President Trump walked onto a rally stage this month and delivered a direct message to those who criticize America: “Tell them to leave it!”
But Trump sometimes sounds like the complainer in chief when it comes to his pet peeves about America.
As a candidate he campaigned almost exclusively on grievance in 2016, asserting just before he ran that the country “is a hellhole. We are going down fast.”
He argued that U.S. presidents were “stupid leaders” who made the “stupidest” deals and started stupid wars led by generals who were “reduced to rubble.” Federal judges were “very unfair” and “a disgrace.” The United States, he said, is a “laughingstock all over the world.”
American cities were “war zones,” even as crime fell to near-record lows. The heartland was no better — littered with “rusted out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation,” as he declared in an inaugural address that famously decried what he called “American carnage.”
Trump has made clear he will campaign aggressively for reelection on the “love-it-or-leave-it” theme, a nativist slogan popularized during the anti-communist witch hunts of the 1950s, and then against anti-war protesters and other activists in the social and political turmoil of the 1960s.
Then and now, protesters have argued that the right to critique this country is embedded in its greatness and in its Constitution. They argue that criticism of leaders and policies is patriotic, not a sign of disloyalty to the flag.
Trump’s racist attacks on four progressive Democratic members of Congress, all women of color, reached a peak on July 17 when thousands of his supporters chanted “Send her back” during a rally in Greenville, N.C. Trump looked on approvingly for 12 or 13 seconds, though briefly claimed a day later that he did not like the chanting.
But Trump has done little to discourage it, turning the four minority lawmakers — Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) — into a quartet of dark-skinned targets.
“I believe they hate our country,” Trump told an audience of young conservatives in Washington on Tuesday. Three of the four lawmakers were born in the United States, while Omar is a naturalized U.S. citizen.
Trump claimed falsely that Ocasio-Cortez called “our country and our people garbage,” mischaracterizing her complaint that Democratic policy proposals were too timid, and falsely said Tlaib had used the phrase “evil Jews,” misstating the controversy she created in her criticism of Israel.
Trump and his supporters say he is defending American values and making an ideological argument against socialism, which they say Democrats now support. But others see a troubling distinction between Trump’s criticism of the country and that of the four lawmakers.
“Even though Trump may be ignorant of the ... history, he clearly has absorbed the mantra [that] people of color, people who criticize the country, are not fully American,” said Matt Dallek, a political historian at George Washington University. “It’s one of the most common racist tropes that we have.”
The notion “that it is perfectly OK to push people out of this country” if the president says they don’t love the country in the right way or are insufficiently loyal is a dangerous step toward condoning violence against them, said Susan Benesch, founder of the Dangerous Speech Project, a nonprofit organization that studies how rhetoric can lead to violence.
In some ways, Trump and the four women of color he has targeted are tapping into similar resentments by making the populist argument that the American economy and political system is tilted toward the powerful against the weak.
But Trump and the “Squad,” as the four freshmen lawmakers are known, describe the alleged oppressors and oppressed in completely different terms.
Trump has repeatedly called U.S. immigration laws the “worst” and “dumbest … anywhere in the world” because migrants who don’t “love our country” can cross the border and steal jobs from “the forgotten man and the forgotten woman.”
“His argument that the system is rigged, that the establishment is against you, is in large part an argument that people who don’t look like you, who don’t share your values, are really hostile to your people,” said Dallek. “They’re hostile to America. They’re hostile to a white America.”
Trump invoked that power struggle at his North Carolina rally when he accused the four lawmakers of fueling “a dangerous, militant hard left.”
“They’re always telling us how to run and how to do this,” Trump said. “You know what? If they don’t love it, tell them to leave it.”
At one point, Trump singled out Omar for attacking him personally, insinuating that the former refugee from Somalia lacked the standing to criticize the leader of her adopted country.
“I’m unhappy when a congresswoman goes and says, ‘I’m going to be the president’s nightmare,’” Trump said. “She’s going to be the president’s nightmare? She’s lucky to be where she is.”
Trump launched his national political career by trying to be a nightmare to President Obama. Trump promoted racist claims that the nation’s first black president was born in Africa, a false conspiracy theory popular on the far-right wing.
He later boosted his credentials as an anti-establishment Republican by criticizing former President George W. Bush, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and fellow GOP candidates.
Even after winning the election, Trump has not let up on his attack of American institutions, large and small, when he believes it suits him politically.
The FBI’s reputations was “in Tatters — worst in History!” and the U.S. intelligence community was like “Nazi Germany,” he tweeted early on, angering professionals across the national security arena.
This week, he blamed former U.S. leaders for his trade war and growing friction with China.
“China, very smart,” Trump said Tuesday. “I don’t blame them. Look, I’m not blaming them. I blame our past leaders for allowing it to happen. I’m not blaming China.”