It didn’t receive a rebuke from the House, but President Donald Trump did something else this week, apart from his racist tweets against a quartet of Democratic congresswomen, that many saw as ugly and contrary to American values.
Addressing the furor at a press conference on Monday, Trump hurled another line of attack against the four lawmakers, accusing them of “hating” the United States and suggesting they leave the country if they’re not happy here.
“All I’m saying is, if they’re not happy here, they can leave. There will be many people who will be happy,” Trump told reporters at the White House.
“If you hate our Country, or if you are not happy here, you can leave!” he added in a tweet on Tuesday.
Suggesting a person ought to leave the country if they disagree with how it is being governed betrays a fundamental ignorance of the rights to free speech and expression, something the nation’s founders understood as vital to democracy.
In fact, before he launched his bid for the White House, Trump himself often railed against “very stupid” government leaders. As a candidate, he sharply criticized U.S. policy, and in his inaugural address, he used stark imagery to describe a broken nation riddled with crime and poverty.
But wrapping oneself in the flag ― or, in Trump’s case, hugging it ― to slam opponents as somehow un-American isn’t a new tactic. During the George W. Bush administration, for example, Republicans routinely declared Democrats unpatriotic if they opposed the costly Iraq War. Bush administration officials also suggested that people who disagreed with the administration’s anti-terrorism policies were on the side of the terrorists.
In fact, the sentiments Trump expressed this week have been used again and again throughout U.S. history.
“It reminds me of during the Vietnam War, where I was one of the protesters, and there was this whole ‘Love it or Leave It’ thing, and those were not good times,” Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) told HuffPost on Tuesday.
Trump’s attacks didn’t initially name the Democratic congresswomen he was targeting, but they were almost certainly Reps. Ilhan Omar (Minn.), Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) and Ayanna Pressley (Mass.) ― all outspoken freshmen who have recently butted heads with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). The progressive quartet responded to the president’s attack during a press conference at the Capitol on Monday.
“When people say, ‘If you say a negative thing about this country, you hate this country,’” Omar said, “to me, it sort of speaks to the hypocrisy.”
“Weak minds and leaders challenge loyalty to our country in order to avoid debating the policy,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “This president doesn’t know how to defend his policies, so what he does is attack us personally.”
Trump’s comments were later overshadowed somewhat, as a House debate on a Democratic resolution condemning the president for his tweets devolved into chaos. The lower chamber ultimately voted 240-187 to denounce Trump’s statements as racist, with just four Republicans joining all Democrats in support of the resolution.
In the Senate, Republican members were more willing to break with Trump over his latest comments and voice support for one’s right to political dissent.
“If you’re unhappy with something in our country, I think the right course is to follow the political process, the constitutional process, and try and fight for change in the direction you think is needed,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) told HuffPost.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) said that freedom of speech is “what our country was built on.”
Even those who defended Trump over his racist tweets acknowledged that the progressive congresswomen have a right to speak out.
“Our country has been one that’s protected the right to free speech. The First Amendment’s very important,” Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) said. “But it also allows us to confront ideas and a movement that’s moving radically to the left. That’s a concern I have.”
This article has been updated with Hirono’s remarks.