Less than a day before the President of the United States told her to go back to Africa, Rep. Ilhan Omar declared that she likely loved America more than most everyone in the room. The Minnesota Congresswoman told the audience at the progressive conference Netroots Nation in Philadelphia that she gets called “anti-American because I criticize the United States,” but that “as an immigrant, I probably love this country more than anyone that is naturally born.”
You don’t need to love America to stay here, but Omar’s remark does raise some fascinating questions in light of the fact that President Trump, again, took to Twitter on Sunday to tell her and three of her colleagues — Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY), Ayanna Pressley (MA), and Rashida Tlaib (MI) — to leave the United States because they disagree with how he runs the country. Trump would surely love to run against these four women in 2020 rather than an actual opponent, positioning them all as racial bogeymen. It’s a royal flush for his racist campaign: two black women, including one who wears a hijab and is a Somali refugee; a boricua from the Bronx; and a first-generation Palestinian-American from Detroit.
Despite his Monday morning tweets complaining about the characterization of his tweets as “RACIST,” the truth is that Trump reached into the Genesis chapter of the bigot’s bible when he essentially told two Congresswomen to go back to Africa, and told the other two to also “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” invalidating the citizenship of all four women on a whim. It was a white nationalist insult from a white nationalist.
It is clear, from her Saturday quote and the collective response that the four women offered on Monday that Omar isn’t going anywhere. “He’s launching a blatantly racist attack on four duly elected members of the United States House of Representatives, all of whom are women of color,” Omar said in a joint presser the Congresswomen held hours after the president launched his verbal screed, lobbing lies so egregious that they shouldn’t be dignified by repetition here. She added, “This is the agenda of white nationalists, whether it is happening in chat rooms, or it is happening on national TV, and now it’s reached the White House garden.”
We can drown in the pure racism of Trump’s messages to these women before we grasp the irony of a United States president telling anyone to “go home,” the commander of a worldwide empire that has spread its military and economic tentacles to colonize, corrupt, and contaminate the world with our harmful policies and pollutants alike. That may sound like hatred of America to some, but it is honesty. The purest love of country that I was ever taught? Loving criticism, the kind that Angela Davis or Grace Lee Boggs or Shirley Chisholm or Dolores Huerta or Fannie Lou Hamer or Toni Morrison so many others have shown for this nation, in their own ways. Seeing America through the lens of someone who is marginalized here is essential to understanding how it can grow.
But Trump has never shown an interest, before or since becoming president, in America evolving. This nation may have been founded by white men using black muscle and blood, but at the core of this grand experiment are ideas that were meant to thrive with many cultures, not in spite of them. The American project dies on the vine when it is solely powered by whiteness. An authoritarian ethno-state may be what Trump has in mind, but that represents an actual hatred for this country beyond anything that Omar, Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley, and Tlaib have done.
Leave his enabling of Russia’s election interference aside for the time being. The four Congresswomen mentioned impeachment as a proper remedy for Trump’s actions, and I agree, not just because his actions in this case are unbecoming of a president. Racism is a traitorous act, ripping apart if not the very reality of America, then any chance it has to reach its potential. Simply because racism has been so essential to America’s story does not mean that it is or should be considered something that serves the nation’s well-being. The country has thrived not in spite of a diversity of thought and culture, but because of it. The Founders, who had slaveholders in their number, may not have intended this result. But it turns out that they made a country that actually requires multiculturalism to survive.
More to the point, it requires challenge. America doesn’t move forward without being pushed. Speaking as someone with many family members who have served in the armed forces, I would still argue that our greatest patriots are those who fight in good faith in our communities to force this nation to own up to its original guarantees. But the aspiring strongman requires a different pledge of allegiance. This is a president who has done all he can to center the state in himself, masking his authoritarian impulse in the fog of his own incompetence. He and Republicans aren’t grasping for insults for these Congresswomen because they actually said something unpatriotic. These four House members merely disagree with Trump, who thinks of himself as the nation-state. As such, he is not a president who is looking for critical thinking from his constituents nor from his opposition. Yet critical thinking is precisely what we need in order to maximize what America can be.
It appears Trump merely saw a Fox & Friends segment about them and tweeted angrily about them moments later, as he has done many times before with other topics. There is a temptation to argue that he is now, but continuing the insults, trying to distract from the fact that his ballyhooed ICE raids were a bust. But even that likely gives him too much credit. As such, it is not useful to think of his attack on the four Congresswomen as any kind of grand strategy. It isn’t meant to exploit the internecine war between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Maureen Dowd whisperers and these progressive House members who stood firm as the only four opposition votes against her border funding bill last month, much to her dismay.
The one useful thing about this nonsensical episode is that it has brought Trump’s racist standards for citizenship into a new light. Whereas his battle for a citizenship question on the Census or his other battles on behalf of white nationalism may have been more subtle, telling folks to go back to Africa puts it all out there. Jack O’Donnell, who was the former president of Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City, told the New York Times on Sunday that “Trump has not only always been a racist, but anyone around him who denies it, is lying.” He added that the president has his own qualifications for who is and is not a United States citizen. “White people are Americans to Trump; everyone else is from somewhere else.”
This is hardly the first time Trump has told someone to leave the country due to disagreement; he did the same to Colin Kaepernick and the NFL players who kneeled during the national anthem in protest of police brutality and other forms of racial injustice. Similarly, a lack of fidelity to Trump amongst champion athletes unwilling to visit the White House, such as Stephen Curry, has earned a rebuke. But even though World Cup hero Megan Rapinoe, a white athlete who joined Kaepernick in taking a knee in 2016, caught hell from Trump for saying that “I’m not going to the fucking White House” before the tournament, he never questioned her Americanness. I wonder white.
Trump would have us believe that we demonstrate love of country by attempting to shame four Congresswomen who have a voice and use it to call out human rights abuses committed on our soil by our government, to say nothing of calling out those crimes against humanity before its deliberative bodies. “We export American exceptionalism,” Omar said last Saturday in Philadelphia. “The Great America. The land of liberty and justice. That is, you know, you ask anybody walking on the side of the street somewhere in the middle of the world, they will tell you: America the Great.
“But we don’t live those values here.”
It would be better if we had a president who I felt didn’t consider me to be a nigger, but that isn’t the case. How do we show that we love America, especially one that would elect Donald Trump? It is difficult to even perform the jingoistic stuff that we were taught as kids: the anthems, the salutes, the waving of the flags. But I hope that that it has been easier in the Trump era for people to get out of bed to do the real work of patriots. There is no love for a country like those who have had to suffer and work for it, and those four Congresswomen all belong to groups that know what it is like to be told that this country does not belong to you. They are being told that lie, all for telling America, and the president who thinks he is America, the truth about themselves.
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