the King holiday, the story will have changed a dozen more times by when you read this — his supporters seem to cling to the view that Trump referred to much of the world as “shithouse countries” not “shithole countries.” Because, you know, having a go at “shithouse countries” isn’t racist.
By far the most profound point opponents of racial capitalism can make in these discouraging debates is that it is the policies that matter. There’s no disputing that Trump’s verbal provocations served in policy terms to undermine a proposed xenophobic but better-than-nothing compromise regarding the legal status of “Dreamer” immigrants and the further militarizing the border in favor of no deal and further white nationalist rabblerousing. However, in this case the language is so gratuitously hurtful, so artfully crafted — in the trash talking and the winking denial — to appeal to the worst of his base, and so illuminating of how white nationalism works that it is worth lingering on it for 1000 words.
“Shithole” or “shithouse”? Or really, which shithole? Even before his defenders mounted their “shithouse” defense, the same (non-) issue was already present in the word “shithole” itself. The word might connote either a place to defecate or a dirty anus. The world press translations of the original Trump story immediately pointed to the problem. In the Japanese daily Sankei what Trump was said to have said was rendered in a way that would be retranslated as “countries that smell like toilets.” In one Finnish paper, it was persläpimaat — that is, “asshole countries.” Between those two poles, the French press mainly went with “shitty countries.” In El Salvador, singled out for Trump’s abuse, the main paper opted for “holes of shit.”
Sources on the English language give us, as usual, contradictory answers as to the meaning of “shithole.” The Oxford English Dictionary dates first recorded usage as 1629 and has the word naming the asshole. I’m not sure exactly what it means but the OED’s example usage from that year seems to pretty firmly undercut those Republicans who want disassociate themselves from the unprecedented vulgarity of Trump’s remark, not its racism: “Six shitten shotes did I shoote in thy mowth that I shot from my shithole.” “Shithole” as meaning toilet is more like seven decades old.
On the other hand, most recorded U.S. usages of “shithole” refer to outhouse toilets. Or at least they did. Just Google “porn” (an industry not distant from recent news on Trump) and “shithole” together to find spirited cinematic efforts to restore older British usages. CNN News, or its unconscious, kept such a meaning at play when it headlined that in his “shithole country” hate speech, Trump had found his new “bottom.”
One easy early defense for Trump held that we allegedly all say “shithole” and it just bespeaks raceless good fun. Indeed the Urban Dictionary definition for “shithole” uses my current home town of Lawrence, Kansas — about as white a place imaginable — in its rollicking and homophobic illustration of the word’s meaning. We’ve probably heard someone complain about living in a “shithole” because it lacks a handy Starbuck’s or Trader Joes. But I haven’t, till now, heard the most powerful bigot in the world say that migrants from a white country ought to be preferred in policy terms over those “shithole countries” with nonwhite citizens. That’s different.
Two tantalizing further bits deserve adding. “Shithole country” is itself not a Trump neologism. It lurks on the internet and I’m sure Fox News could find it applied somewhere, sometime, by someone to a European place or in the aftermath of all this, to the U.S. Or they could find it used by a person from the global South, even a militant wanting, say, to describe, what a dictator, or imperialism, has made of his or her homeland. But there is a further specific usage that aligns with Trump’s terminology and that very much comes from the alt-right. For its disgusting flavor, Google the phrase “is turning into a Third World shithole.” Variously preceded by Paris, or the U.S., or Canada, or London such usages have made “Third World shithole” an entry the Urban Dictionary as well. Defenders of Trump — Fox News’ Jesse Waters is the most pitiful and pitiless — aver that he is merely saying what others do with less of a platform. Well, yes.
But why, finally, all the shit talking? It supposedly works as calculated playing to the base and earthy image-making. But Trump and his class also have a much more interior past and present relationship with shit. And race. And class. And gender. The wonderful African American philosopher George Yancy’s New York Times response to the “shithole countries” controversy rightly raised the long, ugly association of antiblack racism to aversion, filth, and excrement. But the rising white bourgeoisie had its own particular encounters with shit, best explored within the psychoanalytic tradition by Joel Kovel, Herbert Marcuse, Norman O. Brown, and others.
This psychoanalytic literature connects anality, whiteness, gender, and capitalist accumulation insistently: in toilet training and the deferring of gratification, a habit necessary for accumulation; in leaving, for Marcuse, polymorphous perversity behind for a “mature,” limited, repressive, and putatively productive genital sexuality; in the workings of mothering, separation, and repression, especially for male children; in the Protestant Ethic and Protestantism, famously promulgated by Martin Luther as including both repression and as rebellion, in proximity to a toilet, and in the multiple connections of money, excrement, and dirt, not least damagingly among the filthy rich. The white racial aversion that Yancy identifies thus mixes desire and pain in all sorts of ways. Blackface minstrel performers played by smearing on filth, turned aversion into intense desire for some minutes, made money, and then often used removal of a glove, or of the blacking itself in the audience’s view, reasserting the ‘reality’ of whiteness.
I made it through life as a cultural studies scholar without seeing even one moment of Trump’s television hit The Apprentice but I did see, completely by happenstance, a Trump visit to shock radio personality Howard Stern’s long ago TV show. The episode goes back 15 years, to when Melania was Trump’s girlfriend, not wife. It was so bizarre that I kept awaiting its appearance during the campaign. It is now on the internet and you can check my memory, and perhaps your incredulity, for 90 seconds at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F32LbPl-K6s.
Trump puzzles Stern in the clip by saying how amazing it is that they both have partners who do not do “anything, like, bad.” The latter somehow thinks Trump means lesbianism but it turns out that the future U.S. president is recalling prior conversations in which Stern claimed his partner had never farted and only would “make a doody” annually. Trump proudly announces that this “applies to Melania” as well. The two then carry on at length about the “whiffs” of Trump’s ex-wives and the wonderful bowel control of their current women. Perhaps, they conclude, their partners save it up for after marriage.
Here is all of the delaying satisfaction and the exercising of anal control appropriate to Victorian paeans to deferring things, exercising discipline, and accumulating. But all of that is played for laughs, displaced onto young female partners, suspected as a ploy, used to ridicule older women, and unmoored from any pleasure beyond misogyny and sixth-grade homosociality. Trump’s capitalism requires little of the classic deferred gratification of the age of industry. Instead it needs subjects who are, as Terry Eagleton puts it, “prudently restrained in the office” and “wildly anarchic in the shopping mall” or perhaps the casino. The result deepens already profound crises and confusions in anality The “shithole country” talk is on one level simply cheap and debased political theatre. On another, it joins the shitless supermodel as the panicked projection of a ruling class with no ways out.
David Roediger (University of Kansas) is author of Class, Race, and Marxism (Verso).[book-strip index="1" style="display"]