Explaining why he opposed a resolution condemning Donald Trump's inflammatory remarks about "'Progressive' Democrat Congresswomen," House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R–Calif.) said the president's tweets were not racist. "Let's not be false about what is happening here today," McCarthy told reporters. "This is all about politics and beliefs of ideologies individuals have."
All is doing a lot of work in that sentence. McCarthy apparently is referring both to Trump's tweets and to the reaction they provoked. Let's take those one at a time.
Here is what Trump tweeted on Sunday morning:
So interesting to see "Progressive" Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all), now loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run. Why don't they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how it is done. These places need your help badly, you can't leave fast enough. I'm sure that Nancy Pelosi would be very happy to quickly work out free travel arrangements!
Trump did not name the congresswomen he had in mind. But based on the reference to friction with Pelosi, people have widely assumed he was talking about Reps. Ilhan Omar (D–Minn.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D–N.Y.), Rashida Tlaib (D–Mich.), and Ayanna Pressley (D–Mass.). All four happen to have darker complexions than Donald Trump, which ordinarily would not be enough to fairly accuse a politician of racism when he is ostensibly criticizing his political opponents' views. But Trump's bizarre suggestion that these four American citizens "go back" to the countries they "originally came from" complicates McCarthy's position a bit, especially since that country is the United States for all but Omar, who emigrated from Somalia when she was 10 years old.
At best, Trump is guilty of mindless love-it-or-leave-it jingoism. And given that he is drawing on a bigoted trope with a long, sad history in the United States, the imputation of racism is hard to dismiss. The evidence on that score is at least as strong as the evidence that Omar revealed her anti-Semitism when she complained that "Israel has hypnotized the world," said congressional support for Israel "is all about the Benjamins baby" (alluding to the financial influence of Jewish donors), and bemoaned "the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country."
Omar has said she was not aware that her comments, which last March inspired a House resolution that broadly condemned bigotry without mentioning her by name, could be interpreted as anti-Jewish, and she apologized "unequivocally" for the second one. Trump could try a similar defense, except that he wholeheartedly endorses the charge of anti-Semitism against Omar and other critics of Israel.
"When will the Radical Left Congresswomen apologize to our Country, the people of Israel and even to the Office of the President, for the foul language they have used, and the terrible things they have said," the president wondered yesterday. "So many people are angry at them & their horrible & disgusting actions!" He added, "If Democrats want to unite around the foul language & racist hatred spewed from the mouths and actions of these very unpopular & unrepresentative Congresswomen, it will be interesting to see how it plays out. I can tell you that they have made Israel feel abandoned by the U.S." In other words: I'm not a bigot; you're a bigot.
To which the Anti-Defamation League, which strongly criticized Omar for her "anti-Semitic tweets," replied: Please leave us out of it. "As Jews, we are all too familiar with this kind of divisive prejudice," said ADL National Director Jonathan Greenblatt. "While ADL has publicly disagreed with these congresswomen on some issues, the president is echoing the racist talking points of white nationalists and cynically using the Jewish people and the state of Israel as a shield to double down on his remarks. Politicizing the widespread, bipartisan support for Israel and throwing around accusations of anti-Semitism is damaging to the security of Israel and the Jewish community. He should lead by example, stop politicizing these issues and stop smearing members of Congress."
It is not surprising that Democrats who for years have been portraying Trump as a puppet of white supremacists would deem his latest remarks racist. But contrary to what McCarthy implies, they are not alone in drawing that conclusion.
"I am confident that every Member of Congress is a committed American," Rep. Mike Turner (R–Ohio) tweeted yesterday. "@realDonaldTrump's tweets from this weekend were racist and he should apologize. We must work as a country to rise above hate, not enable it."
Rep. Will Hurd (R–Texas) called Trump's remarks "racist and xenophobic." I suppose Rep. Justin Amash (I–Mich.), a Trump critic who is no longer a Republican, does not count, but it looks like he was the first non-Democratic member of Congress to condemn the president's comments. "To tell these American citizens (most of whom were born here) to 'go back' to the 'crime infested places from which they came' is racist and disgusting," he tweeted on Sunday morning. Even Sen. Lindsey Graham (R–S.C.), a Trump critic turned sycophant, thinks the president should "aim higher" with his rhetoric.
So yes, the response to Trump's remarks is largely "about politics"—not just the predictable partisanship of Democrats but also the fear of Republicans who are keen to avoid offending Trump's fans. But it is not all about politics. A few sitting Republican legislators are still willing to publicly defend the quaint notion that the president should try not to engage in ad hominem, racially incendiary attacks on his political opponents. One suspects (or maybe hopes is more like it) that others share this view but are too afraid to speak out as members of a party that has been taken over by Trump and his supporters.
As is often the case with Trump, it's hard to tell whether he is genuinely clueless or just pretending to be. "We will never be a Socialist or Communist Country," he tweeted yesterday. "IF YOU ARE NOT HAPPY HERE, YOU CAN LEAVE!" Today he amplified that point: "Our Country is Free, Beautiful and Very Successful. If you hate our Country, or if you are not happy here, you can leave!" He added: "Those Tweets were NOT Racist. I don't have a Racist bone in my body!"
Clarifying his message to reporters yesterday, Trump said, "If you're not happy here, then you can leave. As far as I'm concerned, if you hate our country, if you're not happy here, you can leave….If you're not happy in the U.S., if you're complaining all the time—very simply, you can leave. You can leave right now. Come back if you want; don't come back. It's OK too. But if you're not happy, you can leave."
We get it. But no matter how many times the president says it, and putting aside any inference of racism, it is still a moronic rejoinder to people who criticize current U.S. policy, as every American has a right to do, even while remaining in the United States. Trump himself paved his road to the White House by portraying America as "a laughingstock" (something he still says), decrying the "American carnage" left by his predecessors, and promising to Make America Great Again, thereby implying that it is not so great anymore. It would have been absurd to tell him to shut up or "go back" to Germany if he hates this country so much, and it is no less absurd to use a similar line against critics with different political views.
I feel a bit silly even having to say that, but such is the state of what currently passes for political debate in this country. Maybe I should go back to Poland, or possibly Israel.
Update: The House resolution condemning Trump's "racist comments" passed today by a vote of 240 to 187. Four Republicans joined 235 Democrats and Amash in voting for the measure: Hurd plus Reps. Susan Brooks (Ind.), Brian Fitzpatrick (Pa.), and Fred Upton (Mich.). Turner, despite his criticism, voted no.
[I've corrected the list of Republicans, which initially named the wrong Brooks.]