tr*mp vs. the squad

July 18, 2019
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Trump’s week-long attempted verbal lynching of Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar reached a new low last night in North Carolina, as he led a crowd in the chant, “Send her back.” Aimed at Somali-born Minnesota Representative Omar, it is the next “Lock her up,” a new, disgusting, racist, anti-immigrant meme built on the idea that this country belongs to white Americans, and that a person of color who critiques it isn’t worthy of being here. Trump’s barrage is expected, it’s racist, it’s tired, it’s pandering to the lowest impulses of America, and it’s really hard to stomach. 

This particular episode of The Racist Show has left me despondent, empty, and gutted. It’s not just that the President is attacking American citizens and telling them to leave as if they’re somehow less-than-Americans. It’s not just that this feels like the thousand-and-first time during the Trump administration that he’s letting his white hood show by overtly attacking Black or Brown people, using rhetoric and/or policy because he’s a politician who likes to stand on Black and Brown necks in order to look taller for white people. It’s all of that — plus the deafening silence of the Republican party in Washington and throughout the country which underlines the vast amount of racism throughout the country. 

Elected GOP officials are not condemning these comments and I highly doubt it’s because they agree with the substance. People in Congress know these women, who have collectively come to be known as “The Squad,” aren’t anti-American or pro-terrorist. But Republicans in D.C. know that Trump’s racist attacks are an effective political strategy for a party that’s become so blindingly white that it resembles an Apartheid institution. And it’s not just that the GOP is overwhelmingly white, it’s also stubbornly clinging to a long-gone past. It’s a Mad Men party in a Modern Family universe, except that there are millions of Americans who stand by Trump and his racism. There isn’t a group of Republicans looking to criticize him because there’s no criticism of his racism bubbling up from his base or from right-wing media. They all support his racism. 

They may say, “Hey, I didn’t say those things, so why am I responsible?” If Trump’s racism doesn’t bother you, and you can support him in spite of it — or because of it — then you’re a part of the problem. And never in my lifetime has it been so clear just how many Americans are fine with racism. I would love to say all of this doesn’t bother me. Black people love to act like nothing bothers us and everything rolls off of our back. I know this ain’t new but it hurts just the same. I’m crying inside about my country. It’s a mess. The cancer that is American racism has metastasized into a monster. 

Lynching was, is, domestic terrorism. It is terrorism because it’s an attack on civilians, because it’s ideologically motivated violence, and because it’s violence meant to send a political message to people everywhere — be afraid of white people, don’t challenge white dominance, stay in your place. Lynchings were not private affairs; they were attended by crowds, and photos of these events spread through the South via postcards. The people who organized them wanted the message to spread. I can hear that message embedded in Trump’s verbal lynching of the Squad. Everyone can. He’s not a dog-whistler, but a bullhorn kind of guy. 

The message is that the women in the Squad are not real Americans — which infers that I’m not, either. He’s saying white Americans are real, and the rest of us should be grateful or go home. Never mind that these four women are American citizens and that three of them were born in this country. But Trump isn’t just talking about them. He’s talking about all people of color. He’s excluding us from true Americanness, as if that’s just for white people and our true center sits elsewhere. 

This notion — you’re not really an American — is at the heart of racism, and it gets at a feeling I had, a sentiment that many people told me they had before Obama was elected. Back in the days when I thought it was impossible for a Black person to be elected President, I felt like a second class citizen. I felt like I was a problem for the only country I’ve ever known. After Obama’s election I finally felt deeply at home in this country in a way I had never before known; but then Trump roared in to office to remind me that millions of Americans still see me and my brothers and sisters as not real Americans. They questioned Obama’s Americanness. They completely doubt mine. I can’t deny that it hurts.

Of course, Trump’s attack is deeply un-American. To say “Love It or Leave It” violates the core of American-ness. This country was born in protest, and protest remains central to who we are as a people. The First Amendment protects our right to speak out. Criticizing America is innately American and a true patriot would critique the country precisely because they love it and want to make it better. James Baldwin said, “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” Typically, the right will dismiss those critiques by saying “America is the greatest country in the world”; and it may be, but that’s a hollow, jingoistic phrase that doesn’t really tell us much. 

Are we better than other countries? Isn’t the real question, is America the best country that it could be? Is a country that imprisons so many, keeps kids in cages, pollutes the Earth, struggles to combat its gun epidemic, privileges the wealthy and the white while punishing its poor and its people of color, and has a racist, misogynist moron for an elected leader, is that the best this country can be? America is not as great as it can be, and it will never get there without people who are willing to stand up for what’s right. 

Trump’s supposed love of America is lazy and selfish. Hey, America allowed him to get rich and famous and powerful, so he loves it. My love for America and my perspective on it extends beyond me and my immediate family. How things are for millions of other Americans, I don’t even know? How are things for gay youth, for women who need abortions, for the families of the incarcerated, for people who can’t afford health care — there are all sorts of Americans who are struggling unnecessarily. My critique of America is: do better by all Americans because America is a great country, but we can be even greater. My love, Baldwin’s love, I assume your love of this country is built on high expectations and clear eyes and a certainty that we can do better. Lord knows we can do better than Trump.

I see a glimpse of how much we can be in the Squad, the grace and the intelligence with which they have responded to Trump. They have not sunk to his level, they have not attacked him inappropriately, but they have shown spine and an unwillingness to back down. That’s what the best of America really looks like.