Greg Camp on the broader message in Trump’s racist tweets about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and three other Congresswomen: if you are white and born in the US or white and born in countries like Norway, you belong. If not, you are not welcome.
First published in July 2019.
In a three-tweet thread Sunday morning, Donald Trump challenged “‘Progressive’ Democrat [sic] Congresswomen” who came from other countries to return there to fix those “totally corrupt and crime infested places.” He was not specific about which members of Congress he has in mind, though in political context, it is likely that he meant Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, four congressional newcomers who were identified in an Instagram post by the latter as the Squad.
According to Trump, the progressive congresswomen he referred to come 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).” This is the kind of dramatic irony exhibited in ancient Greek tragedies such as Oedipus Rexin which the title character storms about the palace, declaring that he will kill whoever is responsible for the plague that has infected his city. The audience knows the facts, and it is thereby more painful to watch.
Except that Trump’s supporters often are willfully ignorant, and for their benefit, I will review the places of origin of the women in question.
● Ayanna Pressley was born in Cincinnati, Ohio and raised in Chicago, Illinois.
● Rashida Tlaib was born in Detroit, Michigan.
● Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was born in the Bronx, New York, across the East River from Trump’s place of birth.
● Of the four, only Ilhan Omar comes from another country, having been born in Somalia and coming to America as a refugee in her childhood and becoming a naturalized citizen.
This means that three of the four are as eligible by virtue of their places of birth to run for the office of the U.S. presidency as Donald Trump is. And if we are going to adopt a nativist position to say that one’s American character is scored by the number of recent immigrants in one’s ancestry, Trump would be lower on the scale than Pressley or Ocasio-Cortez. His mother was born in Scotland, and his father was the son of an immigrant from Germany who fled military service, starting a family tradition. But Pressley chose to be born African-American, a decision that condemned Barack Obama, in Trump’s view, to years of attacks, and Ocasio-Cortez is the daughter of Puerto Ricans. Trump does not seem to be aware that this makes her parents U.S. citizens.
As mentioned above, this is yet another example of the birtherism that Trump perpetrated on the country during the Obama administration, an attack specifically on Obama’s place of birth, but more generally tied into the notion that someone whose parents are not both the right kind of white or who has lived in other countries is thereby not the same level of American as “we” are. Anyone seeking to become president of the United States must be a natural-born citizen, a term that is not defined in the Constitution but is taken to mean someone who is a citizen at birth and must have lived in this country for at least fourteen years. Perhaps the framers anticipated the risks that, for example, an Austrian immigrant with political ambitions might pose (to California or elsewhere), and there is sense in the idea that living here gives one a connected perspective on the needs and potentials that we have. But the presidency is one office, a unique privilege, not a right and not the defining state of being an American.
It is depressing to have to keep pointing this out, but America is a nation of immigrants for the most part. And morally, if not legally, we are illegal immigrants, since in so many cases our ancestors took the land by military force, terrorism of weapons of mass destruction such as smallpox, and treaty violations. This does not make us distinct in human history, and we cannot rectify all the wrongs of the past, but we should have some sense of charity about the diversity of people who live here or who wish to do so.
The broader message in Trump’s tweets is that if you are the right kind of person, white and born here or white and born in countries like Norway, you belong. But if you are of some other ancestry, you are not welcome. This fits into a pattern of racism in Trump’s behavior that goes back decades. But it also exposes the contradiction in Trumpism.
In his Twitter thread, he declares the United States to be “the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth,” while telling congresswomen who were born here that they should return to their corrupt and inept countries of origin. This could be dismissed as merely his latest demonstration of how little he knows, but I decline to do so.
The slogan of his movement, make America great again, is one which his supporters are rarely willing to analyze. At what point in our history were we great in the manner referred to, and what, exactly, does greatness mean? We were instrumental in winning two world wars, and we have been one of the pioneers of human and robotic exploration of space. These are but two examples of things that I regard as worthy contributions to human civilization. But we also have a history of human rights violations, be they slavery, the genocide of aboriginal populations, and the overthrow of governments, among others.
Trumpism has shown itself to be precisely the kind of thing that he disparages about what he imagines were the birth nations of the Squad: crime, ineptitude, and dysfunction. Department after department of the executive branch are being run by people dedicated to contravening the purpose of their offices. We are an embarrassment on the global stage and a threat to our allies. Trump praises dictators and picks needless fights with friendly countries. And all the while, the planet is heating due to human activity, the right wing dancing in the face of this destruction like devotees of a sacrificial cult.
What it means to be an American is fundamentally connected to our greatness or otherwise. We can accept the belief that greatness is a goal that can always be approached but never achieved once and then left as a historical monument. We can see greatness as an inclusive ideal that welcomes anyone who wants to participate in the exercise of human rights and the effort of adding to human achievement. Or we can sink into the swamp of treating greatness as a fragile mythology of white supremacy, a relic to be kept in a gilded box, a totem of what we are commanded to worship and never to stray from.
In my view, the Squad represents what is great about this country, and my vote is for keeping them and for sending Trump’s ideology back where it belongs.🔷
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