For President Donald Trump to tell any member of Congress to “go back” to the “places from which they came” is a violation of basic American norms.
In the first place, under our Constitution every elected member of Congress has just as much right to be in Washington, D.C. as any president. Presuming to suggest otherwise betrays a deep ignorance of the rights and responsibilities of governing.
The particular targets of Trump’s contempt are women of color — women from racial backgrounds who rarely gained access to national political power in the decades of Trump’s ascendancy to fame and riches. On the nights Trump spent nightclubbing with registered sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, Trump might have ordered more bath towels from such women but would have barely acknowledged their existence as human beings. The attitudes he displays toward them today reveal a continuing contempt for the ordinary working people he pretends to represent.
Beyond this toxic bias toward the “invisible” women and men who keep our nation functioning, Trump’s statements are racist. For anyone to suggest otherwise is to deliberately ignore decades of racist tropes during which uppity black and brown people were told to shut up, go away, stand down, or else. The “or else” often contained an implicit threat of violence. “Go back” sometimes literally meant back to your country farmhouse, or back to the African regions from which ancestors were abducted and enslaved. More often, “go back” meant go back to being silent, invisible and powerless — don’t bother us anymore with your grievances and calls for social justice.
Here at the mouth of the Columbia River, we live on the edge of the Pacific Rim. Archaeology and history tell us of an eon of Indian civilization here, followed in the 18th and 19th centuries by successive waves of trading and immigration by Europeans, Hawaiians, Iroquois, Africans and dozens of others. The later settlement era brought Finns and Swedes, English and Yugoslavians, to name but a few.
Many of these were no doubt told to “go back where you came from.” There were many among them who would be considered radical today. In Clatsop County, the 1932 ballot that resulted in the election of Franklin Roosevelt included not just Democrats and Republicans, but also candidates from the Socialist Labor Party, the Socialist Party and the Communist Party. Local union halls and social clubs contained many Americans who the Donald Trumps of their time would have liked to kick out of the country.
Thank goodness, these troublemakers did not leave. Out of their hard work and melding of genes and cultures, we have the place that gives us such pride today — towns with rich history, loving families, great food and independent people.
Immigration is a notoriously touchy hot-button issue. There is room for civil discussions about how best to humanely and legally address the presence in the U.S. of millions who did not come here through official channels. Very few Democrats, Republicans or independents believe in “open borders” or advocate a blanket amnesty for those who disregarded immigration laws. But we must not mix this thorny issue with the legitimacy of actual U.S. citizens.
To say, as Trump did, that criticizing U.S. policies and conditions — as his congressional critics do — is a disqualification for continued citizenship is both reprehensible and hypocritical. His own criticisms of this country and the previous occupants of the White House have often been far worse.
It is odious that some of his supporters joined in chanting “send her back” in an obvious reference to one or more of the four female members of Congress whom he has turned into convenient symbols. These poisonous attacks on political opponents carry a very real risk of placing them in physical danger, and threaten to sour our political discourse in ways that will be hard to heal.
To be an American means being part of a sometimes uncomfortably diverse whole, a concept embedded in our national motto “Out of many, one.” This motto extends far beyond its original allusion to the merging of our 13 original states. It now encompasses respecting our fellow citizens and carrying this great American experiment in democracy forward into the future despite our differences.
Language from the president that rips our national seams apart is utterly unacceptable.