Go back where you came from.
Has an American president ever said anything so repulsive and so contrary to American ideals? We cannot remember anything from our lifetimes or from our history.
The paraphrase is close enough to the ugly spirit of President Trump’s tweet over the weekend, directed at four Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives, all of them women “of color” to use the preferred phrase of our times. What Trump specifically said was: “So interesting to see ‘Progressive’ Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all), now loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run. Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”
Citing the facts seems quaint, but we will do it nonetheless. The congresswomen Trump has singled out are Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts. And what countries “whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe” might these congresswomen come from? Umm, the United States. Ocasio-Cortez was born in The Bronx. Talib in Detroit. Pressley in Cincinnati. Only Omar was born outside the United States, but came to the United States when she was 10 — and became an American citizen at 17. Of note: As a teenager, she lived for a time in Virginia. She is one of us.
Trump knows exactly what he has done here: He has singled out four prominent members of Congress — who aren’t white, and two of whose families have recent immigrant histories — and branded them as “the other.” Words are insufficient to describe how vulgar this is, how dangerous and, yes, this bears repeating again and again, so contrary to American ideals. When Trump tells four American citizens — three of them born on U.S. soil as much as he was —to “go back” where they came from, he is trying to redefine the very notion of what the United States is all about. The United States is a completely made-up country. It was set in motion by white Englishmen at Jamestown in 1607 but has always welcomed immigrants — at times some more than others — on the premise that they, too, could become Americans.
There is no ethnic definition of an American. The first test of that came here in Virginia, long before there even was such a thing as an American. One year after Jamestown’s founding, the English began bringing in immigrants from Poland who were famed for their glass-blowing skills. When the colony was allowed to elect its first government — the House of Burgesses in 1619, the forerunner of today’s state government — the governor tried to limit the vote only to the Englishmen. The Poles promptly went on strike — and within weeks, the English relented. On July 21, 1619, the English decreed about the Poles: “It was now agreed (not withstanding any former order to contrary) that they shall be enfranchised, and made as free as any inhabitant there whatsoever.” You can make a case that the notion of America really began that day — when Polish immigrants were recognized as equal to the English as part of the Virginia experiment. We haven’t always lived up to that ideal, of course (it took a long time before we recognized indigenous peoples and African Americans as full citizens), but that’s why it’s called an ideal. Once you’re an American, be it by birth or by choice, you’re an American. Period. Full stop. There is no “going back.” To even say so is not simply to insult the person in question, it is to insult one of the founding principles of the United States. It is, in a way, unpatriotic.
None of these members of Congress are immune to political criticism, of course. If Trump wants to criticize their politics — which he also has — that’s fair game. Indeed, if it hadn’t been for Trump’s shocking outburst, you’d have been reading in this space our own editorial criticizing Ocasio-Cortez for some things that relate directly to Virginia. You will have to wait a few days for that one now. It’s not often that we agree with Ocasio-Cortez — whose politics put her at the leftward edge of the Democratic Party and whose Green New Deal offers no hope for building a new economy in former coal counties — but she is right on this. In her response to Trump, she wrote: “You are angry because you can’t conceive of an America that includes us.”
This is the essence of the matter. Trump does not seem to like the nation over which he presides. It is an America that is changing because America has always been changing — from the moment those first Polish immigrants arrived in Jamestown in 1608. Here’s how it’s changing now: Starting in about 2013, most babies born in the United States haven’t been white. Demographers expect that by next year, most Americans under 18 will be non-white. The America of the future will be a nation in which no ethnic group comprises the majority. Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, Talib and Pressley look more like the future than Trump does.
We have two possible paths: One is a nation that embraces its diversity as a strength (this is hardly a radical concept; businesses teach this all the time in brainstorming sessions). The other is a nation that descends into identity politics and xenophobia. It’s clear which route Trump has chosen. We’ve also seen the disturbing consequences: White supremacists marching through the streets of Charlottesville, and hate groups up 30%. Trump did not necessarily cause all that, but he has emboldened such vile behavior — and now he’s just done it again. History will judge him harshly. But what about the present? Republicans have been sadly silent about Trump in general — overlooking his crude behavior as long as they get the policies they prefer. This is understandable: Democrats in the 1990s preferred not to talk about the behavior of Bill Clinton. A different sort of behavior, of course, but the comparison is still instructive. Clinton’s moral transgressions, though, hurt himself and the people around him, not the nation he represented. America can survive an adulterous president. It is more difficult to survive one who undermines our ideals by telling certain Americans who are ethnically different that somehow they aren’t fully American, to “go back” when they are, in fact, citizens just as much as he is. Silence is consent. Our representatives should not be silent about this. History will judge them, too.