The words that flowed from Donald Trump this past weekend — words on social media that told four congressional representatives who are women of color that they should “go back to their own countries” for their criticism of conditions at U.S. border detention centers — were nothing new.
That ugly sentiment is almost as old as this nation itself. (NPR reported that, according to one history professor, it hails back to 1798 when the U.S. passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which were designed to clamp down on immigrants and potentially boot them from the country for criticizing the government.)
The words were as familiar and as painful as any other racial taunt that has been uttered throughout our history.
We’ve heard this before, to be sure — but not from the president of the United States. Not from a person who is supposed to represent what this nation stands for and what America — a sprawling mosaic of immigrants — is all about.
And yet, this ugliness from this source doesn’t seem surprising. Even to supporters of the president, that fact is a shame and a disgrace, or at least it should be.
The president has drawn a lot of heat for his comments, but so what? That happens on a weekly basis. We seem to be suffering from outrage fatigue.
Some are defending him, but their justifications may say more about them than they do about the president.
Others say nothing at all. The members of South Dakota’s own congressional delegation, all of whom are Republicans like the president, haven’t said too much about Trump’s divisive, destructive, racially charged comment. (To be fair, Rep. Dusty Johnson reportedly told a Sioux Falls television station Monday that he thought the president’s tweet was “inappropriate” and the “wrong way to communicate,” which feels like delicate phrasing.) Until they fill that void, let’s insert these words by the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a place holder: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
On Monday, President Trump doubled down on his weekend assault, telling the four female representatives he attacked, “If you hate our country, if you’re not happy here, you can leave.”
This, too, is a familiar rant from America’s history, an echo of the cry “America: Love it or leave it” that was often expressed during the turbulent days of the late 1960s and early 1970s. It meant you either stood by America’s policies (in that case, regarding the Vietnam War, for instance) or get the hell out. No middle ground was allowed.
The phrase itself is grounded in our history, inspired by the declaration, “My country, right or wrong.” This phrase, which many perceive as a profession of devout patriotism and unquestioning loyalty, also has an intriguing past.
It’s believed to have originally been uttered as an after-dinner toast by Stephen Decatur, a U.S. naval officer, just after the War of 1812. He said: “Our Country! In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country!”
In 1872, Carl Shurz, a German who migrated to America in the 1840s and then became a prominent member of the newly formed Republican Party, amended the toast to better fit his adopted, post-Civil War homeland: “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.” There’s nothing in those words about leaving America if you “feel otherwise;” there’s nothing implying that people should go back where they came from. Instead, it’s a plea to support and embrace America by making it better, even when it may require a change of direction, because that’s what makes this nation stronger.
That’s what love of country is really all about: If you care, make it right.
Trump’s words ventured into some ugly territory, but they really didn’t seem out of character, and that may be the biggest disappointment of all. But such sentiments must face a reckoning, for though they may be sown into the darkest corners of America’s soul, they cannot ultimately stand for this country’s ideas and ideals.
Americans are better than that. We have to be.