The U.S. House of Representatives has voted to condemn President Trump for telling four members of Congress — all American citizens, but notably all women of color — to “go back” to the “places from which they came.”
We are disappointed that our three representatives — Denver Riggleman in the 5th District, Ben Cline in the 6th, Morgan Griffith in the 9th — could not find it in their conscience to vote for this resolution. We understand the partisan instincts to stand by a president of their own party, but if there was ever a time to put country above party, this seemed the time. We are coming up on the 40th anniversary of the event that made one of their predecessors — Caldwell Butler of Roanoke — perhaps the most venerated congressman in the history of Virginia. Butler was as thorough a Republican as there ever was, but not even Butler’s partisan nature could countenance what he saw Richard Nixon doing. “Watergate is our shame,” he said — and then voted to impeach the Republican president he had campaigned for.
That was surely a harder vote than condemning Trump’s tweets would have been. We find this vote so perplexing because we know each of these congressmen to be decent, honorable people. Yet here they have chosen to condone something that is neither decent nor honorable. Ronald Reagan spoke of“a time for choosing.” This was a time for choosing, and they chose to give a pass to a president who engaged in a vulgar attack intended to depict certain citizens as not fully American. One need not approve of the politics of the congresswomen in question (some of which are indefensible, but that’s another matter) to disapprove of Trump’s line of attack on their Americanism. That distinction is critical. Their politics are fair game; but their status as American citizens is not. We know all three of our congressmen to be students of history — especially Griffith — and surely they know the dark places where those kinds of attacks, singling out some citizens as “the other,” have led in the past. All three men might go on to long and distinguished careers in Congress but this vote will forever be a stain on their records. History will look back and wonder “why?”
For now, we have 12 other questions:
1. If Trump telling four non-white members of Congress to go back where they came from isn’t racist, then what is? Can you give us an example of what would constitute racism?
2. If this wasn’t worthy of condemnation, what kind of presidential speech or conduct would be worthy of condemnation? Or should Congress not condemn a president, ever, for something he (or, perhaps in the future, she) has said, no matter how offensive it might be?
3. Do you worry that, by failing to condemn this kind of speech, you have effectively condoned the sentiments behind it?
4. Do you believe that these four members of Congress should “go back” to their nations of their ancestors? If so, are there any other members of Congress — or any other U.S. citizens — who should do so? If so, on what grounds?
5. Do you worry about where this kind of incendiary speech from a president of the United States might lead? The number of hate groups in the United States is up 30% over the past four years; the FBI reports a 17% increase in hate crimes. Two years ago, we saw white supremacists marching through Charlottesville, many of them chanting support for Trump. The shooter in the New Zealand massacre cited Trump as an inspiration. Do you worry that this kind of rhetoric further emboldens violent extremists? If not, can you explain why this kind of rhetoric wouldn’t embolden such fringe groups?
6. If Trump’s “go back” charge is acceptable rhetoric, what kind of rhetoric would be acceptable from a future Democratic president? For instance, would it now be acceptable for a future Democratic president to single out, say, white conservative Christian legislators who might be critical of his or her administration and tell them to “go back” where they came from? If not, what’s the difference between the two?
7. Presidents once were regarded as role models. Do you believe Trump is a role model? What would you advise a school principal to do if a white student, following Trump’s example, told non-white students with whom he disagreed to “go back” where they came from? If the student were to get reprimanded for such behavior, why shouldn’t the president of the United States? Where’s the line of demarcation? If the student can’t say that but the president can, who else can?
8. The United States has been undergoing demographic changes from its very beginning — they’re just more noticeable now. Since 2013, most children born in the United States have been non-white. By next year, demographers tell us that a majority of children under 18 will be non-white. The Census Bureau tells us that in 2045 whites will become a minority in the United States. There will be no ethnic majority then. The Census Bureau foresees that in 2045 the United States will be 49.7% white, 24.6% Hispanic, 13.1% black, 7.9% Asian and 3.85% multi-racial. Do you believe that Trump’s tweet helps the United States adjust to this new demographic reality or exacerbates racial tensions? If the former, can you explain how? If the latter, why you didn’t condemn it?
9. Do you worry that Trump’s rhetoric paints the Republican Party as a party that doesn’t accept non-white Americans as fully American? If not, can you explain why non-white voters (not to mention many white voters) shouldn’t be offended? Given the demographic changes the nation is undergoing, how do you expect your party to succeed in the future?
10. Ronald Reagan has been regarded as the father of the modern Republican Party. His final speech as president has been described as a “love letter to immigrants.” In it, Reagan declared that “we lead the world because, unique among nations, we draw our people — our strength — from every country and every corner of the world.” How you reconcile what Trump said with what Reagan said? Or should we no longer regard Reagan as the guiding spirit for Republicanism?
11. The first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, faced a divided nation and appealed to “the better angels of our nature.” Do you believe Trump’s “go back” attack appeals to “the better angels of our nature”? Or should we no longer look to Lincoln as an inspirational figure?
12. And, finally, what would “the better angels of our nature” tell us about how to respond in these times?