Donald Trump’s utterance of the phrase “shithole countries” caused great national consternation. Dick Durbin, for instance, was sure no “president has ever spoken the words that I personally heard our president speak.” But what if we take the word itself seriously? The consternation is symptomatic of anxiety not over linguistic transgression but over a truth borne in the phrase itself. What might pursuing the shithole metaphor open up about the United States and its racial global imaginary?
“Shithole,” I think, names the place of abjection in the US imagination and does so by conjuring two visions at once: On the one hand, the Global South as toilet for the United States, holding its waste; on the other hand, a vast alimentary network with the United States at its center. Both are organized around the management of abjection. Trump’s “shithole” comment makes manifest what has animated his obsession with a border wall: securing the body and nation from foreign threat. But it also reveals that what is always imagined as a foreign threat has always already been an internal threat, too—the shit in the toilet was once the shit inside the body.
Moreover, this was not the first time Trump has invoked porous bodies and abject disgust. His comments on women’s bodies in this regard are legion. This abject discourse makes manifest a particular vision of the United States. In Trump’s political imaginary—one that is the obscene core of the American national fantasy—women threaten from the inside and the racial other of the Global South threatens from the outside. Like in any fantasy, this one aims to enforce an impossible order on the world, to excise the abjection that constitutes the subject, the body, the nation.
Secular modernity is marked by a persistent project of separating the modern body from its waste, masking excremental operations, and thus producing a fantasy of a fully bounded body and subject. The secular subject has worked hard at cleanliness, at an escape from shit and other reminders of the abject, porous body. One thinks of that paragon of secular modernity, “the buffered self,” which Charles Taylor counter-poses to the premodern “porous self.” “For the modern, buffered self,” writes Taylor, “the possibility exists of taking a distance from, disengaging from everything outside the mind . . . As a bounded self I can see the boundary as a buffer, such that the things beyond don’t need to ‘get to me’. . . This self can see itself as invulnerable, as master of the meanings of things for it.”
And yet, mastery of this sort is pure fantasy. Taylor, like a good secularist, hews close to the classic mind-body split. But it is more compelling to think of the two as both imbricated in one another and homologous. And thus the holes in the body—mouth, ears, nose, anus, vagina, urethra—that embody the porosity of the body’s boundary also signify the impossibility of a fully bounded, buffered self. Indeed, Trump’s “shithole” suggests the way such a fantasy obscures bodily materiality. In an interview with Howard Stern from years ago Trump claims his soon-to-be wife Melania never has a bowel movement! But the shithole also reveals how, for the secular, buffered self to exist, a submerged colonial racial geopolitics must be called into being. It is worth remembering that the history of the secular, buffered self and that of European colonialism are essentially coincident.
If secular modernity is concerned with masking abject waste it should come as no surprise that the management of waste has been a longstanding preoccupation. Indeed, a central component of modern hygienic infrastructure, public and personal, is aimed at masking abjection—bathrooms, toilets, tampons, sewers, funeral homes, caskets, et cetera. This hygienic infrastructure was and is not only central to public health, but also to the constitution of the modern subject. As John Lardas Modern puts it, “Large-scale systems meant to deal with the excess of the human, to literally channel it someplace else, also cleared a space for the operations of the will unencumbered.” To be an autonomous, whole individual is to have the abject waste whisked away in private. It is perhaps no wonder then that, as the New York Times reports, Trump “has an odd affinity for showing off bathrooms, including one he renovated near the Oval Office.”
But for all of this effort and all of these fantasies, this shit, this waste, no matter how secular or how modern we are, simply cannot be done away with. Abjection concerns what is both inside and outside the body (or the society or nation). Always a threat to the fantasy of a whole, unified, autonomous body/society/nation, abjection is associated with bodily fluids and excrement. As Julia Kristeva puts it in Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection,
As in true theater, without makeup or masks, refuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live. These body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death. There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being. My body extricates itself, as being alive, from that border. Such wastes drop so that I might live, until, from loss to loss, nothing remains in me and my entire body falls beyond the limit—cadere, cadaver. If dung signifies the other side of the border, the place where I am not and which permits me to be, the corpse, the most sickening of wastes, is a border that has encroached upon everything.
Dung signifies the other side of the border. For America to exist, those “shithole countries” need to be imagined into existence. But of course, that shit was once inside the body, too, just as the poverty, misery, and death the American global imaginary fantasmatically expels to the Global South also exist in this presumably not-shithole country, the United States. Which is to say, when Trump invokes “shithole countries,” he does so in order to suggest poverty, death, and misery are problems beyond the borders of the United States. But, we know this to be untrue. The abjection, the shit, the waste, is at once inside and outside the body and the nation.
Trump’s excremental imaginary, however, is directed at racialized colonial spaces, which, it turns out, have frequently been associated with the excremental. The historian Warwick Anderson has called this “excremental colonialism,” which we might see as redolent of what Achille Mbembe has called necropolitics—“the generalized instrumentalization of human existence and the material destruction of human bodies and populations.” This excremental colonialism, this necropolitics, finds its place in the word “shithole,” which conjures an abject geopolitical, racial imaginary. Whether as the receptacle of abject excrement (a toilet) or as the anus/rectum of a vast, global organism, the shithole is always mired in abjection.
We might think of the Global South being figured as a toilet, managing and masking the abjection of the United States. If the toilet and the sewer are receptacles for excrement, the nations of the Global South stand as racialized ideological receptacles for the poverty, misery, and death that is supposed to be excluded from the American national fantasy. They are supposed to hold the excrement of US racial capitalism, shoring up the fantasy that this kind of poverty, this kind of death, this kind of misery is out there, not in here. This is clear in many of the defenses by politicians who avoid the term shithole but note nations like Haiti and El Salvador are poor and politically troubled. Or, as Fox News host Tucker Carlson put it on his Twitter account, “Option A: El Salvador isn’t a ‘shithole,’ so they don’t need 17 years of Temporary Protected Status, and migrants from there should be sent home immediately. Option B: El Salvador is, in fact, a ‘shithole.’” This logic of the shithole treats the excrement as disconnected from that which produces it.
What Trump, Carlson, and their compatriots suggest is that the economic conditions of nations in the Global South have nothing to do with the imperial voracity of the United States itself, just as the masking of abjection treats the excrement as having nothing to do with the body itself. This is not simply about the body, but about the problem of consumption without waste. Trump’s rhetoric exposes a quintessentially American and secular modern desire—to consume without waste, to eat without shitting, to be a sovereign nation without the destructiveness of colonial domination. Again, Trump’s anxieties about abject women’s bodies inside the nation are symptomatic of a desire of a body that consumes without waste. Life may withstand defilement on behalf of death, but works quite hard to hide it.
The shithole is also the rectum, and when read in relation to Trump’s subsequent comment about Norway, it reveals the US global imaginary as a vast, racialized, alimentary network connected by sphincters channeling migratory bodies along one-way paths. In particular, we might think of the two primary sphincters in the alimentary system of the human body: the lower esophageal sphincter, which opens to allow food and liquid into the stomach but does not allow stomach acids to escape into the esophagus; and the sphincters of the anus, which expel waste. In this perverse metaphor (abjection, Kristeva notes, is always related to the perverse), the United States functions as a stomach with a voracious appetite, consuming capital and expelling waste. In Lose Your Mother, Saidiya Hartman, writing of the dungeons in the slave castles on the West Coast of Africa, relies on a similar metaphor: “If ingestion exemplified the merchant’s accumulation of capital and the slave’s dispossession, then waste was the proof that the powerful had eaten. Excrement was the material residue of this politics of the belly.”
In Trump’s formulation, the racialized work of the shithole marks those nations of the Global South as on the other side of the anus, holding the expelled waste, and marks the whiteness signified by Norway as the sustenance that needs to be consumed for the health of the national body. On those nations deemed “shitholes,” a White House statement reads, “The President will only accept an immigration deal that adequately addressed the lottery system and chain migration—two programs that hurt our economy and allow terrorists into our country.” Which is to say, allowing the expelled object back into the country is bad for the health of the national body. On those desired, Norwegian immigrants, the statement continues: “Like other nations that have merit-based immigration, President Trump is fighting for permanent solutions that make our country stronger by welcoming those who contribute to our society, grow our economy, and assimilate into our great nation.” Which is to say, immigrants who function as white human capital. This discourse on abjection works to sustain the nation as an abstract consuming machine concerned only with its own perpetuation, wherein people function as privileged consumed objects or abject expelled waste.
The US global imaginary and the subject of secular modernity, then, as imagined through the shithole, is organized around the racialized management of abjection. This, in the end, goes to his rhetorical commitment to building a wall on the border with Mexico. In one of his exculpatory tweets in the wake of the shithole comment, Trump wrote, “The Democrats seem intent on having people and drugs pour into our country from the Southern Border, risking thousands of lives in the process. It is my duty to protect the lives and safety of all Americans. We must build a Great Wall, think Merit and end Lottery & Chain. USA!” According to his consistent rhetoric on immigration policy, the expelled “waste” of US racial capitalism south of the border keeps pouring back in, risking the health of the national body; that porous site in the national body must be closed, so that the abject can remain outside. Of course, that is not how borders work, great wall or no great wall. And it is not how the abject works either.
The problem with dismissing, ridiculing, or ironically reappropriating the phrase “shithole countries,” as so many have done, is that such a move obscures the truth Trump casually told. “Shithole countries,” is, in its crudeness, in its abjection, in its racialized colonial geopolitics, the truth of the United States in the world and, indeed, of secular modernity itself.