President Trump had no regrets about the firestorm he ignited last weekend when, in a taunting series of tweets, he advised four radical congresswomen to “go back” to their “broken and crime-infested” native countries. Representatives Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley are minorities, and all but Omar were born in the United States, so Trump’s tweets were instantly and widely condemned as racist and nativist.
Unfazed, Trump doubled down, denouncing the self-described squad of freshmen Democrats who “speak so badly of our country” and say “many terrible things” about the United States. “These are people that hate our country,” Trump told reporters at the White House on Monday. He kept it up at a Wednesday rally, attacking critics who “constantly. . . tear our country down” and insisting they don’t belong in America: “If they don’t love it, tell them to leave it,” he said.
Omar and the others certainly have said some “terrible things.” From leveling promiscuous charges of racism to imputing disloyalty to supporters of Israel to suggesting that American society is “garbage,” their rhetoric has at times been deeply unpleasant and even toxic.
But when it comes to bad-mouthing the United States, “the Squad” doesn’t hold a candle to Donald J. Trump.
For years, Trump has been disparaging his country, maligning its heroes, and praising its enemies. He took office in January 2017 with the bleakest inaugural address in US history, describing America not as a place of optimism and accomplishment, but of “carnage.” His acceptance speech at the Republican convention six months earlier had been even darker. Trump had sketched a grim and funereal portrait of the United States, portraying it as a nation mired in crime, chaos, poverty, and death — a pathetic victim of both “domestic disaster” and “international humiliation.” As he ran for the White House on a vow to make America great again, Trump repeatedly made it clear that he thought America was not great anymore.
Indeed, Trump thought America’s failings were so egregious that it had no business criticizing other countries’ bad behavior. “When the world looks at how bad the United States is, and then we go and talk about civil liberties, I don’t think we’re a very good messenger,” he told The New York Times. He rejected the idea that America was uniquely positioned to promote democracy and freedom in the world, or to put pressure on dictatorships that trample human rights. “I don’t know that we have a right to lecture,” Trump said. “We have to fix our own mess.”
American patriotism has long been entwined with a belief in American exceptionalism; Abraham Lincoln famously extolled the United States as “the last, best hope of Earth.” But Trump disdains American exceptionalism. The very idea is “insulting” to the rest of the world, he told Piers Morgan in a 2013 interview, fulsomely praising Vladimir Putin for a published column in which the Kremlin’s ruler denied that America was unique. Asked at a Tea Party forum in 2015 how to “grow” American exceptionalism, he recommended that it be stifled instead.
“I don’t like the term,” Trump replied. “I don’t think it’s a very nice term.” He belittled the notion that the United States was “more outstanding” than other countries. “You’ve been eating our lunch for the last 20 years, but we’re more exceptional than you?”
It is of course a longstanding trope of Trump’s that America is constantly being humiliated by its friends and trading partners. “We don’t have victories anymore,” he lamented when he announced his presidential candidacy. “When did we beat Japan at anything?. . . When do we beat Mexico at the border? They’re laughing at us, at our stupidity.”
Yet even as Trump portrays America as a pitiable dupe of its allies, he simultaneously derides America as a malefactor no better than its enemies. On one notable occasion, Trump was challenged by a TV interviewer to explain how he could respect “a killer” like Putin.
“There are a lot of killers,” Trump responded, “We’ve got a lot of killers. What do you think? Our country’s so innocent?”
Trump has been vilifying Omar, Ocasio-Cortez, and the other congresswomen because, he says, they “hate our country.” But for years, he has spoken with open admiration of violent thugs and tyrants who really do hate our country. In addition to Putin, Trump has praised Kim Jong Un for his “incredible” ruthlessness in killing his rivals, applauded China’s Communist regime for showing its “power of strength” at Tiananmen Square, and hailed Saddam Hussein for his efficiency in eliminating terrorists. It’s a strange sort of patriot who expresses such esteem for America’s psychopathic, homicidal adversaries, yet has only contempt and slurs for four elected members of Congress.
For that matter, it’s a strange sort of patriot who goes out of his way to belittle the wartime sacrifice of an American POW like John McCain. It’s a strange sort of patriot who mocks a Gold Star mother like Ghazala Khan, whose son, a US Army captain, was killed in action in Iraq. It’s a strange sort of patriot who likens America’s intelligence agencies to those of Nazi Germany. It’s a strange sort of patriot who boasts on the radio that having sex with many women was his “Vietnam,” and that he deserved a “Congressional Medal of Honor” for not picking up a venereal disease.
“Say whatever you will about the president’s tactics, there can be no question as to his love of our country,” one Trump loyalist wrote the other day in a Newsweek essay. Actually, Trump’s whole career raises endless questions on that score. Everyone knows that the president is in love with himself, but has he ever shown genuine affection for this country and its institutions? As he berates four congresswomen for not loving America, it’s hard not to wonder: Does he?