On Sunday morning, though journalists and talkshow experts were busy discussing visits to two migrant detention centers by Vice-President Mike Pence and Senator Lindsey Graham, Donald Trump sought to change the subject by upping the ante.
As discussion whirled around the deplorable conditions that immigrant men, women and children are facing, Trump refocused the attention on himself by signifying that US congresswomen of color were the ones who should voluntarily deport themselves back to the countries they came from.
On Twitter, his very own digital bully pulpit, the president wrote: “So interesting to see ‘Progressive’ Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe … 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.”
He enfolded up his tirade saying: “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally wrecked and crime infested places from which they came.”
There’s just one problem: three of the four women he was clearly pointing – Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omay – were born in the United States. And Omar, whose family runaway Somalia and came to the United States when she was a child, has been a US citizen her entire adult life.
They are Americans; and this is their country. Of course, in worldview of Trump, the women’s actual birthplaces and citizenship are irrelevant.
Instead, his comments suggest that “real Americans” are exactly two things: white and Christian.
And the entire of his presidency has been an attempt to push this view by linking symbols of America with an exclusionary ethnic and religious nationalism.
This is not a new expansion. From the day Trump stated his presidency in 2015 to his tweeting this past weekend, his rhetoric and actions have made it clear that he holds an exclusionary view of who he considers can be American and who can lay claim to the rights and honors of citizenship. His political career took flight with his birtherism claims that blamed Barack Obama of being neither American nor Christian. He launched his campaign by announcing Mexicans drug-dealing rapists, and he assured; and tried to institute a ban on people from majority-Muslim countries entering the United States.
He acknowledged black NFL players unpatriotic and un-American for kneeling during the playing of the national anthem, saying, “Maybe they shouldn’t be in the country.”
In the meantime, when an all—white hockey team included of mostly foreign players visited the White House, he called them “incredible patriots”. He has no importance in black immigrants from “shithole countries” and would much prefer immigrants from Norway, which is one of the whitest countries in the world. The list of such slights is boundless.
His most common assessment of all who disagree with him or critique his presidency to include members of Congress – is to announce that they are trying to “destroy our country” and that they hate America.
And he protects his harshest words for people of color. Equally, those who agree with him are patriots, love the flag, love the military, and simply want to make America great again.
What Trump is doing is commandeering the American civil religion and using it to push a divisive ethno-religious nationalism that demonizes people of color and of other faiths.
The idea of an American civil religion was defined in a seminal 1967 essay by Berkeley professor Robert Bellah. In it, he claimed there are certain rudiments of American institutions that “provide a religious measurement for the whole fabric of American life, with the political sphere” and are “uttered in a set of beliefs, symbols, and rituals”.
Amongst the numerous sacraments of this civil religion are the Declaration of Independence, the American flag, the national anthem, and ceremonial places and events like Arlington National Ceremony and presidential inaugurations.
But scholars have long noted the danger of civil religion being used by states and political bests as a means to shape and operate the public. One of its decentralizations is a religious nationalism that, as the Princeton professor Philip Gorski writes, is a “toxic blend of apocalyptic religion and imperial enthusiasm that envisions the United States as a righteous nation charged with a divine commission to rid the world of evil”. It endorses the demonization of others who dare disapprove the nation and encourages views of them as evil. The nation’s symbols and leaders become its personifications, and thus, beyond scrutiny. So all who don’t revere Trump are cast as enemies of the state and deemed a threat to the American identity.
A March 2017 Associated Press-NORC poll found that seven in 10 Americans believe the country is losing its identity, but there was little agreement on what the primary threats were.
This approach plays on the fears that changes occurring in the United States are disrupting the American way of life.
For Trump’s party, its members felt that illegal immigration was the biggest threat to the American identity. And they believe that speaking English and partaking a culture based on Christian beliefs and European values are at the core of the nation’s identity. Sociologists Rhys Williams suggests this is a result of the sub rosa association that makes “white Christian American” the baseline and default cultural understanding of the United States.
The president has intertwined these worries and the supposed threat felt by some of white America with a clinging to the nation’s symbols, even going so far as to literally hug the flag at times, as way of laying claim to “real Americanism” for himself and his supporters. This essentially means that he considers those who oppose him and his presidency particularly those who are people of color or of other faiths must be lesser versions of American.