America in the Age of Shitholiness

(Anthony Behar/Sipa USA via AP Images)

Hundreds demonstrate against racism in Times Square on Martin Luther King Day in New York on January 15, 2018.

On my way out the door on January 11, I caught a glimpse of CNN on the TV, noting the news of the day: The text banner at the bottom of the screen said the president of the United States had called Haiti, El Salvador, and the nations of Africa “shithole countries.” I rolled my eyes and went on my way. Always knew the dude was racist; who didn’t? It took hours before I realized that I had never seen an expletive spelled out in full on a television news chyron. Because, really, we’ve been in the Age of Shitholiness for a while now. Like since January 20, 2017.

The following morning brought the out-of-body experience of hearing the word uttered by the very precise Korva Coleman of NPR. It was a quote from the president, after all, as reported by senators who had attended the meeting at which he uttered it. But it was also a cultural turning point, a moment at which the mainstream media determined that the old norms of propriety could no longer apply in a world led by a huckster who routinely breaks them. I mean, after “grab ’em by the pussy,” what’s a little “shithole”?

At a moment when the world seems on the verge of blowing up, and in a wealthy nation poised to deport 800,000 of its people and rob nine million children of their health care, this may seem a small thing. But it is not.

Cultural norms give shape and a certain order to society. When norms are smashed, it takes a minute for new ones to emerge and solidify. The period in between that of the smashing and the New Time tends to be one of chaos and uncertainty, lending an advantage to those whose aim is to grab power, money and resources.

“Shithole” may be just a word, but rarely, if ever, has a single expletive signaled a historic shift like this one has. It’s not simply about the kind of language deemed permissible in the public sphere. (I’m hardly a prude on such things, New Jersey being the land of my birth.) And its evidence of the president’s racism, however shocking in form, was yet another exhibit to add to the pile, along with “very fine people.” But the appearance of “shithole” in headlines and on TV screens devoted to coverage of the leader of the world’s most powerful nation reminds us that we’re in a place we’ve never before been, at the mark on the historical timeline that our progeny may teach as the beginning of the end of the republic. Because it’s not just the words that have changed.

It’s not normal for the manager of a presidential campaign to meet with an agent of a foreign government on the promise of an oppo dump on the opposing candidate, as Paul Manafort did in June 2016. It’s not normal for the president to demand a promise of loyalty from the head of a law enforcement agency, as Donald J. Trump reportedly did of then-FBI Director James Comey, before firing him. It’s not normal for the chair of the House Intelligence Committee to collaborate with the White House on an investigation of the activities of the president and his aides as regards that foreign power, as Representative Devin Nunes did in March.

It’s not normal to come before a congressional committee and refuse to testify, at the behest of White House lawyers—even though you no longer work for the White House—of your experience as a White House aide and transition-team leader, as Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist and campaign CEO, did on Tuesday.

Nor is it normal for U.S. senators to come forward days after a meeting at which the president reportedly uttered a controversial statement, one that his office initially failed to deny he made, to say, wow, we didn’t hear that, even though the people who did were their fellow senators. This is what Tom Cotton and David Perdue did.

Now, because the president does not like the fact that his actual words were reported to the nation by a Democratic senator, the government may go unfunded. Call it the #ShitholeShutdown.

Of course, it’s also not normal to incite nuclear war via a tweeted dick-wagging contest. (See how I did that? Writing “dick” in The American Prospect, just like it were normal?)

Then there’s the un-normality of the president using a building owned by the American people to house his own business, the Trump International Hotel, one grown highly profitable because of the favor-seeking its existence fosters. This is graft, a transgression usually reserved to politicians of lesser office.

And it’s not normal for the president to routinely and relentlessly attack the press as peddling falsehoods. This is what dictators do.

This is hardly a comprehensive list, but you get the idea.

In deciding not to euphemize the president’s “shithole” reference, the mainstream media did the nation a favor. This is your president, America. Is this the change you want to be in the world? Because things have indeed changed.

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