A Trumpian fallacy

This post is a week late to the party, but I haven’t seen this point made explicitly: Trump’s “shit-hole” comment egregiously conflates within-group and between-group differences.

Donald Trump tweets things like “I, as President, want people coming into our Country who are going to help us become strong and great again, people coming in through a system based on MERIT.” In that context, he asks why the US should admit anyone from shit-hole countries.1 Instead, he says, he wants people from Norway. For lack of a better term, let’s call countries like Norway pie-hole countries.2

A merit-based immigration system should look at within-group difference: Of the people who applied for entry into the USA, who has more merit? I’m not clear on what ‘merit’ means here. Skill or money, maybe. I will suppose, for the sake of argument, that it doesn’t just mean whiteness.3

Any between-group difference between shit-hole and pie-hole countries is irrelevant. Even if we suppose that people in pie-hole countries have more merit on average than people from shit-hole countries, nothing follows about the pool of potential immigrants.

To see why, imagine that the people from pie-hole countries who apply for immigration are not the rich, creamy filling of the country but just the burnt bits of crust from the edge. And imagine that lots of people from shit-hole countries, from doctors to hobos, apply for immigration. In this scenario, the most meritorious people in the pool of applicants will be ones from the shit-hole countries.

There are lots of different possible scenarios. Absent demographic data and an actual specification of what ‘merit’ means, there is no way to say who would be selected and where they would be from.

So tweeting about merit is irrelevant to the question of which countries the USA should accept immigrants from. Connecting the two questions commits the fallacy of conflating within-group and between-group differences.4 That fallacy isn’t necessarily racist, but it is one that racists often commit in exercising and defending their racism.


  1. Or maybe he said “shit-house”. I detect no difference in nuance between the two, except perhaps that “Shit-house Country” would be a good name for a bluegrass Hothouse Flowers cover band.
  2. Because “pie hole” is the opposite of “shit hole”. Admittedly, though, a “pie house” would be a diner that specializes in dessert.
  3. See Justin Gess on the differential impact of points-based admission.
  4. Does this fallacy have a pithy name? It should.

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