Why Trump's Latest Outrage Struck a Nerve

by Michael C. Dorf

[Note: In the next several days, I shall post a remembrance of retired Justice John Paul Stevens, who passed away last night. He was a great and a good man. For now, though, here's more on our racist president.]

In an excellent and sobering blog post on Monday, Prof Martin Lederman described Donald Trump's tweets urging four Congresswomen, three of whom were born in the US, to go back to where they came from, as nothing new about Trump's character. As Prof Lederman has argued in other fora as well, what's so alarming is not Trump but the failure of all but a handful of never-Trump Republicans and conservatives to unequivocally condemn the president's racism.

I don't disagree with Prof Lederman that Trump's enablers are the real story, but I want to suggest that there is something new here--not because it will lead Trump's devotees to abandon him, but because this latest outrage from the Outrager in Chief is personal for more people than nearly all of his prior outrages were.

I'll begin with my personal story. I am a fourth-generation American. Somewhat unusually for American Jews of Eastern European descent my age (mid-fifties) or older, all four of my grandparents were born in the US. All of their parents had at that point recently immigrated from what is now Ukraine and Poland. I was close with three of my grandparents growing up (the fourth having died before I was born), and because they were raised by immigrant families in immigrant communities, I had a sense of the immigrant experience.

My current household is a generational mix. My wife is a second-generation American, the daughter of Holocaust-survivor refugee parents. Thus, our biological daughter is a fifth-generation American on my side and a third-generation American on her mother's side. Our adopted daughter is as well, by adoption, but she is also an immigrant herself, having been born in China and come to the US and become a naturalized citizen when she was one year old. Thus in one household spanning only two familial generations, we have five generations of citizenship.

My family is not especially unusual. Take the Trump family. Donald's father's father immigrated from Germany. His mother immigrated from Scotland. His first wife and mother of his first three children and grandmother of all of his grandchildren immigrated from what was then Czechoslovakia. His current wife and mother of his youngest son immigrated from Slovenia. The Trumps thus also combine multiple generations of citizenship.

I believe that Trump's latest outrage struck the nerve that it did because the "defense" of the Tweet--that it was nativist but not racist--is not only preposterous on its face but just as bad if true. The notion that Trump was "merely" being nativist (propounded by, among others, Brit Hume), does not pass the laugh test. Given that, as a HuffPo headline states, "Rep. Ihan Omar has been a U.S. citizen longer than Melania Trump," it is patently obvious that the basis for Trump's selection of who should "go back" is something other than how long a person or her family has been in this country. Equally obviously, that something else is race.

But wait. Anyone paying any attention at all already knew Trump was a racist. What's different this time is that the cover story is about as bad as the thing Trump is trying to cover up. In other contexts, the lies told by Trump and his enablers to cover his illicit motives were also transparently false (except to four or five Supreme Court justices). For example, he and government lawyers lied in saying that that the countries on the Travel Ban list were there for national security reasons. They likewise lied when they said that the Commerce Department wanted to add a citizenship question to the census in order to enforce the Voting Rights Act. But at least if one assumed that the lie were true in those instances, one could see a rationale for what Trump was doing.

Here, by contrast, the lie doesn't help. Suppose that Brit Hume is right, that Trump was merely being a nativist. How is nativism directed at US citizens--even if they are immigrants or the children or grandchildren of immigrants--remotely an excuse? The problem for Trump this time is that middle-of-the-roaders who are inclined to be skeptical of what they generally regard as too-quick accusations of racism can only fall back on the inference that Trump was not targeting women of color based on race but instead targeting a much much broader group into which a great many of them also fall--just as my family and Trump's own family fall. White people whose ancestors did not come over on the Mayflower and are only vaguely troubled by Trump's racism towards black and brown folks could now realize that Trump thinks they themselves are not real Americans.

Meanwhile, there are millions of Americans whose ancestors came here centuries ago but who are not about to give Trump a pass, because those ancestors came here in chains. Smaller numbers--whose own ancestors in turn came thousands of years earlier--had their land and culture stolen from them.

Bottom line: Trump's tweet--even if one makes the very unrealistic assumption that it is not racist--targets a substantial fraction of people who have not hitherto been strongly critical of Trump. That does not mean that this time his core support will finally break. After all, only four Republicans and one now-former Republican had the courage to vote for the House resolution condemning Trump's racist tweet. Nonetheless, something new has happened.