Kevin Cokley is a University of Texas distinguished teaching professor and director of the Institute for Urban Policy Research & Analysis at the University of Texas at Austin.
Make no mistake about it, the message behind Donald Trump’s tweets telling four American congresswomen of colour to “go back” to their countries was about so much more: It was ultimately a statement about who are seen as real American citizens: white people. And what does it mean to be an American citizen in the United States as a person of colour under the Trump presidency?
If you are not American in the way that President Trump narrowly defines what an American is, your patriotism and love of country is immediately called into question. He knows his base very well, and understands that overt gestures of patriotism (for example, when he tightly embraces the American flag), no matter how superficial and contrived, are a political win for him.
Mr. Trump’s call to leave the country did not start with Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib. When football player Colin Kaepernick protested the shooting of unarmed black men and the treatment of minorities by kneeling during the national anthem, Mr. Trump told Mr. Kaepernick that he should find a country that works better for him.
In a recent op-ed, Jamelle Bouie discusses Mr. Trump’s racist idea of citizenship. The President’s America, Mr. Bouie says, is a “white man’s country.” Mr. Bouie believes that Trump has a theory of American citizenship that is rooted in whiteness. That likely explains his concern for the seizing of land from white South African farmers, where his unwelcome tweets have been criticized for stoking racial divisions in a country that is already racially divided.
Mr. Trump doesn’t have to explicitly state that the United States is a white man’s country in order to perpetuate this racist idea. Remember when he came to the defence of Confederate statues, saying their removal was an attempt to take away “our” culture? He never explicitly clarifies what he means by “our” culture, but he has mastered using language that makes “others” of immigrants and non-white people in order to rile up his base. It is this combination of nativism and racism that has appealed to white supremacists.
The evidence is overwhelming: the President is a racist. He has a four-decade history of bigotry that is well-documented. That he continues to enjoy unwavering support among his base speaks volumes about the racial division in this country. While his job-approval ratings hover around 41 per cent, among Republicans his ratings are at an all-time high of 90 per cent (compared to a lowly 5 per cent among Democrats).
In addition, he has made political dissent – a hallmark of a healthy democracy – unpatriotic. Regardless of whether one agrees with the policies of the four Democratic congresswomen or not, questioning their patriotism and telling them to go back to where they came from is patently unfair, corrosive to political discourse and amounts to a racist dog whistle intended to further communicate that women of colour are not real Americans.
It should come as no surprise that Mr. Trump is supported by racists, white supremacists and so-called white nationalists. Many of his nonbigoted supporters get absolutely apoplectic at the suggestion they are racist. But it is an objectively factual statement to say that Mr. Trump has strong support among racists and white supremacists. In response to Mr. Trump’s racist tweet, neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin said, "This is the kind of white nationalism we elected him for.” Former Ku Klux Klan Imperial Wizard David Duke has stated, “We are determined to take this country back. We’re going to fulfill the promise of Donald Trump.”
Psychological research shows that support of Mr. Trump can be explained by five psychological phenomena: an authoritarian personality, social dominance orientation, prejudice, reduced inter-group contact and relative deprivation driven by economics. A simpler explanation might be that of political expediency. People can justify supporting him because he has experienced political success in advancing a conservative agenda.
It is clear that as we approach the 2020 election, Trump has made a political calculation that fomenting and further exploiting the racial divisions in our country offer him the best path toward re-election. In doing so, he challenges America’s ideals of democracy and equality.
But the question all Americans must ask ourselves is, at what cost?
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