By Hastings Wyman
President Trump shocked much of the media, the diplomatic corps, African-Americans, virtually all Democrats and many other just plain folks when he allegedly referred to Haiti and some other countries as “sh*tholes.” The alleged slur took place at the White House at a meeting on immigration and was reported by Democratic US Senator Dick Durbin (IL).
Politically, however, how did the incident affect President Trump’s standing with those who voted for him in 2016?
Political insiders in four states that Trump carried in 2016 are all singing the same tune: The alleged comment was not nice, but it was pretty much water off a duck’s back to Trump’s political base.
One noticeable response to Trump’s alleged comments that differs sharply in these Southern states that voted for Trump is no comment about whether the remark, which compared all-white Norway with all-black Haiti, was racist, and whether the president is a racist, as he has been widely described in the media by various African Americans and many liberal whites.
The fact is Southern Republicans rarely count on African Americans as part of their electoral base, so when asked about the impact on Trump’s base, the racial issue doesn’t come up.
That does not mean, however, that the remark has no political impact. As we have seen in Virginia and special elections throughout the South, while Trump’s base may be unaffected by the president’s – er – insensitive comments, they and the policies they represent have caused a major increase in voter turnout among minorities, women and college students, to the GOP’s detriment.
There was some hoo-hah, at least in the national news, about Arkansas Republican US Sen. Tom Cotton’s apparent shift in his memory about the meeting where the alleged presidential insult uttered. At first, Cotton, along with US Sen. David Perdue (R-GA), said they did not hear the president say the offending word. Later, as the cable news networks began to focus on the controversy, Cotton and Perdue both changed their stories. It was no longer that they didn’t hear the president say the widely reported expletive, but now it’s that he did NOT say it. Nevertheless, there has been no noticeable backlash among his home state supporters.
“It’s had minimal impact,” says a Republican source in Little Rock. “Trump remains popular here. Some say he’s hurt, but his approval rating is still in the 60s here.”
He continues, “Trump’s rants and raves won’t have much impact. As long as the economy, the stock market and unemployment stay good, the Republicans will be okay. In Arkansas, we’re having trouble finding enough workers.” And he expects a “status quo” election in the Razorback State this fall.
Says a longtime observer of Peach State politics, “Perdue caught some flak – mainly from Democrats – from saying that he was in the meeting with Trump and didn’t hear that word (sh*thole),” then shifting to a denial that the word was used. Perdue was emphatic on ABC News, “I’m telling you he did not use that word, George (Stephanoulous).”
The state Democratic Party hit Perdue hard, tweeting on Sunday that either Perdue “lied Friday or lied today,” and accused the senator of a willingness to lie to cover up for Trump. And state Rep. Scott Holcomb (D), who may challenge Perdue in 2020, told the Atlanta paper that Perdue “does what he is told and that’s it. Empty suit.”
One Georgia Republican, US Sen. Johnny Isakson, was not at the meeting, but said that if Trump did make those remarks, “he owes the people of Haiti and all of mankind an apology.” Isakson’s comment was made on P.O.T.U.S Sirius XM radio and reported in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
An Atlanta insider (R), however, says “I haven’t heard much about it. The last couple of days, the weather has been the main topic of conversation. Snow and ice. Plus, the legislature is in session, which attracts some attention. And now the government shutdown.”
In the Sunshine State, a major battleground in presidential elections, one Republican officeholder more or less defended President Trump’s remark as originally reported by Durbin. US Rep. Matt Gaetz (R) said on MSNBC, “I would not pick those terms, but I would say that the conditions in Haiti are deplorable, they are disgusting. I mean, everywhere you look in Haiti, its sheet metal and garbage when I was there.” Gaetz is in a very safe (R) district. Meanwhile, Haitian-Americans protested at Mar-a-Lago.
A Republican consultant, however, reported what appears to be a common sentiment among GOPers, that Trump’s statement “is fairly indefensible, but people want to get on to work. People are trying to change the subject.”
Baton Rouge-based pollster Bernie Pinsonat, when asked if the Haiti slur had hurt the president with his base, answered, “No, not at all. No, it didn’t hurt him. People who don’t like him didn’t like it.”
Pinsonat continued, “I don’t think how Trump is portrayed in the national media affects his base. This is one of his stronger states. Some (of his supporters) don’t like him tweeting… but they’re not going to not vote for him because of it.” He adds that others do like his tweeting.