President Trump is once again in a rage, because the House of Representatives just voted to condemn his racist attacks on four nonwhite members of Congress. In a new tweetstorm, he offered a new set of claims to contrast the two visions of America that are the deeper subject of the big public argument we are now having.
So, let’s be as clear as possible: The vision of America represented by the “Squad” and its defenders in this dispute is a better one than the vision of America that Trump is defending.
The historian Jill Lepore has a new book out, in which she calls for a recommitment to a “civic and constitutional patriotism” that she believes is required as a rebuttal to Trump’s illiberal ethnic and racial nationalism. Winning this argument, Lepore writes, requires us to “make a case for the nation” on those grounds, that is, to tell a story about a better country than the one Trump is telling a story about.
The reason the new House resolution condemning Trump’s racism is significant is that it tries to meet this challenge. This is also why it’s significant that House Republicans almost uniformly voted against the resolution, going all in with Trump in this dispute.
The new House resolution basically tells a story about this country that is in keeping with the civic patriotism — also sometimes called “civic nationalism” — that Lepore’s book discusses. The basic story is that this country was founded on universal ideals of liberty and equality, and the act of belonging to this nation is defined mostly through a commitment to these ideals, as opposed to being defined by blood, race, ethnicity, religion or mystical devotion to soil.
National stories are always to some degree myths, and our actual history has been an unending struggle to bring us in line with those ideals, a struggle that continues today. As Lepore puts it, those who have been “left out” of this “vision of the nation” have unceasingly battled for inclusion in it, and “our nation is that battle.”
The text of the House resolution generally constitutes a restatement of this view. It outlines a commitment to that vision of America, and condemns Trump for “racist comments that have legitimized and increased fear and hatred of new Americans and people of color.”
To support this, the resolution cites Trump’s labeling of immigrants as “invaders” and his declaration that the four nonwhite lawmakers should “go back” to their countries of ancestry. Those four are Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), and Ayanna Pressley (Mass.) and Ilhan Omar (Minn.), the first three of whom were born in the United States.
Virtually the entire House GOP caucus voted against this resolution. And some Republicans claimed Trump didn’t engage in racism at all. GOP Rep. Sean P. Duffy (Wis.) piously insisted that he saw “nothing that references anybody’s race” in Trump’s tweets, while also claiming the congresswomen are “anti-American.”
Meanwhile, Sen. Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Rep. Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) — the top Republicans in the Senate and House, respectively — both stated that Trump is “not a racist.” And Rep. Dan Meuser (Pa.) wept that the resolution was “harassing” Trump, who is always, invariably the real victim.
It’s worth pausing over what these Republicans are really defending here.
What Republicans are defending
It isn’t enough to just say these lawmakers are nonwhite. The additional point here is that the lawmakers Trump targeted are united by the fact that they are all members of ethnic, racial or religious minorities. Trump suggested that by virtue of this fact — by virtue of their heritage — they don’t belong to the American nation.
Trump tried to fudge this point by claiming — falsely — that they weren’t born here. But the lie itself, which to my knowledge he hasn’t disavowed, underscores his real meaning. And in any case, he has continued to rage that if they want to continue criticizing America, they should “LEAVE,” that is, go back to where they come from, further emphasizing the point that they fundamentally don’t belong.
In doing this, Trump embraced a contemporary version of the illiberal, exclusionary, white-nationalist and ethno-nationalist vision of America, one that has a long and terrible history in this country, one that runs through slavery and through the national-origins quota system on immigration (which was based in part on theories of eugenics) and through Jim Crow.
This vision contrasts with the civic patriotism that the Dem-sponsored House resolution seeks to enshrine. And House Republicans could not bring themselves to condemn Trump’s vision, or even to call it out for what it is. The Republican Party is increasingly becoming a white-nationalist party.
The new Trumpist argument against ‘the Squad’
In his latest rage-tweets on this matter, Trump just echoed a new argument that is revealing about the broader dimensions of this dispute. Trump approvingly quoted GOP Sen. John Neely Kennedy (La.) claiming “the four Congresswomen think that America is wicked in its origins” and that “we are all racist and evil.”
This conception of the country does have a role in the historical debates involving various forms of nationalism and the historic injustices that have defined the nation. But as Gary Gerstle’s book “American Crucible” details, the tradition of civic patriotism or civic nationalism has throughout our history regularly repudiated the idea that the American founding is irredeemably tainted by its origins amid slavery and white supremacy.
Instead, at the core of the tradition of civic patriotism is the essential idea that the country can, and will, be continually improved, and further brought in line with its ideals.
The argument Trump just tweeted tries to separate the four members of Congress in question from that tradition. But in fact, many of their criticisms of Trump — over his racism, over his abuses of migrants, over his contempt for the Constitution and the rule of law — put them squarely within it.
This is the tradition the House resolution reaffirmed. And it’s the one that Republicans are in the process of breaking from, while increasingly embracing Trump’s white nationalism.