Just as the July 2019 Democratic intraparty civil war was getting into high gear, President Trump decided to weigh in with controversy of his own, saying that certain “‘Progressive’ Democrat Congresswomen” should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came.”
The comments, presumably, are in reference to four progressive members of the House of Representatives who have been critical of President Trump and, of late, their own leader, Speaker Nancy Pelosi: Alexandria Ocasia-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, and Ilhan Omar. It is impossible to miss that each of these progressives are women of color, three of whom were born in the United States, the last of whom came here as a child, fleeing a war-torn Somalia and spending four years in a refugee camp in Kenya.
The commentary calls to mind the same kinds of dark, xenophobic, hatred that has greeted new Americans since there were new Americans, and, while it certainly continues to this day, it isn’t a sentiment most Americans are used to hearing from their President.
Much has been made – often in ways that seemingly require a Ph.D. and a willingness to deploy metaphors, well, liberally – of Trump’s racial dog-whistling. From his policies toward illegal immigrants to his feelings on professional athletes, the term racist has dogged him since well before his election. This is, of course, the same Donald Trump who took out full-page ads in every leading New York newspaper calling for the execution of five men of color who were eventually exonerated by DNA evidence.
But these comments aren’t dog whistles. They are racist. And Republicans must call them for what they are if they seek to hold a shred of credibility among the wide American electorate now or the history books of the future.
Many conservative commentators have bent themselves into contortions to explain why Trump is right. This is a familiar spectacle. Some have simply brushed off or supported the comments. Others have honed in on Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, who is a refugee from Somalia (and, of course, far more notably, an American citizen).
Insinuating that any American citizen should pack their bags for their original country of origin because they hold different views is un-American. Insinuating that someone who has called no country but our own their home should leave it is vile and unconscionable.
Not all of Trump’s controversies are worthy of comment. But not all of them are insignificant enough to brush off. Conservatives can quibble on where those lines are, just as they can quibble about Trump more broadly.
But there are some matters on which we cannot compromise. The dignity of all Americans is a central, conservative tenet; it is the foundational commitment at the heart of individual liberty, and liberty cannot exist without it. And as the President’s party, we have a certain – and often unrealized – responsibility to hold him to account, calling balls and strikes when it comes to his conduct.
The story of America is written in the blood, sweat, tears and – certainly – perspectives, opinions, and hard work of immigrants. We are a nation where anyone can become an American, and on becoming so is held in the same standing as any other. When we disparage immigrants – or our political enemies, or both – as less than their fellow Americans, we do a disservice to the very idea of America, and the ideals that make our country great.
And it should go without saying that one need not support progressive policies or progressive policy champions to be critical of Trump’s statements. And the impulse to hide behind race, gender, sexual orientation, and other identity characteristics is a growing and alarming one in response to genuine criticism, particularly on the left.
But we cannot – we must not – respond by demonizing, delegitimizing, and impugning the patriotism of other Americans simply because they hold other views. Giving in to the worst elements of modern identitarianism, mixed with the most morally bankrupt impulses of nativism, can and should be called by its rightful name: racism.