Donald Trump’s Idea of Selective Citizenship
Last week, the President wasn’t just attacking four congresswomen of color; he was reanimating ideas whose prevalence wreaked havoc in the nation’s past.
By Jelani Cobb
We have known since the earliest moments of Donald Trump’s political life that the epidermal lottery into which we are all cast is, to him, more than happenstance. Pigment is something foundational—a navigational star in the night sky of his world view. When a man introduces himself to the American electorate by lying about the origins of the first black President, and then proceeds to baselessly refer to Mexicans in the United States as rapists, nothing he does after that can be considered surprising.
In that regard, Trump’s eruption last week, in which he attacked (but did not name) Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib, tweeting that they should “go back” to where they came from, and later accused them of hating America, could not be called unexpected. It was alarming, though, and it raised the question, once again, of whether Trump had finally gone too far. For the past two years, observers have been divided about whether Trump’s tweets are calculated trolling, designed to keep his opponents off balance, or the sincere expressions of an unbalanced psyche. The current outburst indicates that the answer is both.
Before Trump intervened, the story in the media was about the roiling conflict between the congresswomen—the so-called Squad—and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, this time over border policy. Trump, in suggesting that the four U.S. citizens self-deport, prompted the Speaker to stop sniping at them and to fire back at him. Trump’s real agenda, she said, is about “making America white again.” Last Tuesday, Republicans in the House of Representatives were forced to go on the record about the incident, when that chamber voted on a resolution condemning the tweets, which Pelosi termed “racist.” Her comment was, technically, a violation of House rules and it was “taken down,” but she did not apologize. Only four Republicans supported the resolution.
Most likely, Trump never considered what consequences his attack would have on Capitol Hill. He seems to think that his outré rage at the four women—They are not white, they are radicals, and only I can save you from what they will bring—will play well to his base, and that’s all that matters. He revealed as much when he told reporters that he is “enjoying” the fight and thinks that he is “winning it by a lot.” A majority of people polled found Trump’s tweets offensive and “un-American,” but his approval ratings rose among Republicans.
With his habitual grandiosity, Trump has previously declared himself “the least racist person anybody is going to meet.” (Last Tuesday, he tweeted, “I don’t have a Racist bone in my body!”) By way of evidence, he repeatedly commits the defensive racist’s primary tell: listing the names of all the black people he knows, like a roster of character witnesses in a criminal trial. This most recent incident highlights a theme of Trump’s pronouncements as they pertain to people of color. He presents the citizenship of black and brown Americans as a kind of probation that can be revoked for the most minor infractions of protocol.
Ilhan Omar is a Somali-born refugee who became a naturalized U.S. citizen at the age of seventeen. She is American enough to serve in Congress but not enough for Trump, who has shown an increasing disregard for the very principle of asylum. Rashida Tlaib was born in Detroit, to immigrant parents. Ayanna Pressley was born, to African-American parents, in Cincinnati. Her family has been here longer than Trump’s, and, as African-Americans, they are part of a population that was forcibly brought to this country to do its labor. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was born in the Bronx, to parents of Puerto Rican descent, which means that, even if she did go back to where her ancestors came from, she would still be in America.
The idea of selective citizenship is not uncommon in American history. The nation’s first immigration law, passed in 1790, allowed for the naturalization of white immigrants only. It took the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which was ratified in 1868, to establish that birthright citizenship also applies to blacks. As Jill Lepore notes, in her book “This America,” another thirty years passed before the Supreme Court found, in United States v. Wong Kim Ark, that birthright citizenship applies to a person of Asian descent, and it was another quarter century before the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 declared that all indigenous people born in the United States are citizens. Trump isn’t just attacking four women of color; he is reanimating ideas whose prevalence wreaked havoc in the nation’s past.
We were reminded, last week, of something that we have known all along about the President: he will say anything that he thinks will serve his ends, regardless of the risk it may pose to his fellow-Americans. According to the F.B.I., hate crimes rose by seventeen per cent during his first year in office. Last year, a man who described his attachment to Trump’s rallies as a kind of addiction, mailed explosive devices (which did not detonate) to various media outlets and politicians whom he considered to be the President’s enemies. The worry is that Trump’s most recent fulminations will find their way to other vulnerable and dangerous observers.
His behavior carries another significant implication. The conflict between Pelosi and the Squad centered on votes for a border-funding bill, but it has at its root a more fundamental conflict: progressive legislators want to launch an impeachment inquiry, while Pelosi fears that it would only help Trump win reëlection. After the Mueller report was released, Tlaib recirculated a resolution, which she had previously introduced, to launch such an inquiry; the other members of the Squad signed on to it. More than eighty House Democrats have now called for an inquiry. Last Wednesday, the House voted to table the latest impeachment resolution from Representative Al Green (his third), but ninety-five Democrats voted to keep it on the floor. Pelosi reportedly told senior House Democrats last month that she would rather see Trump in prison than impeached. His ineptitude may yet spur the two factions toward a productive rapprochement. Robert Mueller’s testimony before two House committees, which is scheduled for this week, may further clarify the resolution.
Has Trump finally gone too far? A few hours after the House vote, he addressed a campaign rally in Greenville, North Carolina, in which he renewed his attacks on the congresswomen, and said that Democrats were set on “the destruction of our country,” as his followers chanted, “Send her back!” The next day, he claimed that he was “not happy” with the chants, and tried to stop them, but he did not. The evidence of Trump’s unfitness for the Presidency—whether it is calculated or simply deranged—is inescapable.
♦This article appears in the print edition of the July 29, 2019, issue, with the headline “No Going Back.”