The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Who offered this criticism of the U.S.: Trump or a Democratic congresswoman?

President Trump hugs the American flag as he arrives to speak at Conservative Political Action Conference, CPAC 2019, in Oxon Hill, Md., on March 2. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

President Trump’s defense of his declaration that progressive Democratic members of Congress should “go back” to where they came from was predicated in part on his assessment of their patriotism.

While he didn’t identify those members of Congress by name, he referred to their feud with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), suggesting that he was talking about Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) — a group informally known as “The Squad.” Omar has been a frequent target of Trump’s, with his having suggested in the past that her comments about Israel’s political influence should be grounds for her resignation from office.

How could this group, he wrote on Twitter on Sunday, “loudly and viciously [tell] the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run”? On Monday, he quoted Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) saying that “[Ocasio-Cortez] and this crowd . . . hate Israel, they hate our own country” and that they “are Anti-America.”

“If somebody has a problem with our country, if somebody doesn’t want to be in our country, they should leave,” Trump later told reporters in response to questions about his tweets.

We dug into this claim. Where and when had Ocasio-Cortez and the other three freshmen said things that could be construed as anti-American? What comments had they made which met this standard? Before we answer that question, we’ll present to you a brief quiz, offering up quotes from people who are now in elected office and asking you to determine who said them. We tried to focus on criticisms of America or Americans instead of just criticisms of American leaders.

Was it a member of The Squad? Or was it Trump?

(Miss something we should have included? Email us.)

You presumably noticed that most of those comments came from Trump himself. Before being elected president, he was explicit in declaring America a stupid or disrespected country, a function, he seemed to believe, of Barack Obama’s leadership.

Trump, of course, doesn’t see himself as unpatriotic. Quite the opposite. He sees himself as enormously patriotic, going so far as to hug the flag. His criticisms were aimed at Obama and Democrats, he would no doubt argue, though the language often targeted the U.S.

In reviewing comments from the four freshman Democrats, it was hard to find any similarly explicit denunciations of the U.S. There are numerous examples of criticism of Republicans and Trump in particular, but we excluded Trump’s voluminous similar critiques of the opposing party from the mix.

Instead, most of the criticisms that can be found online about the un-American views of the Democrats center on the policies they embrace. That Ocasio-Cortez is a Democratic Socialist, for example, spurs critiques that she hates America. Members of the group’s criticisms of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and embrace of progressive positions like Medicare-for-all are used as examples of their dislike of America itself. A Washington Post report on Omar which was quoted by Fox News’s Tucker Carlson to disparage her as “living proof that the way we practice immigration has become dangerous to this country” included criticisms of the U.S. — but nothing demonstrating opposition to or hatred of the country.

At its heart, this is one tension underlying Trump’s view of American politics. There is plenty of space for criticizing his opponents in stark, derogatory terms, but opposing his policies or his presidency is framed as hostility to the country itself.

Imagine if Rashida Tlaib had asked on Twitter if people had “ever seen our country look weaker or more pathetic,” as Trump did under Obama. Her use of a profanity in declaring that Democrats would impeach Trump spurred days of burbling in conservative media. How would Trump’s words have played?

Had Ocasio-Cortez once said that “[o]ur country is looking very bad right now!” as Trump did, the furor would be immediate. After all, that’s not at all what she or her colleagues did — and they’ve still been labeled as un-American.