This is not who we are.
It has become a familiar response when President Trump says or does something that challenges what many Americans consider to be the norms and ideals of the country, especially of its leaders.
We are better than this.
Sometimes it is said with conviction; at other times it hangs like a question.
From his penchant for hurling personal insults at people who disagree with him, to his insistence on morally equating racists with those who oppose them, to his justifying separating migrant children from their parents, Trump constantly makes many Americans gasp and seek to reassure themselves that he is not reflective of the nation’s values.
Except there have been, and continue to be, times when bigotry and intolerance have defined our country. And as many of the people at a recent Trump rally demonstrated when they chanted “Send her back!” in reference to a congresswoman who was born in Somalia, apparently some of us are not better than this.
So which version of America is correct? The one that welcomes immigrants and believes everyone’s rights should be respected and protected, or the one that wants to slam the door on newcomers and tells those who disagree to leave?
Scholars say both are accurate, depending on an individual or community’s historical and present experience in the United States. The values Americans avow and claim to share, including freedom, equality and opportunity, have always meant different things to different people at different moments during the past 243 years.
“I think the answer to that question is very much situational, in that it’s where you find yourself in American history, and for those who have historically been marginalized, there is a greater awareness of, ‘This is nothing new,’ ” Andrea Hatcher, a politics professor at the University of the South, said in an interview earlier this year.
The most recent outrage, which continues to reverberate, involved tweets by Trump almost two weeks ago telling four congresswomen of color they should “go back” to the “totally broken and crime infested” countries they came from. Three of the women — Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) — were born in the United States. The fourth, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), was born in Somalia and is a naturalized citizen.
A few days after the tweets, Trump held a campaign rally in North Carolina, where his supporters chanted “Send her back!” when Trump said Omar was critical of the United States. Trump initially said he was uncomfortable with the crowd’s behavior, although he took no action to silence the chanting. He reversed himself the next day, saying the crowd was made up of “incredible patriots,” and stepped up his criticism of Omar and the other congresswomen, characterizing them as un-American for criticizing his policies and doubling down on his directive that they leave the country if they are unhappy here.
Hatcher said Trump’s open embrace of rhetoric and policies hostile to people of color, women and Muslims is jarring to those who grew up during and after the civil rights movement, when some people learned to embrace diversity and others learned to keep their racist thoughts to themselves.
No more, Hatcher said. “Trump so willingly saying these things in the open, under the guise of doing away with political correctness, has reawakened some of these tendencies and made others feel safer in coming out and acting in a certain way that some of us thought that we had moved beyond, and others are saying, ‘No, we haven’t.' It was just swept under the rug. He’s just put a face to what we knew was an undercurrent all along.”
How Trump’s rhetoric and actions affect one’s sense of identity as an American also depends on what people think defines the country. Holley Tankersley, a professor of political science at Coastal Carolina University, said surveys have shown there are certain characteristics people cite when asked what being an American means, including respecting institutions and laws, being a citizen of the country and accepting people from diverse backgrounds.
She said political rhetoric does not change people’s beliefs or sense of American identity, but reinforces their existing beliefs.
“For example, this administration’s rhetoric on immigration and border security, if your sense of American identity already hinged on an insular, isolationist-type policy or the idea there’s a singular American culture, that rhetoric strengthened your sense of American identity,” Tankersley said. “But if your sense is with the majority of Americans, which is newcomers to America make it stronger, his rhetoric probably diminished your sense of American identity. It depends on your previous beliefs about what it means to be an American.”
Both Tankersley and Hatcher cite the civil rights movement as an example of Americans coming to a consensus that the status quo was unacceptable and supporting corrective action. Tankersley also said the results of last year’s midterm elections were “an indicator” that people are concerned about what the country stands for and that 2020 would be an even bigger test.
Star Parker, a conservative activist who runs a think tank called the Center for Urban Renewal and Education and who is a Trump supporter, welcomes the conversation, as uncomfortable as it is for some.
“I think the president is trying to help the country sort through who we are — what is it that unites us as Americans,” she said. Parker said that “different worldviews are struggling for coexistence in the public square. I applaud the president for forcing Americans to have this very important conversation about what defines us as a people.”
A group of liberal activists voiced concern last week after releasing a poll that suggested the racist and xenophobic sentiments Trump has expressed are shared by a significant portion of people who say they voted for him in 2016. The online poll, which surveyed Trump supporters in 11 battleground states, found most said that the United States should protect its “white European heritage,” that discrimination against whites is as big a problem as it is for people of color and that the country had no obligation to accept refugees.
María Teresa Kumar, president of Voto Latino, was appalled. “This is far more dangerous than the ‘Lock her up’ chants,” she said, referring to the line Trump supporters would repeat when Trump would mention Hillary Clinton during their 2016 battle for the presidency.
“The fact that 40 percent of Americans are nonwhite is a big deal; it means that Trump is targeting 131 million people,” Kumar said. “There isn’t another country as ethnically diverse on the planet, and we’ve been a symbol and model for others. It should alarm everyone because Trump is weaponizing race above being American. Most of the 131 million are young. In fact, for those entering second grade, these kids represent the first majority-minority generation in our nation’s history.”
Trump has forced the country to confront racism in a way the nation’s first black president did not. Obama’s election in 2008 and reelection in 2012 signaled to many people the country was on the next-to-last, if not the final, stop of the long, difficult journey from its racist origins.
Some conservatives, such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), have pointed to Obama’s presidency as proof of the country’s racial progress. That McConnell and other Republicans fought Obama’s efforts to govern might be attributed to just partisan politics. That Republican leaders said little or nothing about racist rhetoric directed toward the former president and his family, including Trump’s embrace of birther theories questioning Obama’s citizenship and legitimacy as president, strike many as hypocritical about their commitment to racial justice.
“The mere existence of one black man in the highest office in the land caused too many Americans to convince themselves that black people now had equal access to all the offices in the land,” said Ibram X. Kendi, a historian and director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University in Washington. Trump’s election in 2016 has now forced many to reconsider.
“Racism is unavoidable in the Trump era,” Kendi said. “There’s no running from it, as too many Americans were able to do during the Obama era.”