When Donald Trump rode down that golden escalator in his eponymous tower to announce his successful campaign for the presidency just over four years ago, he showed America exactly who he was.
"The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everybody else's problems," Trump proclaimed, laying the rhetorical groundwork for his future immigration policy. "When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best. ... They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems with us. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists."
That message has remained at the all-consuming core of Trump's presidency, the spark that has engulfed almost his entire first term in office. On Friday, Trump leapt into an intra-party dispute between four non-white female freshmen Democrat Representatives—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley—and their party leadership to suggest that the the former should "go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how it is done."
There is, of course, a long racist history of expressions like "go back to where you came from." Trump's broadside is also factually inaccurate: three of the congresswomen he targeted were born in the United States, and all four are citizens. By rhetorically conflating race and ethnicity with "foreignness," Trump has revealed the white nationalist roots of his twisted logic more so than ever before. When questioned on Monday, Trump simply doubled down: "If you're not happy in the U.S., if you're complaining all the time—very simply, you can leave," he said, accusing Omar of loving al-Qaeda and Ocasio-Cortez of hating Jews. "Now, you can say what you want, but get a list of all of the statements they've made. And all I'm saying: that if they're not happy here, they can leave."
But the most stirring element of Trump's Monday deluge of vitriol isn't just what he said, but why he felt comfortable saying it. When a reporter asked on Monday if the president was concerned with the fact that many Americans "saw that tweet as racist and that white nationalist groups are finding common cause with you on that point," Trump responded simply: "It doesn't concern me because many people agree with me."
It doesn't concern me because many people agree with me. Indeed, Trump's jeremiad is part of American tradition. Upon signing the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924, President Calvin Coolidge infamously declared that "America should remain American"; during the height of the Vietnam War, "America: Love it or leave it" became a pro-war slogan adopted during counter-protests and was a part of President Richard Nixon's broad strategy of courting middle-class white voters. With his administration-defining fixation on "shithole" countries, Trump's retort carries shades of President George W. Bush's infamous declaration in the immediate aftermath of the September 11th attacks that "either you are with us or you are with the terrorists."
Trump's attack isn't an exception; it's a rule promulgated by two centuries of xenophobia. It is historical fact that America has never been a utopian melting pot, a home for the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. American history is littered with casualties: the catastrophic relocation of Native Americans; the enslavement and systematic disenfranchisement of African Americans; the internment of Japanese Americans; and now, the terrorizing of Latino-American communities across the country with the threat of raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, among other measures. This is the quiet part of American history; all Trump has done is said it aloud.
A truly disturbing element of Trump's latest comments is how, over the last four years, American civil society has proven incapable of truly grappling with the hatred they represent. Some of the reasons are structural: Political leaders driven by the narrow tactics of the Beltway lack the civic imagination to corner Trump's steady erosion of existing institutions and norms. Look no further than the muted Republican response to an outburst that would have been politically unthinkable in its cruelty from any other modern president. The media, weakened by the epistemic pluralism of the Internet and battered by Trump's rhetorical assaults, don't appear credible enough among the American public to actually affect substantive electoral change. Even the New York Times has twisted itself into knots to avoid bestowing the somehow-controversial title "racist" upon the president outright.
If politics is war by other means, then Trump (and Republicans, through their tacit acceptance of his vitriol) has thrown off two centuries of American political tradition altogether in the pursuit of raw power. But what Trump hasn't done is anything exceptional in the annals of American civil society. Again, Maya Angelou put it best when she said that when people show you who they are, believe them the first time. What America has chosen to do about what it saw in Trump, however, says more than Trump ever could.
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