Photo: Brendan Smialowski /AFP/Getty Images
In the smoldering wake of President Trump’s unscripted racist outburst, his allies have sought to wrench him back onto favorable terrain. They hastily insisted that Trump meant to say, or actually did say, something different from the words he typed. He was merely attacking left-wing critics who hate this country and prefer governments elsewhere in the world.
Here is the White House press secretary stating the party line:
Of course the controversy is not that Trump told his critics to leave, a point that would have attracted little attention, but that he falsely attributed foreignness to nonwhite members of Congress, three of whom were born in the United States.
Having removed the “white” from Trump’s white nationalism, Trump’s allies can now pass it off as a respectable, or at least familiar, brand of chest-beating jingoism. “AOC, Tlaib and Omar criticize America so often and so viciously preferring Soviet, Chinese, Venezuelan socialism to our free market economy that saying they would be happier somewhere else is a fair response,” adds Trump’s attorney-of-sorts Rudolph Giuliani. “To say it’s racist is almost as ignorant as their statements.”
The obvious plan is that a campaign of de-racialized nationalistic smears will allow them to avoid the tut-tutting of uncomfortable fellow Republicans. Politico reports that Trump’s campaign aides were “scrambling to repackage the attack on the four women of color into a broader patriotic message.” Trump himself dutifully read from notes including lines like “My point was if you are not happy here, you can leave.”
Since Trump is apparently going to at least attempt to repeat this message for the next 16 months, it’s worth noting that even the cleaned-up version of his attack is also absurd.
First, none of Trump’s targets have praised the Soviet, Chinese, or Venezuelan political or economic models. Equating harsh criticism of government policy with hatred of the country, let alone preference for some other system of government, is a crude smear.
Second, Trump’s equation of harsh criticism with a lack of patriotism runs into the uncomfortable fact that Trump himself was making such criticism literally until the moment he took office. “Our roads and bridges are falling apart, our airports are in Third World condition, and 43 million Americans are on food stamps,” he complained in his nominating speech. 2019 Donald Trump would be telling 2016 Donald Trump that if he thinks America is a Third World country, he should move there. (Or at least he would be saying that if 2016 Donald Trump’s skin were brown rather than orange.)
Finally, and most absurdly of all, Trump does not even satisfy the common standard of patriotism that virtually any politician in either party would meet. While Republicans spent years falsely accusing President Obama of dismissing “American exceptionalism,” Trump actually did the thing they smeared Obama for. When Vladimir Putin attacked the notion of American exceptionalism in 2013, Trump publicly sided with Putin.
“When he criticizes the president for using the term ‘American exceptionalism,’ if you’re in Russia, you don’t want to hear that America is exceptional. And if you’re in many other countries, whether it’s Germany or other places, you don’t want to hear about American exceptionalism because you think you’re exceptional. So I can see that being very insulting to the world,” Trump told Piers Morgan, “Other nations and other countries don’t want hear about American exceptionalism. They’re insulted by it. And that’s what Putin was saying.”
It would be fine if Trump was merely expressing sensitivity to the perception of people in foreign countries, but sensitivity is hardly his motivation. No Democrat in Congress has praised the economic performance of communist countries. Trump has:
(Imagine if Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said the exact same thing about a starving gulag state!)
No Democrat has praised foreign dictators for having more “strength” than an American president. That would be Trump, who frequently said things like: “I think Putin’s been a very strong leader for Russia, he’s been a lot stronger than our leader, that I can tell you.”
And Trump, unlike any Democrat in Congress, has not only justified communist repression but argued that communist dictators are not brutal enough. “When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it,” Trump said in 1990, “Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength.”
At minimum, Trump attempted to cooperate with the criminal intervention of a hostile foreign power in an American election (by, among other things, instructing Michael Flynn to obtain emails he believed Russia had stolen and going on camera to ask Russia to release them). While this was going on, he was secretly negotiating for a payoff worth several hundred million dollars from this same hostile power during the election. The term “treason” is overused — it is a crime reserved for times of war — but cooperating with an adversary in pursuit of financial and political gain is definitely not the act of a patriot.
That a man who has expressed contempt for American governing ideals and has cooperated with its enemies while chasing secret payoffs from them can win the presidency is outrageous. That such a man can then run for reelection by accusing his opponents of lacking patriotism positively boggles the mind. Trump has to be the most unpatriotic major-party presidential candidate in American history.