How many euphemisms can Donald Trump’s allies and members of his administration come up with for “white” when trying to explain their preferences for what the population of the United States should look like?
There’s “Western civilization,” which Trump has declared superior to “the South or the East,” because people from the magical lands of the West apparently “pursue innovation” while others do not. (Someone should tell the tech-driven economies of South Asia and East Asia about that.) The language, sometimes modified to “Western values,” was picked up by much of right-wing media. Then there’s “culture and demographics”, a euphemism for whiteness preferred by folks like Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who is beyond any serious doubt the most racist member of Congress.
There’s also simply “civilization,” which Fox News host Tucker Carlson has claimed is something white people gave to the indigenous people of the Americas, supposedly saving them from “human sacrifice and cannibalism.” Carlson has also experimented with the “Midwest” and “attractiveness” as similar euphemisms for whiteness. “Legal” is casually equated with whiteness when Laura Ingraham discusses immigration on her own Fox News program. There’s “our cultural cohesion,” from Rich Lowry writing in Politico. Perhaps most famously, there was Trump himself saying he wanted “people from places like Norway” to come to the U.S., instead of immigrants from what he deemed “shithole countries” like Haiti and Nigeria.
Now we have a new euphemism for “white,” courtesy of acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Ken Cuccinelli: “people coming from Europe.” The discussion at hand, on Erin Burnett’s CNN show, was about who deserves to partake of social services and still hold a right to U.S. citizenship in the United States. Cuccinelli, clearly trying to avoid saying that only white people had such rights, landed on this awkward euphemism.
The darkest part is that Cuccinelli was trying to clean up a mess he had made earlier in the day, when he rewrote the famous Emma Lazarus poem etched on the Statue of Liberty during an NPR interview, saying, “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge” — a term used in immigration law to describe people who are directly dependent on public assistance.
Just so we’re clear, Lazarus’ actual poem, which is called “The New Colossus,” does not say that. It says this:
Give me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
Cuccinelli was trying to defend a new Trump administration rule that is meant to deny a path to citizenship to immigrants who have low incomes, are not college-educated or who have used social services, even though there is nothing illegal about any of those things. It’s widely believed that the new rule is meant to make it easier for Cuccinelli’s office to deny citizenship applications to people of color, especially since it’s tied to other subjective measurements of what constitutes “self-sufficiency.”
A lot of people are pointing out that these same standards would have denied citizenship to the Irish, Italian or Jewish ancestors of many of the people who are trying to exclude immigrants today, including the Italian and Irish ancestors of Cuccinelli himself. It was, in fact, that context that caused Cuccinelli to pop off about “people from Europe,” as Burnett backed him into a corner by pointing out that previous waves of immigrants were also poor and uneducated, and that’s why the Lazarus poem was written.
“Well, of course that poem was referring back to people coming from Europe,” Cuccinelli said.
This is the same gambit as saying America is a “Western civilization” that needs “cultural cohesion.” It’s a gambit meant to put a vaguely intellectual or refined spin on flat-out racism, but people who roll this garbage out are being incoherent even by their own standards.
After all, Trump’s main obsession, shared with Cuccinelli, is to block immigrants from Latin America, which is to say countries that are literally as “Western” in their values and culture as the United States. A vast majority of people in those countries speak Western languages, mostly Spanish. (It is true that some Latin American immigrants speak indigenous languages, which can make their adjustment even more arduous.) Those nations are predominantly Christian — mostly Catholic, with a significant minority of evangelical Protestants. All those nations are former colonies of European powers, just like the U.S. Haiti, a nation that Trump specifically singled out as a “shithole,” is one of the oldest republics in the Western Hemisphere, achieving its independence only 28 years after our nation did.
Of course to exclude Asian, Middle Eastern or African immigrants is just as racist as excluding those from the Americas. But the fact that so many Trump flunkies seem to think that nations colonized by the Spanish, French or Portuguese are less “Western” than one colonized by the English gives the entire game away. This isn’t about “Western values.” It’s about race.
Trump believes, as Adam Serwer of the Atlantic argues, “that American citizenship is fundamentally racial, that only white people can truly be citizens, and that people of color, immigrants in particular, are only conditionally American.”
That’s why Trump recently told four congresswomen of color to “go back” to the countries “from which they came,” even though three were born in the U.S. and one was naturalized as a teenager. Two of the four are the children of native-born Americans, unlike Trump himself or four of his children. (Trump’s mother was born in Scotland.)
White nationalism is an evil ideology, but it’s also, in a way that can be darkly funny at times, a completely incoherent one. As the mainstream conservative movement slides further towards fascism under the Trump regime, there are numerous efforts to create these high-minded defenses of racist policies by claiming that of course this isn’t racism, but rather a “defense” of American “culture.”
But as Cuccinelli’s face-plant shows, any effort to pull this off is bound to fail. What’s the difference between Cuccinelli’s Italian ancestors and modern-day migrants from Central America? Well, the former have been arbitrarily (and retroactively) classified as “white” and the latter have been arbitrarily classified as “not white.” As a number of historians and sociologists have pointed out, plenty of “white” Americans in the years when Cuccinelli’s ancestors were arriving did not think of Italian or Irish immigrants as “white.”
Blood-and-soil nationalism is incoherent enough when the European far right trots it out. But the logical flaws become even more obvious in a country where people’s bloodlines come from all over the world and, except for Native Americans, almost none have ancestors with deep roots here. No matter how strenuously Trump, his administration or his media allies deny being racist, they keep exposing that their metric for American legitimacy is whiteness — as they perceive it and define it — and nothing else. Perhaps they should stop leaning on euphemisms and simply say it. Racists: Live your truth.