One of President Trump’s political gifts is his ability to cobble together parachutes after pushing his allies out of airplanes. A campaign-trail attack on Arizona Sen. John McCain for not being a hero was retrofitted into disparagement of McCain’s purported weakness on veterans’ issues. Any number of personal comments about other opponents get reworked into more palatable critiques as the ground rushes ever closer.
The most recent and perhaps most significant example? Trump’s effort to cast last weekend’s racist attacks on four Democratic congresswoman: Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (Minn.), Ayanna Pressley (Mass.) and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.).
On Sunday, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) appeared on CNN, where that attack — and the ensuing week of fallout — came up. Shortly before the interview aired, Trump tweeted that he didn’t believe that the congresswomen “are capable of loving our country.” Johnson was asked whether he agreed with that sentiment.
“You know, I would say, in general, the whole America love-it-or-leave it is not — not a new sentiment. Back in the ’60s, that wasn’t considered racist,” he replied. “I just find it very unfortunate that so many parts of our public debate right now are getting immediately stuck inside a racial framework, when what I would like to see is us moving toward that colorblind society.”
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was mentioned in the next sentence.
Johnson’s response didn’t really answer the question but, instead, the question he came prepared to answer: How did he feel about Trump’s racist tweets? And he deployed the parachute the president had generously provided: Actually, this is just an update to the “love it or leave it” argument from the 1960s.
It wasn’t, no matter how often Trump has tried to make that case over the past seven days. What Trump wrote, specifically, was:
“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!”
Nothing here about not loving the United States. The objection is to congresswomen from places with “the worst, most corrupt and inept” governments “viciously telling the people of the United States … how our government is to be run.” Those congresswomen — three of whom, as you’ve no doubt heard, were born in the United States — should “go back” to the “totally broken and crime infested places” of their births.
Trump wasn’t saying “love it or leave it.” He was saying “you’re not welcome here.”
The “go back where you came from” line is one with a long, fraught, racist history. The connotations of “love it or leave it” are somewhat less problematic, given the veneer of patriotism it includes. The effect is similar, though: Conform or leave.
In this case, the thing to which one must conform isn’t a love of country but, instead, an embrace of Trump’s politics.
Trump spent much of last week trying to argue that the Democrats at issue were hostile to the United States, a necessary precondition for his claim that he was saying “love it or leave it” (which, again, was itself the parachute he was building to save people from plummeting in defense of his racist tweets). His sweeping claim that the women were hostile to America is heavily based on out-of-context quotes, guilt by association or just making things up.
He claims, for example that they, collectively, “call the people of our country and our country ‘garbage.’ ” This is an apparent reference to Ocasio-Cortez at one point saying that the American people shouldn’t settle for compromise public policy that is “10 percent better from garbage” — a claim that is awfully hard to position as a disparagement of the country as a whole.
But some tried. White House adviser Stephen Miller was asked about that claim and others in an interview on Fox News on Sunday.
“She’s talking about — she’s talking about policies,” host Chris Wallace said. “She’s not talking about the country and the people. Is garbage such a horrible word?”
“She’s saying that America in her view right now is garbage,” Miller replied, which is obviously not true.
Wallace was ready. He showed Miller this tweet from Trump.
Miller expressed frustration that Wallace was conflating Trump’s criticism of Obama with the congresswomen’s purported criticism of America.
“Let me just cut to the heart of the issue,” Miller replied. “These four congresswomen detest America as it exists, as it is currently constructed. They want to tear down the structure of our country.”
Why? In short, because they advocate socialist policies and oppose Trump’s rhetoric on the border. Though Miller framed this as their collectively backing “open borders,” which is obviously not the case.
Trump, Miller said at another point, had a philosophy of “America First.”
“Saying that America needs to improve to get closer to an America First ideal, as the president did as a candidate, criticizing Obama, criticizing our trade deals, our foreign policies, our immigration policies, is out of love for America,” Miller claimed. “Saying, as Representative Ocasio-Cortez did, that illegal immigrants are in effect more American than Americans is fundamentally an anti-American statement.”
It’s not clear how Ocasio-Cortez made that alleged claim, but the throughline here is clear. Miller’s objections to Ocasio-Cortez are ones rooted in policy, in his belief that she advocates for legislative changes that would “tear down the structure” of the country. Miller exaggerates policies with which he disagrees in order to present them and their supporters as hostile to the country itself.
Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) spoke with CBS on Sunday, where she was presented with the similar challenge of responding to Trump’s claims. She took the Miller approach a step further.
“These members of the House of Representatives — more, it’s not just these four, it’s also some of the candidates who are running for president on the Democratic side — fundamentally believe in policies that are dangerous for this nation,” Cheney said. “And as Republicans we are going to fight against those even if the mainstream media accuses us of racism when we do that.”
So Trump’s tweets were about a policy dispute — as his “love it or leave it” retcon has it — and, in response to that policy dispute, Trump was being labeled as racist! It’s gone full circle: The racism allegation wasn’t about Trump’s racist tweets, but, instead, was a bad-faith response to the thing Trump claimed his tweets were actually about. Which they weren’t.
The Trump era of politics is complicated. Sometimes the parachutes he offers get tangled. Sometimes, like Cheney, you end up back on the plane.