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The Potemkin Sh*thole

Late last January, in an apparent gesture of acknowledgement that he’d begun his presidency as one of the most widely loathed politicians in the country, Donald Trump hosted Democratic and Republican leaders at a reception in the State Dining Room, where his effort to build good will immediately ran aground.

According to the New York Times, “Trump kicked off the meeting…by retelling his debunked claim that he would have won the popular vote if not for the three million to five million ballots cast by ‘illegals.’”

When Democrats raised objections to this clumsy disinformation, Trump tried to source his claim to “the very famous golfer, Bernhard Langer,” who, according to Trump was denied the opportunity to vote near his home in Florida—despite being surrounded in line for the ballot box by people who “did not look as if they should be allowed.”

It’s in the nature of Trump’s prolific outrageousness that most Americans probably never heard this story, and many of those who did quickly forgot. But it’s worth recalling a year later that it happened, and that everything Trump said to those lawmakers was fabricated. Bernhard Langer is German, doesn’t vote in the U.S., and, according to his father, “is not a friend of President Trump’s.” The entire purpose of Trump’s tale was to soften his racist and dishonest assertion of widespread minority voter fraud with the patina of third-party authentication. Who doesn’t trust Bernie Langer?!

We can’t be certain, but we can be pretty sure, that we only learned the president tried to spread this ugly lie because Democrats were on hand for the reception, and then alerted the press to what Trump said.

It’s not altogether unusual that the president would fete members of his own party more frequently than members of the opposition party, especially when his party controls Congress.

But for our purposes, this should only create more suspicion that Trump’s private, extemporaneous racist outbursts happen all the time, and are being hidden from us. On Thursday, Trump told a different, bipartisan group of lawmakers that he wants to curb immigration from African nations and other “shithole” countries, irrespective of what immigration wonks might call “merit,” and increase inflows from white-majority countries like Norway.

This, too, we only know because a Democrat, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), was on hand for the meeting, and told the public what had happened immediately afterwards.

But usually Democrats aren’t on hand. Most days Trump is surrounded by White House yes-men. And on the semi regular occasion when he meets with lawmakers, it’s usually Republican lawmakers, who, taking the fate of the republic into their own hands, have gone to extraordinary lengths to abet and conceal his misdeeds.

Before Shitholeghazi became the most important political story in the world, the political media was fixated on the revelations in a book by writer Michael Wolff that depicts Trump as a functionally illiterate, mentally unbalanced figurehead, frighteningly incapable of doing the most important job in the world. Then as now, Republicans stood by their guy, and then as now, none of those Republicans volunteered that the truth was radically different than what had been presented. Nobody with any credibility in Republican politics will say the president is an intelligent man with sharp critical faculties, and nobody with any credibility in Republican politics will say the president is compassionate toward impoverished, non-white foreigners.

But by the same token, vanishingly few Republicans have volunteered the troubling things they’ve seen, the way Dick Durbin did. While embroiled in a political feud with Trump, Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) once acknowledged Trump’s childlike impetuousness and called him a threat to global peace. Weeks later, he voted for a Trump tax bill that made him millions of dollars richer, and a few days after that, he joined Trump aboard Air Force One en route to a political rally in Tennessee.

But as striking as Corker’s original comments were, they really just restated the obvious. Not a single Republican has blown the whistle publicly about something they’ve witnessed personally that the public has a right to know. Of the very few meetings Trump has held with Democratic lawmakers, two produced bombshell stories about Trump’s casual racism. Republicans would have us believe that these were one-offs, and that at no other times has Trump behaved improperly. The entire Republican leadership and most of Trump’s cabinet spent a weekend at Camp David with the president recently. Did he really make it the whole three days without saying something that would create shockwaves around the world? What about the rest of the time? As Republicans furrow their brows and express disappointment about the shithole story, how many of them are privately aware of other, similar incidents that they’ve decided to bury? We know to a near statistical certainty that Shitholeghazi is merely the tip of the shitty iceberg, but we don’t know how deep it runs because Republicans are covering up the truth. There’s an obvious answer to this question, but it captures nearly everything about American politics at the moment, and it’s one our political system hasn’t adequately grappled with: Why does it take having a Democrat on hand for the public to learn these things and how much don’t we know as a result?

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