Life in a Shithole Country

(CNS photo/Mike Blake, Reuters)

One year in, and it feels like forever. Living with the Trump presidency is like living with a medical condition; day after day you wake up to brief bright moment when you forget. But then it comes crashing back, the diagnosis, the reality.

One of the challenges of being a citizen (and a columnist) in Trump’s America is how to avoid getting disheartened in the very process of expressing dissent. Normally with a president whose politics you oppose, there’s a basic affirmation that you experience in the act of opposition. It is even invigorating.

But Trump is not a normal president. Yes, I oppose his policies—and it’s important to note that he has, in fact, managed to enact significant elements of a conservative agenda, as the Times reports in a piece about the Heritage Foundation’s enthusiasm for his presidency so far. It’s not Trump’s politics that are so profoundly disturbing, however, but his person, which I can only describe (and I do not use this phrase lightly) as a symptom of cultural and civic pathology. Every startling day he gives new and dreary meaning to the old adage, the personal is political. 

So what to do with the daily burden of dismay and disbelief? You talk about it with friends. You go to lectures, rallies, marches. You grope for a modus vivendi with those Trump supporters you know, and (if you’re me) end up alternating between interludes of mutually agreed-on diplomacy and outbursts of sputtering frustration, as you hold up the most recent example of presidential egregiousness and ask, like that guy on the cellphone commercial, Do you see it now? Do you see it now?

They never do. They never acknowledge that Trump's worldview is that of a thirteen-year old, and a really nasty one at that, a bully and braggart. They discount as trivial his crude and reckless commentaries—such as the astounding remark he made when he advocated minimizing immigration from “shithole countries” like Haiti (“they all have AIDS”) and African nations while maximizing it from countries like Norway.   

Is there method to Trump’s mayhem? I have adopted a system, a particular interpretive lens, for perceiving the throughline in his belligerent utterances—from “grab them by the pussy” and “Rocket Man, we’ll destroy your entire country,” right through to “shithole country.” This sounds like the lead-in to a joke, but here it is. Imagine a guy in a bar—a forty-five-year-old white guy, bearded, baseball cap, sitting in a bar guzzling beer and shouting resentful barbs at the evening news. I think of him as the “Hell Yes” guy. Bomb North Korea back to the stone age?  Hell yes!  Hillary Clinton, lock her up? Hell yes! Haiti—shithole country? Hell yes!  Beautiful woman? I grab her right by the pussy— hell yes!

Of course there are plenty of Trump supporters who don’t share this mentality—who merely tolerate it, in a free-rider way, in order to get what they want from that shopping list of Heritage Foundation goals. But Trump’s core base is the group that thrills to his coarse bluster—and to establishment dismay over it. My guess is that this core is just large enough, and holds sways over a sufficient quantum of red-state legislators, to keep Trump from ever being impeached. It’s both his sweet spot and his anti-impeachment security blanket. So nothing he says should ever outrage me, really, because I know whom he’s singing to. He’s singing to the Hell Yes guy in the bar.

But it’s depressing; it’s truly the god-awfullest tune to reverberate within the White House in living memory. Not just the profanity. We know enough about presidents by now to accept that they often fulminate privately, blowing off steam to their closest advisors. But Trump uttered these degrading words in an open meeting with legislators, while discussing looming policy decisions. The President of the United States, in a meeting with legislators and in full awareness that he would be quoted, decided to call another country “a shithole.” In effect, it was his way of framing the ongoing immigration debate. 

Which makes things even worse, because not only was it a contemptuous and ugly utterance, but one with obvious racial implications: black countries, shitholes; Nordic countries, bring ‘em on! That he chose to exalt a country that was a symbol of Nazi race worship (no fault of the Norwegians, it bears noting) is not lost on anyone paying attention to the upsurge of right-wing ideology both here and in Europe. Whether consciously or not —and it is hard to know which is worse—in tying his package of invidious comments about black nations together with the bow of Norway, Trump was participating in a well-worked-out racist hierarchy promulgated by Nazis. This, at a time when right-wing skinheads are carrying torches through American college towns and chanting “Hail Trump.” 

An insidious peril of life under Trump is that the very attempt to engage the daily calamity will drag you down into the quagmire. How to argue back against mud? Frequently I remind myself to focus on those aspects of existence that are the anti-Trump qualities: beauty, kindness, and generosity. And hope.

To that end I offer the following recollections. Long ago, I lived in one of those shithole countries. And I will never forget the experiences I had there. 

It was the early 1980s, and the country was Kenya. My uncle was a Harvard economist who worked there as a consultant to the Ministry of Finance and Planning (a curious footnote: one of the bright young Kenyans he worked with was an economics grad student named Barack Obama Sr.) I spent a year living with my uncle’s family, then returned for a second year on a work-study fellowship from a foundation.  

Kilimanjaro, just north of the Tanzanian border. The setting astonished with its loveliness. The view out my window—I still keep a photo of it in my office—began with the snowy mountain above and ranged to the savanna below, studded with flat-topped acacia trees. The road outside school was lined with jacaranda trees that dropped their leaves in a soft purple snow. Giraffes lived on the plains; one day, riding a bus out of the village, I looked out to see one ambling alongside, and marveled at how it swiftly it moved, even though it looked like slow-motion. Our school was surrounded by cornfields, and if you walked through them at night, you hurried a little bit, for fear of the occasional prowling leopard. 

My students were cheerful and diligent. This was a remote rural village, most parents were subsistence farmers, and the kids faced the future armed with little more than hope and hard work. Resources were meager, and students often shared two to a book. All walked to school, some from as far as five miles—five miles each way, every day. Many were pious Christians, and the day began with hymn singing; getting dressed each morning in the two-room wooden shack I shared with an African colleague, I’d hear them chorusing: 

Glory! Glory! This I sing—
Nothing but the blood of Jesus,
All my praise for this I bring—

As a visitor I was awed by the hospitality extended to me, again and again, both in that village and in the half-dozen other African countries I traveled through during a six-month hitchhiking journey across the continent on my way home. It was a never-ending lesson in generosity offered amid straitened circumstances. I cherished the friendship I had with my roommate and colleague at the school, David Mwalili. He was from the village, and his family lived there still—his father an elderly goat farmer who had three wives and more than twenty children. They lived in a compound of wood-framed mud houses not far from school, and often I was a dinner guest there, with David’s mother or one of the sister-wives cooking a big pot of stew for all to share. Such invitations were not unusual. Everywhere I went in Africa, families fed me, and often took me in for days at a time, with no expectation of anything in return—other, perhaps, than information, news about the world beyond (hard to get in those pre-internet days) and in particular about the mighty country that was my home. 

To the Africans I met, America served as a matchless symbol of possibility.

Making my way across the continent with my red backpack, I wore a jeans jacket onto which I had sewn a small American flag—“Mwamerikani!” kids would shout when they saw me in a village marketplace. In the Congo, then known as Zaire, I spent three weeks hitchhiking through the eastern forests, then a month on the Congo River, riding a convoy of barges. For me this was a journey of endless amazements. On the riverbank, dense bush would yield suddenly to a village of huts, and out would come a flotilla of dugout canoes, paddled by shirtless men standing upright with impeccable balance. The villagers sold every kind of living and recently living cargo imaginable to the Zairois on board, who smoke-cured it, using smothered fires built in big steel drums, to sell later in the market downriver at Kinshasa—piles of blackened fish and game that stacked up ever higher as our trip dragged on. Monkeys killed by bush hunters were displayed, their tails tied around their necks and hung dangling from tree limbs, to entice us as we floated by. I ate everything: frogs, snails, turtles; monitor lizard and crocodile and antelope; spiny caterpillars called lubili, fried crispy black; mboloko, some kind of jungle wildcat with a pungent, to me repulsive, flavor; and tree grubs, cooked with peanuts, tomatoes and peppers, that I bought in a bar—a bucket full of them, still wriggling and very much alive, that a guy brought in and sold me.

My meals on the barge were cooked for me over a charcoal stove by Cécile, the captain’s wife, in exchange for a prized bottle of Johnny Walker Red I had toted with me all the way from Kenya. The captain himself, a dour fifty-year-old named Louis Moma, had been working the river for decades. He regaled me with stories of the Ali-Foreman fight in Kinshasa in 1974, when Ali had shown up with a huge and rowdy entourage, and how the Congolese worshiped him: his brash bravado; his American charisma and confidence.

To the Africans I met, America served as a matchless symbol of possibility. The great majority of them lived amid significant isolation, with meager resources and a narrow range of options for their future. For my students at the village school, the prospect of ever actually getting to America was next to nil; finding the path to a life in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, was difficult enough. But that didn’t matter; the mere existence of a place like the United States, where immigrants were welcomed, and an individual’s dreaming and hard work could be rewarded, helped make their lives better. I recall our very best student that year, a shyly brilliant and hardworking girl named Washo. I could clearly picture how she would thrive if she could somehow get to the U.S., how creative and productive she would be. She ended up emigrating to Belgium, and lives and works there still. She and others like her exemplified the dream of getting elsewhere, on a ticket written with talent, ambition, and hard work.

The American president during my time in Africa was Ronald Reagan. I opposed his policies, but he was a man of instinctive personal decency, who moreover clearly possessed a deeply rooted sense of the dignity of the office. It is impossible to imagine him denigrating another country in the coarse terms Trump used, either privately or publicly— and especially publicly. I’m convinced Reagan would have regarded the prospect of a U.S. president calling another country a “shithole” with revulsion and alarm.

For me, living in Africa posed the daily challenge and gratification of encountering difference, of trying to sift through social and cultural arrangements that were often alien and mysterious to me. That brought with it an understanding of just how provincial I was as an American—shielded, by my own country and its colossal centrality to the world order, from having to know much of anything about other countries. One night on a train in Cameroon that was packed with university students returning home on winter break, I fell into conversation with a bunch of young Cameroonians who saw that American flag on my jacket and kidded me, Voilà l’éspion américain, il travaille pour le CIA!—Check out the American spy, he works for the CIA! We ended up talking for hours. They were avidly curious about the U.S. and our history and politics, and knowledgeable, too, quizzing me on everything from the Federalist Papers to the Pentagon Papers, from Thomas Jefferson to Angela Davis.

I’ve had the great fortune to spend almost a decade of my life abroad, in Africa and Europe. The experience makes you alert to how the U.S. is perceived in the world (a perception that has significantly worsened in the past year, polling shows). I’m aware how much attention is paid to how we, in turn, see other countries; to our worldview. Trump’s worldview astonishes in its bellicose and even proud ignorance. As many observers have noted, his manner bears hallmarks of the authoritarian style; from boasting about his own sexual prowess to taunting political opponents and foreign leaders, he’s a would-be strongman hiding (as so many do) behind a bogus populism.

Many of the African countries I visited have had dismaying experiences—then and now— under corrupt authoritarians who rule by crude self-assertion and reckless whim. They know a shithole style of leadership when they smell it. I wish all of us did.

Our president remarked that Africans would “never go back to their huts” once they see life in America. Remembering the great beauty I encountered in their land, both in the panorama I lived amid and in the people I lived among, I’d go back to my hut any day.

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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