For a president who has warned of an “invasion” of immigrants, people he has called “animals,” for a man who once took out a full-page ad to call for the execution of five black and Latinx teens falsely accused of raping a white woman, for a man who casually describes countries populated by black and brown people as “shitholes,” none of this should come as a surprise.
From the moment he took the oath of office, it was always, inevitably, going to come to this—Donald Trump spewing hate at a Muslim, black, unabashedly left woman and refugee, a crowd chanting, “Send her back, send her back,” the glee from the people massed to hear their leader speak palpable even through a screen. A group invoking some of the darkest—and most American—rhetoric is nothing more than the ultimate promise of Trump.
Last night, at a rally held in Greenville, North Carolina, Trump continued a line of attack on Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that began over the weekend, when he tweeted that the four members of Congress should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” setting off an exhausting and ultimately hollow debate over whether a man who has for his entire adult life and time as president actively campaigned to make the lives of black people, asylum seekers, Muslims, and undocumented immigrants full of as much cruelty as is possible is in fact a racist—a continuation of the equally as exhausting question of whether his supporters are, in fact, racist themselves.
The moment was the culmination of months of attacks on the four women, but especially Omar, coming from almost all sides. House Democrats, many of whom have repeatedly condemned Omar for remarks that have been twisted to appear anti-Semitic, have been forced, reluctantly, to tepidly come to her defense, sniping behind the scenes about their frustrations. As for Republicans, Trump’s approval ratings went up after he began attacking the four women. By embracing what has previously been only a dog whistle (albeit an extremely loud and obvious one), he gave his supporters exactly what they want—a mirror for their fears of a country slipping out of their hands.
To tell someone to “go back to where you came from” is an assertion of hierarchy and of power. It’s beside the point that Omar and Tlaib, Ocasio-Cortez, and Pressley are U.S. citizens, the latter three born in this country. I’m not the first to note that the phrase has nothing to do with residency or immigration status—it’s an assertion of who is a real American. (For all the chant “send her back” echoes “lock her up,” Hillary Clinton would never be the target of such an attack.) As Adam Serwer put it, “If these women could all trace their family line back to 1776, it would not make them more American than Trump, a descendant of German immigrants whose ancestors arrived relatively recently, because he is white and they are not.”
Black, Asian, Native, Latinx—we have always known that our citizenship comes with conditions. And one of those conditions is that you don’t cause any ripples. There’s a reason prospective immigrants are still asked whether one is a Communist in order to immigrate to the United States—such people are not supposed to come and shake things up. Immigrants are welcome for their labor. They put their heads down and work. You’re supposed to be happy that you’re even here. Earlier this week, Trump tweeted as much, “IF YOU ARE NOT HAPPY HERE, YOU CAN LEAVE! It is your choice, and your choice alone. This is about love for America. Certain people HATE our Country....” (The “our” he used is, of course, instructive.)
The promise of the Trump campaign and his presidency has always been built on white grievance and white resentment. The only difference now is that the large segment of the American people who are (or to be more accurate, who have always been) on board are even more emboldened.
But there’s a supreme irony in the truth that those who have been barred from full citizenship—both immigrants and those born in this country yet unable to access all the rights that citizenship should entail—are the ones who continue to fight the hardest to uphold a different promise. “I am where I belong, at the people’s house and you’re just gonna have to deal!” Omar wrote on Wednesday night.
“Shut up or leave,” the old, persistent idea that Trump is breathing new life into, is a classic way to stifle this type of dissent. By invoking the sentiment, Trump is transforming Omar’s and others’ progressive vision—one based on values antithetical to his own—into hatred, an astonishing transmutation. I have found myself thinking lately of the Chinese American radical Grace Lee Boggs, who would often say, “America, love it enough to change it.” Here, she was echoing the words of James Baldwin, who famously wrote, “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”
Who is more American? We know what Trump thinks. It will be up to more of us to assert something different.