When President Donald Trump declared himself a “nationalist,” he was telling the truth, but he was inadequately specific.
On Sunday morning, the president told four members of Congress to “go back” to the countries “from which they came.” The remark, a racist taunt with a historic pedigree, inspired a flurry of fact-checking from mainstream journalists who were quick to note that Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, and Ilhan Omar are American citizens, and that only Omar was born abroad, in Somalia. It was a rather remarkable exercise in missing the point.
When Trump told these women to “go back,” he was not making a factual claim about where they were born. He was stating his ideological belief that American citizenship is fundamentally racial, that only white people can truly be citizens, and that people of color, immigrants in particular, are only conditionally American. This is a cornerstone of white nationalism, and one of the president’s few closely held ideological beliefs. It is a moral conviction, not a statement of fact. If these women could all trace their family line back to 1776, it would not make them more American than Trump, a descendant of German immigrants whose ancestors arrived relatively recently, because he is white and they are not.
After telling minority members of Congress to go back to where they “came from,” Trump today accused the women of “foul language & racist hatred.” White nationalists in the United States have always asserted that they are, in fact, the true victims of racial hatred, even as they’ve demanded the exclusion of nonwhites from the polity. When the Confederacy was shattered, its partisans launched a propaganda campaign rewriting the origin of their rebellion as the defense of individual freedom rather than property in man. The Redeemers who overthrew Reconstruction with terrorism and violence portrayed themselves as the victims of Negro tyranny, and as the historian Jason Sokol has written, when de jure segregation unraveled in the South in the 1960s, white southerners “began to picture the American government as the fascist, and the white southerner as the victim.”
Indeed, Trump’s remarks about the representatives followed a week in which he unsuccessfully attempted to overturn a Supreme Court decision that hobbled an administration effort to use the census to expand white voting power. The president’s remarks about Omar, Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley, and Tlaib are not only consistent with that effort; they provide its moral foundation. Yet the president’s rejoinder that his targets are the real racists will resonate with the voters in his base, the overwhelming majority of whom believe that they are the true victims of discrimination, and who are likely to see criticism of the president’s remarks as an affirmation of their own victimhood.
Trump’s supporters offered feeble, incoherent attempts at defending his remarks. “Clearly it’s not a racist comment,” Representative Andy Harris of Maryland, a Republican, told a Baltimore radio station, according to The Washington Post. “He could have meant, ‘Go back to the district they came from, to the neighborhood they came from.’” The Fox News personality Brit Hume argued that “Trump’s ‘go back’ comments were nativist, xenophobic, counterfactul and politically stupid. But they simply do not meet the standard definition of racist, a word so recklessly flung around these days that its actual meaning is being lost.” A Trump-campaign official, Matt Wolking, declared on Twitter that “anyone who says the president told members of Congress to go back to where they came from is lying.”
These defenses are comical. The president clearly said “country” in his tweet telling the representatives to “go back”; the remark assumes that the citizenship of the representatives is conditional because of their ethnic backgrounds; and Wolking’s defense requires ignoring the president’s own words. But self-deceit is, in a sense, necessary for the president’s advocates: To reconcile the America they say they believe in with the one they actually do believe in, they cannot be honest with themselves about what the president actually said.
In a country whose founding documents declare that all are created equal, views like those held by the president create cognitive dissonance. How can anyone lay claim to the American creed while excluding people on the basis of race? For Trump and his supporters, the answer is to ignore that dissonance entirely. This is how many of the Founders themselves approached this fundamental contradiction, so it is no surprise that this nationalist’s delusion still retains ideological purchase today.
The Constitution enshrined individual rights while denying the vote to women and allowing black people to be owned as property. In 1790, the nation’s first immigration law limited naturalization to “free white persons” of “good character.” In the 1857 Supreme Court case Dred Scott v. Sandford, Chief Justice Roger Taney concluded, in a decision employing the language of individual freedom and government restraint, that black people could not be citizens under the Constitution. The adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment after the Civil War explicitly reversed that decision, but was followed by a nativist panic beginning in the late 19th century that culminated in immigration restrictions based on discriminatory pseudoscience, which lasted until the middle of the 20th century.
In these fits and starts, we can see a battle over the fundamental nature of American citizenship that has been waged since the founding. Was America founded as a fundamentally white and Christian country? Or as a land of opportunity, where anyone of any background could come, thrive, and contribute? Neither faction is truly wrong, and neither is truly right, and neither has ever won anything resembling a permanent victory—and perhaps neither ever will.
This is not, fundamentally, a battle over facts, but a clash of values. Trump’s rise to the leadership of the Republican Party began with his embrace of the racist conspiracy theory that the first black president was not born in America. The point was not that birtherism is false, which its adherents all know; the point was that people like Barack Obama—a black man, a second-generation immigrant with an Arabic middle name—can never truly be American the way white people who got here yesterday can. Embracing birtherism meant embracing the idea that American citizenship only truly belongs to white people, a principle from which Trump has never wavered since.
Trump and his supporters will continue to advocate for discriminatory policies, and they will deny that their overtly bigoted remarks are bigoted, yet by their works you will know them. The Trump administration’s attempts to purge undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children, its shattered promises of citizenship to immigrant service members who signed up to give their life to their adopted country, the deliberate squalor of border facilities designed to dissuade illegal immigration by violating fundamental human rights—these are all reflections of the president’s ideological belief that only white people can truly be American citizens, and that the diversifying American electorate represents an existential threat to the United States as he and his supporters understand it.
This is not a fight that will be won by nitpicking. Contesting Trumpism means appealing to a different strain of American nationalism—the one represented by people such as Frederick Douglass, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Martin Luther King Jr.; an inclusive American ideal that rescues the dreams of the founding from flawed Founders who were incapable of realizing them. It is a battle that can be won only by uniting enough Americans of all backgrounds behind the universal ideals that can bring America closer to what it has long struggled to become, not what it once was.