The only foreign capital named after a United States president is Monrovia, Liberia, named after James Monroe. That’s an odd country – it began as a settlement of the American Colonization Society, the organization that believed black people would face better chances for freedom and prosperity in Africa than in the United States, an organization supported by Abraham Lincoln, Henry Clay, and James Monroe, who believed repatriation of free African Americans was preferable to widespread emancipation of slaves. Lincoln later changed his mind and only about fifteen thousand freed and free-born black Americans ended up there before we had our Civil War.
The whole thing was a bad idea. The freed and free-born black Americans didn’t fit in there. They didn’t belong there. And they certainly couldn’t transform that part of the west coast of Africa into a Jeffersonian democracy. Liberia declared its independence on July 26, 1847, and the United States did not recognize Liberia’s independence until February 5, 1862, during the Civil War, but it didn’t matter much. The country had no identity. Liberia wasn’t like Africa in how it was organized but it wasn’t like America either. Liberia has been a bit of a mess ever since.
This was a failed experiment. The angry question had always been out there – “Why don’t you go back to Africa where you belong?” The answer became obvious. “It doesn’t work that way.”
President Trump said Sunday that four minority, liberal congresswomen who have been critical of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” prompting other Democrats – including Pelosi – to leap to their defense.
Pelosi denounced Trump’s tweets as “xenophobic comments meant to divide our nation,” while the four congresswomen promised to continue fighting Trump’s agenda and accused him of trying to appeal to white nationalists.
These four congresswomen had been riding Pelosi hard, for ignoring them, and offered an amazing idea, suggesting she might be a bit of a racist herself, and she had hit back – these were only four radical voices and she had to worry about the whole party, and then suddenly all of that disappeared:
Trump’s remark swiftly united a House Democratic caucus that had been torn apart in recent days by infighting between Pelosi and the four freshman women of color – Democratic Reps. Ayanna Pressley (Mass.), Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) and Ilhan Omar (Minn.). It also comes after Trump announced that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers were preparing to round up migrant families that have received deportation orders across the country.
Those massive raids, busting down doors and separating families and putting millions in boxcars headed for the border, never happened. It was just business as usual, but Trump could, and did claim, that’s going to happen, or might be happening – one never knows. His tweets might have been an attempt to compensate for the massive purge that wasn’t:
“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,” Trump tweeted.
Well, for the record:
Pressley was born in Cincinnati, Tlaib was born in Detroit and Ocasio-Cortez was born in New York – about 20 miles from where Trump was born. Omar was born in Mogadishu, Somalia; her family fled the country amid civil war when she was a child, and she became a U.S. citizen as a teenager. All four women won election to Congress in 2018.
But never mind:
“Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” Trump continued in the tweets. “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!”
So he was sticking up for Pelosi. They called her a racist. They should get the hell out now. He stands up for his friends, like Nancy, which was amusing:
Trump’s comments prompted a sharp response from Pelosi, who described them as racist and divisive.
“When @realDonaldTrump tells four American Congresswomen to go back to their countries, he reaffirms his plan to ‘Make America Great Again’ has always been about making America white again,” she said in a tweet. “Our diversity is our strength and our unity is our power.”
And then “the four” had their say:
The four Democratic lawmakers also fired back at Trump on Twitter. Omar wrote that “As Members of Congress, the only country we swear an oath to is the United States.”
Pressley said in a statement that “it should come as no surprise that a man who has made it his goal to dehumanize and rip apart immigrant families would so brazenly display the racism that drives his policies.”
Tlaib warned Trump, “I am fighting corruption in OUR country. Keep talking, you’ll be out of the WH soon.”
Ocasio-Cortez sent a string of tweets defiantly addressing the president. “You are angry because you can’t conceive of an America that includes us,” she said. “You rely on a frightened America for your plunder.”
Trump may have blundered here:
Within a few hours on Sunday, Democratic lawmakers were united in defending their colleagues against Trump’s attack.
“I’ve been trying to figure out how to bring everybody together – I think the president just did that for us,” Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) said. “Nobody in our caucus is going to tolerate that kind of hatred.”
Dingell, whose suburban Detroit constituency includes one of the largest Muslim American populations of any House district, said Trump’s tweet “reinforces the fear of so many people in this country.”
Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) responded to Trump by recounting how, despite being born in the United States, he was repeatedly told to “go back to Mexico” throughout his life, regardless of his service in the Marine Corps or how well he did in school.
“To people like Trump I will never be American enough,” Gallego said in a tweet.
That put Trump on the defensive:
Later Sunday, Trump escalated his attacks on the four lawmakers, tweeting that it was “sad” to see Democrats “sticking up for people who speak so badly of our Country and who, in addition, hate Israel with a true and unbridled passion.” The remark appeared to be aimed at Omar, who has previously made comments that some say invoke anti-Semitic stereotypes, and Tlaib, who has advocated for a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Trump added that “whenever confronted,” the Democratic women “call their adversaries, including Nancy Pelosi, ‘RACIST,’ ” and argued that their remarks “must not be allowed to go unchallenged.”
And that is his explanation. He was sticking up for his friend Nancy. That’s all this was, which wasn’t that convincing:
Trump last year sparked uproar when he reportedly used the term “shithole” to refer to some countries in Africa and Latin America. He later denied making the remark. For years, Trump repeatedly raised doubts about former president Barack Obama’s birth certificate, making the issue part of his 2016 presidential run. He finally acknowledged in September 2016 that Obama was born in the United States – but falsely accused the campaign of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton of being the source of the rumor.
“Trump is now turning the same birtherism he directed at President Obama against women of color serving in Congress,” Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) said in a tweet. “Everyone should call this what it is: racism.”
That was the general idea, and Republicans decided to say as little as possible:
In television appearances, several Trump administration officials declined to defend the president’s tweets. They included Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and Mark Morgan, acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
“I think that you need to talk to the president about his specific tweets,” Morgan said on CBS News’ Face the Nation.
The New York Times’ Peter Baker was not surprised:
President Trump woke up on Sunday morning and gazed out at the nation he leads, saw the dry kindling of race relations, and decided to throw a match on it. It was not the first time, nor is it likely to be the last. He has a pretty large carton of matches and a ready supply of kerosene.
His Twitter harangue goading Democratic congresswomen of color to “go back” to the country they came from, even though most of them were actually born in the United States, shocked many. But it should have surprised few who have watched the way he has governed a multicultural, multiracial country the last two and a half years.
No one should have been surprised because this was the plan all along:
His assumption that the House Democrats must have been born in another country – or that they did not belong here if they were – fits an us-against-them political strategy that has been at the heart of Mr. Trump’s presidency from the start. Heading into next year’s election, he appears to be drawing a deep line between the white, native-born America of his memory and the ethnically diverse, increasingly foreign-born country he is presiding over, challenging voters in 2020 to declare which side of that line they are on.
“In many ways, this is the most insidious kind of racial demagoguery,” said Douglas A. Blackmon, the author of “Slavery by Another Name,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning history of racial servitude in America between the Civil War and World War II. “The president has moved beyond invoking the obvious racial slanders of 50 years ago – clichés like black neighborhoods ‘on fire’ – and is now invoking the white supremacist mentality of the early 1900s, when anyone who looked ‘not white’ could be labeled as unwelcome in America.”
It goes back way before that of course, but Trump is not hiding a thing. He drew that line. Decide. Decide now. The New York Times’ Charles Blow argues that Trump is using his own racism to appeal to the racism in the people who support him:
The country Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib and Pressley “originally came from” is this one. They were born in America. Omar was a refugee from Somalia. But this is the most important fact: They aren’t white, and they are women. They are “other” in the framing of the white nationalists. They are descendants of Africa, the Middle East and Latin America.
And that makes all the difference:
The central framing of this kind of thinking is that this is a white country, founded and built by white men, and destined to be maintained as a white country. For anyone to be accepted as truly American they must assimilate and acquiesce to that narrative, to bow to that heritage and bend to those customs.
It sees a country from which black and brown people come as deficient – “a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world” – because, at its base, it sees black and brown people as deficient…
It chafes when these black and brown women from exotic-sounding places with exotic-sounding names would dare to challenge the white patriarchy in this country. Why do they not know their place? Why do they not genuflect to the gentry? Why do they not recognize – and honor – the white man’s superiority?
Blow thinks he knows why they won’t recognize and honor the white man’s superiority:
The entire white supremacist ideology and ethos is a lie. America expanded much of its territory through the shedding of blood and breaking of treaties with Native Americans. It established much of its wealth through 250 years of exploiting black bodies for free labor. And, for the entire history of this country, some degree of anti-blackness has existed. Now, there is an intensifying anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant xenophobia.
Some might argue that’s just not true, but Blow, who is black, says at least this is true:
There can be no more discussion or debate about whether or not Trump is a racist. He is. There can be no more rhetorical juggling about not knowing what’s in his heart. We see what flows out of it.
White people and whiteness are the center of the Trump presidency. His primary concern is to defend, protect and promote it. All that threatens it must be attacked and assaulted. Trump is bringing the force of the American presidency to the rescue of white supremacy. And, self-identified Republicans absolutely love him for it.
And that leaves this:
We are watching a very dark chapter in this nation’s history unfold in real time. We are watching as a president returns naked racism to the White House. And we are watching as fellow citizens – possibly a third of them – reveal to us their open animus for us through their continued support of him.
But it’s not just Trump. Dina Nayeri introduces another character in this drama:
On Wednesday night, Fox News host Tucker Carlson attacked Congresswoman Ilhan Omar for her ingratitude. “After everything America has done for Omar and for her family,” Carlson told his viewers, “she hates this country more than ever.” He called it “ominous” that Omar should have such disdain for his country’s values. “Our country rescued Ilhan Omar from the single worst place on earth,” said Carlson. “We didn’t do it to get rich – in fact it cost us money. We did it because we are kind people. How did Ilhan Omar respond to the remarkable gift we gave her? She scolded us and called us names.”
Now that Donald Trump has stopped listening to Sean Hannity and instead seems to listen to Tucker Carlson to discover what he should be thinking, this is significant:
There is so much miseducation and bad faith in that tiny word “we”. Carlson had nothing to do with Omar’s rescue from Somalia. He is just a privileged man who won the lottery of birth. If it were up to him, she would never have been allowed in. But even if he had been the very asylum officer who swung the door open for Omar’s family, the “we” implies that a place in America was his to give, that he is somehow entitled to (but she has been gifted) the freedoms and education and powerful voices they both enjoy.
And that make Omar an ungrateful bitch:
I don’t watch Carlson’s show. I found out about this incident because I have a Google alert for “ungrateful refugee,” a term his followers began to throw around shortly after his comments aired. That phrase also happens to be the name of my new book and a major intellectual and philosophical preoccupation since I escaped Iran in 1988 and arrived in the U.S. via an Italian refugee camp 16 months later – at 10 years old, the same age Omar was when she arrived.
For reference, the book is The Ungrateful Refugee: What Immigrants Never Tell You – an extended excerpt appeared the Guardian – and this is the woman:
Dina Nayeri (born 1979) is an Iranian American novelist, essayist, and short story writer…
Nayeri was born in Isfahan, Iran. Her mother was a doctor and her father a dentist. She spent the first 8 years of her life in Isfahan but fled Iran with her mother and brother Daniel in 1988 because her mother had converted to Christianity and the moral police of the Islamic Republic had threatened her with execution. Nayeri, her mother and her brother spent two years in Dubai and Rome as asylum seekers and eventually settled in Oklahoma, in the United States. Her father remained in Iran, where he still lives. When she was 15, in 1994, she became an American citizen, alongside her mother and brother.
Nayeri holds a Bachelor of Arts from Princeton University and a Master of Education and MBA from Harvard University. She also holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
And now she says this:
The term “ungrateful refugee” is designed specifically to remind us that immigrants will never be as American as the native-born, no matter how much time passes, how much good they do for their new country, and what citizenship they obtain. It is a calculated attempt to reinforce nativist power dynamics between the children of the rooted and the children of the displaced, to remind the latter that they will forever owe their lives to someone else. And yet, it is uttered most often by those who have never had or will ever have anything to do with anyone’s rescue – these are, in fact, the very people who wish to shut the door and throw away the key.
More baffling is that the term “ungrateful refugee” goes against one of Carlson’s (and his fans’) own loudest beliefs: the call for a quick assimilation. Though these nativists don’t actually care what goes on in the hearts and minds of migrants and refugees, they want them to posture weakness, thankfulness, subjection, and then a full and visible transformation – quick, theatrical Americanness for the benefit of the native-born. “You’ve had five, 10 years here,” they think. “Learn our ways already.”
But that’s the problem, because they may learn actual American ways:
If a person is to assimilate and become American, they have to be allowed to participate in the American democratic process. They have to be able to think freely, to make arguments, to arrive at different conclusions than their neighbors, teachers, and, cable news personalities do. To be told they must agree with some segment of the native-born is undemocratic and absurd.
Is Carlson suggesting that giving asylum to Omar was a bad decision because she has different ideas than he does? Putting aside the value of her life, does the fact that, like Carlson himself, Omar has political ideas and critiques of her country disqualify her to be his peer? Does he expect that her private gratitude should lead her to give up her agency, her freedom of thought? Should a churchgoing American be assigned to do her thinking for her?
Carlson sees Omar as “a living fire alarm, a warning to the rest of us” about what can happen when you let in immigrants like her. How does he plan to decide who is homegrown enough to police the political engagement of newer citizens?
And that’s where this all falls apart:
Carlson doesn’t care about the intellectual hollowness of his argument because his concern isn’t genuine. He doesn’t think that participating in democracy is harmful to America or to the people who welcomed her family. He’s afraid only for himself.
The same can be said of Donald Trump.
Does Trump actually believe that the intelligence and capability of this American-raised and educated woman come into question because of the failings of the Somalian government she escaped? Does he think that everyone born in America has a hand in its success and everyone who was born in a ravaged country is similarly responsible for its ruin? Am I, a woman who escaped the Islamic Republic at eight, responsible for its atrocities?
No. This isn’t about America’s welfare or Omar’s qualifications. Quite the opposite: Trump and Carlson see Omar’s potential and are desperate to clip her wings – and the wings of every immigrant who may come into her gifts on American soil.
In short, these men see a read danger:
These men understand that the most powerful immigrants – those they see as threats – are the ones who actually took their vile instructions to heart and did everything we were asked to do. We became American, and highly educated ones too. In so changing, we found our voices. We saw that, though we were born in far unluckier places, we have all the same talents as our Western-born peers. We saw that we can compete and win. We learned that in America, if you see injustice or hypocrisy, you don’t bow lower, always afraid of being tossed back to the hell you once knew. You fight for every hard-earned belief.
They became American, and they left Trump and Carlson far behind:
These are mediocre men raised at the trough of extreme Western privilege. They have taken from the poorest countries, from the poorest families in America, in a thousand ways. They hope the day never comes that new arrivals will get up, cast off their trauma and shame, and assert the right to participate in the great project of America. Because if new immigrants allow themselves to be full citizens with voices, then what would winning the birth lottery do for Trump or Carlson or for their children?
They would have to compete with all the talented children of the world, instead of just the ones born here, in the land of the lucky few who control and consume all the earth’s bounty.
That might explain Trump’s tweets. “Why don’t you go back to where you came from?”
The answer is still the same. It doesn’t work that way.
Liberia was a bad idea. The American Colonization Society was a bad idea. In his second term, Abraham Lincoln publicly abandoned the idea of colonization after speaking with Frederick Douglass about the matter, and that was that. But now the Republican Party is once again the American Colonization Society. We’re going backwards.