OPINION — It’s an inside joke I’ve told the last couple of years.
My ancestors on both sides have been in America for generations — men, women and children whose blood, sweat and grit drenched the Maryland soil they cultivated and farmed and lived on. Originally brought by force, they claimed their place proudly and served the country’s ideals admirably. In contrast, my husband, second generation to these shores, on both sides, is an American-come-lately. But because his grandfather sailed into New York harbor on a ship that set off from Kristiansand, Norway, he is our president’s dream (Scandinavian) citizen.
I’m not laughing at that punch line anymore, not when Donald Trump has shown how sincerely he believes that belonging is automatic for some and conditional for others. It has never been clearer that the president of the United States considers some Americans more worthy of respect and consideration and legitimacy than others, and how he draws that line is as simple as black and white.
Are his actions the distractions of a crafty politician, a way to take attention from his revolving door of staffers — the latest being former Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta after getting caught up in the Jeffrey Epstein case — and the domestic and foreign policy chaos that dog his administration? Sure. Are they the retaliation of a president wounded by his failure to shove a citizenship question onto the 2020 U.S. census? Maybe.
But for the Americans of color weary of the darkening climate of intolerance in their beloved country — always there but now worn openly — and afraid of what that means for them and their families, not paying attention would be folly.
Trump delights in pouring salt in that never healed American wound, fraying the bonds that tenuously hold us together, subverting the tradition that maintaining those bonds is strength.
Brazenly, Trump and friends do their dirty work while ignoring his and their own immigrant histories. Trump himself is a son and grandson of immigrants, German on his father’s side and Scottish on his mother’s. Trump has chosen wives born outside America two out of three times, and they are the mothers of four of his five children. His in-laws are citizens courtesy of the family reunification policy he decries as chain migration whenever those not from his list of approved countries benefit.
Having one parent born outside America is something he shares with his predecessor Barack Obama, about whom Trump spread the birther lie that he was born in another country, another continent. Of course, that continent was Africa, home of places that, as president, Trump would write off with crude expletives.
Trump’s background, which makes him a newcomer in my book, though I would never question his right to be here, means little to him or, apparently, his defenders. The through line of the Trump presidency has been stoking resentment of the black and brown “other.” His vision is not Obama’s sunny “hope and change” or Ronald Reagan’s “shining city upon a hill,” but the “American carnage” of his gloomy inaugural address. And for that, you need villains.
Though Trump’s racist tweets and escalating rhetoric aimed at congresswomen of color cannot be a surprise to anyone, his “divide the country and win an election” strategy laid out for 2020 is shocking in its sheer destructiveness. He has revived “America, love it or leave it,” despite the fact that dissent and the right to disagree with your neighbor, a congressperson or the president is as American as apple pie. As writer James Baldwin said: “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”
Throwing the racist “go back to where you came from” line is so old it’s a cliché, something every person of color and immigrant has heard when they do something, like exist, that angers a fellow American. (Trump criticizes everyone and everything American but, alas, is not going anywhere.) Shouting the insult at a co-worker would get most folks fired from the job. But when Trump weaponizes it against very American elected members of Congress, and most Republicans either look the other way or co-sign every vile word, it’s a bid to keep his own for another four years.
And it just may work.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had a request for Americans as he fought for equality. Just live up to the words of our lofty documents, of our Declaration of Independence and Constitution.
But that’s harder than it looks.
Just this week, Republican members of the House of Representatives haggled over a word in a nonbinding resolution that says the chamber “strongly condemns” Trump’s “racist comments that have legitimized and increased fear and hatred of new Americans and people of color.” “Racist” has become the new obscenity, as it’s laughably easier to call out attacks on racism than the racism itself.
The House voted, 240-187, to approve the statement, largely along party lines, though four Republicans and one independent voted “aye.” The words stood, as did those of Georgia Democratic Rep. John Lewis, who said, “I know racism when I see it. I know racism when I feel it. And at the highest level of our government, there’s no room for racism.”
He is witness to what America was, when he was a soldier in America’s 20th-century civil war over civil rights, when officers of the law, with salaries, badges and guns paid for by black citizens, beat and nearly killed him for fighting for the vote, for decent schools, for justice. Lewis and those who marched alongside him, some of whom gave their lives, were the true patriots, challenging America, clarifying its moral vision, one that is being tested.
Are those the bad old days Trump is imagining with his backward slogan of “Make America Great Again”? More importantly, is that tactic striking a chord with millions of Americans in the privacy of a voting booth, Americans who find the allure of tribe far more comforting than the vision of one America, messy in execution?
Using identity politics for their benefit worked for Trump and Republicans in 2016. Economic anxiety? That was the accepted reason offered for Trump’s electoral success, ignoring the fact that black and brown folks, who suffer most when money and jobs are uncertain, for the most part did not fall for it. They could see who Trump was, always was, from the time he and his dad made their money throwing apartment applications from African Americans in the trash to his descending a gilded elevator to denounce Mexicans as rapists to tweets that would make David Duke proud.
Expect to see more and worse for 2020, attempts to paint the Democratic Party and all who represent it as un-American instead of the unruly bunch they are, suffering politically because they don’t demand fealty to one idea or one person.
Trump has again revealed his character, shown himself to be the person we knew him to be.
But who are we?
Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.