George T. Conway III is a lawyer in New York.

To this day, I can remember almost the precise spot where it happened: a supermarket parking lot in eastern Massachusetts. It was the mid-1970s; I was not yet a teenager, or barely one. I don’t remember exactly what precipitated the woman’s ire. But I will never forget what she said to my mother, who had come to this country from the Philippines decades before. In these words or something close, the woman said, “Go back to your country.”

I remember the incident well, but it never bothered me all that much. Nor did racial slurs, which, thankfully, were rare. None of it was troublesome, to my mind, because most Americans weren’t like that. The woman in the parking lot was just a boor, an ignoramus, an aberration. America promised equality. Its constitution said so. My schoolbooks said so. The country wasn’t perfect, to be sure. But its ideals were. And every day brought us closer to those ideals.

To a young boy, it seemed like long ago that a descendant of slaves had prophesied, five days before I was born, that his “four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” We would be there soon enough, if we weren’t there already. I couldn’t understand why colleges required applicants to check boxes for race or ethnicity. I’m also part Irish and Scottish. What box should I check? Should I check one at all? Will that help me or hurt me? Never mind, not to worry, those boxes would someday soon be gone.

How naive a child could be. The woman in the parking lot — there were many more like her, it turned out. They never went away. Today they attend rallies, and they post ugliness on Facebook or Twitter. As for the victims of historic racial oppression, no matter how much affirmative action (or reverse discrimination, or whatever you want to call it) the nation offered, they, too, had resentments that never went away — in part because of people like the parking-lot woman. Those resentments often led to more, not fewer, charges of racism as the years passed — charges of institutional racism and “white privilege.”

Which, in turn, bred another kind of resentment: Why, asked many an unaffluent white parent, who may never have uttered a racial slur or whose ancestors may never have held anyone in bondage, does my child have to check a box to her detriment, or be accused of “white privilege,” when the only privilege she has received came from the sweat of my brow? Why are people like me being called racist, when all I’ve done was mind my own business?

And how naive an adult could be. The birther imaginings about Barack Obama? Just a silly conspiracy theory, latched onto by an attention seeker who has a peculiar penchant for them. The “Mexican” Judge Gonzalo P. Curiel incident? Asinine, inappropriate, a terrible attack on the judiciary by an egocentric man who imagined that the judge didn’t like him. The white supremacists’ march in Charlottesville? The president’s comments were absolutely idiotic, but he couldn’t possibly have been referring to those self-described Nazis as “good people”; in his sloppy, inarticulate way, he was referring to both sides of the debate over Civil War statues, and venting his anger about being criticized.

No, I thought, President Trump was boorish, dim-witted, inarticulate, incoherent, narcissistic and insensitive. He’s a pathetic bully but an equal-opportunity bully — in his uniquely crass and crude manner, he’ll attack anyone he thinks is critical of him. No matter how much I found him ultimately unfit, I still gave him the benefit of the doubt about being a racist. No matter how much I came to dislike him, I didn’t want to think that the president of the United States is a racial bigot.

But Sunday left no doubt. Naivete, resentment and outright racism, roiled in a toxic mix, have given us a racist president. Trump could have used vile slurs, including the vilest of them all, and the intent and effect would have been no less clear. Telling four non-white members of Congress — American citizens all, three natural-born — to “go back” to the “countries” they “originally came from”? That’s racist to the core. It doesn’t matter what these representatives are for or against — and there’s plenty to criticize them for — it’s beyond the bounds of human decency. For anyone, not least a president.

The four Democrats — Reps. Ayanna Pressley (Mass.), Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) and Ilhan Omar (Minn.) — responded with a joint news conference on July 15 in which they sought to contrast their efforts on issues such as health care and immigration with the president’s actions. “This is the agenda of white nationalists,” Omar, left, said. “This is his plan to pit us against one another.” (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)AFP/Getty Images
Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) | “Clearly it’s not a racist comment,” he told Bryan Nehman on Baltimore talk radio WBAL. “He could have meant go back to the district they came from, to the neighborhood they came from.” (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)The Washington Post
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) | “When @realDonaldTrump tells four American Congresswomen to go back to their countries, he reaffirms his plan to ‘Make America Great Again’ has always been about making America white again,” Pelosi tweeted on July 14. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)The Washington Post
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) | Asked if Trump’s comments were racist, the top Republican in the House, McCarthy said: “This is about ideology. And the ideology of the Democratic Party is socialist. This debate is going to go on for a long time.” Read the story (Andrew Harnik/AP)AP
Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) | Beyer tweeted: “Trump is now turning the same birtherism he directed at President Obama against women of color serving in Congress. “Everyone should call this what it is: racism.” (Alex Wong/Getty Images)Getty Images
Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) | Gottheimer tweeted on July 14: “The offensive comments made this morning about my colleagues are totally unacceptable and wrong. There is no place for it (in Congress or anywhere in our country).” (Julio Cortez/AP)AP
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) | The party’s 2012 presidential nominee said in a tweet, “The president failed badly.” (Andrew Harnik/AP)AP
Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) | Scott, the only black Republican in the Senate, said Trump made “unacceptable personal attacks” and used “racially offensive language.” (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)Bloomberg
Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) | “I’ve been trying to figure out how to bring everybody together — I think the president just did that for us,” Dingell said. “Nobody in our caucus is going to tolerate that kind of hatred.” (Alex Wong/Getty Images)Getty Images
Rep. Michael R. Turner (R-Ohio) | Turner tweeted: “I am confident that every Member of Congress is a committed American. @realDonaldTrump’s tweets from this weekend were racist and he should apologize. We must work as a country to rise above hate, not enable it.” (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)AP
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) | “Well, we all know that [Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] and this crowd are a bunch of communists. They hate Israel. They hate our own country,” Graham said during an appearance on “Fox and Friends.” (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)The Washington Post
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) | Collins called the president’s comment “way over the line.” While Collins said she disagrees “strongly” with many of the views of the “far-left” members of the House Democrats, she also said the president’s tweets should be removed. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)The Washington Post
Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) | People in Montana are “sick and tired of listening to anti-American, anti-Semite, radical Democrats trash our country and our ideals,” Daines tweeted. “I stand with @realDonaldTrump.” (Andrew Harnik/AP)AP
Rep. Chip Roy (R-Tex.) | Roy tweeted: “POTUS was wrong to say any American citizen, whether in Congress or not, has any ‘home’ besides the U.S. But I just as strongly believe non-citizens who abuse our immigration laws should be sent home immediately, Reps who refuse to defend America should be sent home 11/2020.” (Win McNamee/Getty Images)Getty Images
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) | Murkowski said, “There is no excuse for the president’s spiteful comments — they were absolutely unacceptable and this needs to stop.” (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)The Washington Post
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) | The president’s not a racist. And I think the tone of all of this is not good for the country,” McConnell told reporters. Read the story (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)The Washington Post
Rep. Justin Amash (I-Mich.) | Amash, a vocal Trump critic who recently left the Republican Party, also defended the lawmakers, calling Trump’s remarks “racist and disgusting.” (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)AP
Former Arizona senator Jeff Flake | Flake tweeted: “We’re all Americans, Mr President.” (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)The Washington Post
Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) | Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) responded to Trump by recounting how, despite being born in the United States, he was repeatedly told to “go back to Mexico” throughout his life, regardless of his service in the Marine Corps or how well he did in school. “To people like Trump I will never be American enough,” Gallego said in a tweet. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)AP
Photo Gallery: All four lawmakers targeted by Trump have called for his impeachment.

What’s just as bad, though, is the virtual silence from Republican leaders and officeholders. They’re silent not because they agree with Trump. Surely they know better. They’re silent because, knowing that he’s incorrigible, they have inured themselves to his wild statements; because, knowing that he’s a fool, they don’t really take his words seriously and pretend that others shouldn’t, either; because, knowing how damaging Trump’s words are, the Republicans don’t want to give succor to their political enemies; because, knowing how vindictive, stubborn and obtusely self-destructive Trump is, they fear his wrath.

But none of that is good enough. Trump is not some random, embittered person in a parking lot — he’s the president of the United States. By virtue of his office, he speaks for the country. What’s at stake now is more important than judges or tax cuts or regulations or any policy issue of the day. What’s at stake are the nation’s ideals, its very soul.

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