Originally published by The New York Times
As tourist destinations go, the Republic of Moldova — tucked between Ukraine and Romania — probably isn’t on anyone’s bucket list. It’s the poorest country in Europe, with per capita G.D.P. barely exceeding Sudan’s. Sex trafficking and organized crime are rampant. My memories of the place, from a visit 17 years ago, include roads that vanished into deep snow, Transnistrian border guards in Soviet uniforms, and an impoverished Holocaust survivor’s tale of a bleak life under Romanian, German and Soviet tyrants.
Let’s not mince words: Moldova is a hole. Modify with any four letters you wish.
I mention Moldova because it’s where my paternal grandfather was born in 1901. An anti-Semitic rampage in his hometown, Kishinev, soon forced his family to leave for New York, where my great-grandfather labored as a carpenter in the Brooklyn Navy Yard for eight dollars a week. Low skills, low wages, minimal English, lots of children and probably not the best hygiene — that’s half of my pedigree. The other half consisted of refugees.
I’m not alone. America is a nation of holers. It is an improbable yet wildly successful experiment in the transformation — by means of hope, opportunity and ambition — of holers into doers, makers, thinkers and givers. Are you of Irish descent? Italian? Polish? Scottish? Chinese? Chances are, your ancestors did not get on a boat because life in the old country was placid and prosperous and grandpa owned a bank. With few exceptions, Americans are the dregs of the wine, the chaff of the wheat. If you don’t know this by now, it makes you the wax in the ear.
Donald Trump is the wax in the ear.
Some of the fury — and most of the apologetics — surrounding the president’s alleged remark about “all these people from shithole countries” concerns the nature of the countries themselves. Liberals can be squeamish about calling poor countries bad names, while conservatives such as Mark Steyn chortle that “nobody voluntarily moves to Haiti.” Which, let’s be real, is basically right.
Yet that’s beside the point. We are not talking about Haiti, El Salvador, Nigeria or any other country on the president’s insult list. What counts are the people from these countries, both those who are already in the United States as well as those who wish to come. Why should the president think they are any less fit to become Americans than the Norwegians he seems to fancy?
The obvious answer is racism, the same “textbook” case that Paul Ryan spoke of in June 2016 after Trump called a federal judge’s fitness into question on account of his ethnic heritage.
What about the argument that people from poor countries bring their national baggage with them — the dysfunctions and prejudices that help account for their troubles back home?
But immigrants are more likely to be fleeing those dysfunctions and prejudices than they are to be bringing them — just ask Dorsa Derakhshani, the international chess master from Iran who came to the United States last year because, as she wrote in an op-ed for The Times, the mullahs “cared more about the scarf covering my hair than the brain under it.” Vietnamese boat people did not bring fratricidal hatreds with them to America. Soviet refuseniks did not bring a Soviet work ethic.
This should go without saying, except that the age of Trump is also the age in which restatements of the obvious have become necessary for civilization. Also obvious is that immigrants don’t steal jobs. They fill jobs Americans won’t do or create those that haven’t been invented. They don’t bring crime to cities. They drive out crime by starting businesses and families in shrinking cities or underserved neighborhoods. They don’t undermine American culture. They feed, enrich and reinvent it, not least through their educational ambitions for themselves and their children.
This is true of most immigrants, but perhaps more so of the so-called “holers.” As Michelle Mittelstadt of the Migration Policy Institute notes, sub-Saharan Africans have “among the highest college-completion rates of any immigrant group.” As for Haitians, MPI found they had a higher labor participation rate than the overall work force, and had median household incomes of $47,200 — lower than the overall U.S. median, but robust by any developed nation standard.
How can this be? It shouldn’t be a mystery. Immigrants self-select. They have a broader perspective. They know their luck. They want it more. The miraculous in America is mostly invisible to those who’ve known nothing else. To really see it clearly, you must first rise up from a hole.
Donald Trump has not, to say the least, risen from a hole. But he is sinking into one. It may be that it won’t damage him politically — Republican Party leaders, increasingly unshameable, will mumble mild disapproval until the news cycle turns — but it does damage the country. We have a president even more ignorant of America than he is of the rest of the world.
Maybe there really is something wrong with the president’s head. Modify with any four letters you wish. ☐