WASHINGTON — President Trump’s attacks on four first-term lawmakers of color have reopened a debate on the nature of patriotism and dissent. The rhetoric in his flurry of remarks echoes an old phrase last commonly heard in the Nixon era:
America, love it or leave it.
The theme continued at a rally in North Carolina Wednesday night, when Trump disparaged each of the representatives, including Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, who was born in Somalia but is a naturalized citizen. The crowd chanted, ‘‘Send her back!’’
In his remarks, Trump told the crowd: “You know what, if they don’t love it tell ‘em to leave it.”
What started out as a demand for Omar and fellow Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib to “go back” to their ancestral homelands has morphed into a call for a stringent form of patriotism where criticism of the country is not allowed — a charge that’s being amplified by Republican lawmakers who were less eager to defend Trump’s initial tweets.
“The idea of America: love it or leave it is as old as the country itself,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University. “The question is: Who are the ‘real Americans?’ And that question rises in the public sphere every 30 or 40 years.”
It can be traced back to the 1800s, when immigrants were demonized and suspected of importing radical ideas, like labor organizing. In the early 20th century, the patriotism of activists and political opponents was questioned as some Americans were stripped of their citizenship for espousing beliefs the government disapproved of.
But Trump’s suggestion echoes one period in particular: the turbulent 1960s and ’70s, when “America: Love it or Leave it” emerged as a slogan on bumper stickers and in country songs, and helped boost Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign.
That pithy response to antiwar and civil rights protesters is emblematic of a larger tension throughout US history: Is criticizing the country unpatriotic and disloyal, as Trump suggests, or an expression of love for the country, as Democrats say? And who is considered “American” enough to criticize the country in the first place?
Republican lawmakers say that their problem is with the rhetoric of the four lawmakers known as “the Squad,” not their race or ethnicity.
“ ‘America, love it or leave it,’ is not a new sentiment nor a radical sentiment, and it certainly is not a racist sentiment,” Representative Tom McClintock, a California Republican, said on the House floor Tuesday as lawmakers debated a resolution condemning Trump’s earlier comments as racist. “It should remind us of commonly held and enduring founding principles that ought to be uniting us as a free people.”
A Democratic congresswoman shot back at him shortly afterward. “What is love if not to make what we love better through our critique, our work, and our service?” Representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington said during the debate, which ended with the House voting to condemn Trump’s comments. “That is what real Americans do.”
While Trump and his defenders are casting this “love it or leave it” argument as a race-blind statement of American values, it sounds very familiar to some civil rights protesters, who were told their activism against segregation was unpatriotic decades ago.
“I was arrested in 1960 trying to get into a public library,” said the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a former presidential candidate and prominent civil rights activist. “We were told ‘love it or leave it.’ It was just a way of saying we didn’t belong.”
Jackson remembered the slogan being thrown at him as he marched against Jim Crow restrictions on voting, hotels and motels that wouldn’t allow black customers, and other racist laws. “We can love the country without accepting the premise that we’re not full people,” he said.
That’s a similar argument to the one that the four first-term congresswomen are making.
“We don’t leave the things that we love, and when we love this country what that means is that we propose the solutions to fix it,” Ocasio-Cortez said Monday.
In the past, however, painting political opponents and activists as un-American has worked. Nixon rode the anger many felt over civil rights and antiwar activists demanding change to a overwhelming victory over George McGovern, who referenced the slogan in his nominating speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1972.
“We reject the view of those who say, ‘America, love it or leave it’,” McGovern said then. “We reply, ‘Let us change it so we can love it more.’ ”
Massachusetts Representative Jim McGovern, who worked for George McGovern during his later bid for the presidency, said that he see similarities in Trump’s attacks now.
“It bothers me that Trump is trying to regurgitate an old Nixon tactic because it really goes against what this country is about,” said McGovern, who is not related to the late presidential candidate. “It’s about instilling fear, it’s about trying to characterize people with a different point of view as being Other.”
Ironically, the president was an avid critic of the country’s policies before he assumed office — and yet didn’t feel the need to leave. He called the country a “laughingstock” or said the world was laughing at America more than 100 times, according to a Washington Post analysis, and also repeatedly questioned whether President Barack Obama was born in the United States.
Even his political slogan, Make America Great Again, suggested the country was not, currently, great. And his inaugural address presented a dark portrait of a country many might want to flee, including “mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities” and “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation.”
“This American carnage stops right here and stops right now,” he declared.
Since then, his tone has changed. “Our Country is Free, Beautiful and Very Successful. If you hate our Country, or if you are not happy here, you can leave!” Trump tweeted Tuesday.
Liz Goodwin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @lizcgoodwin