Last Sunday, in several tweets, US President Donald Trump told the multi-cultural, multi-racial and multi-ethnic nation he governs that four activist congresswomen of colour serving in the House of Representatives — Latin American Ayanna Pressley (Massachusetts), Palestinian American Rashida Tlaib (Michigan), Puerto-Rican American Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (New York) and Somali American Ilhan Omar (Minnesota) — should go back to their home countries “and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came”.
In a later tweet, he added: “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 (where 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”.
The fact though is that, with the exception of Omar, not only were the lawmakers he targeted American-born, and the incendiary tweets divisive and sure to exacerbate race relations, but the president’s posture was profoundly, unequivocally un-American.
America is unique. There is not now and there has never been a country like it in human history. Unlike other countries around the world today, including those in Europe, in which, since the second half of the 20th century, countless asylum seekers have found refuge but found no genuine opportunities for integration, this land we call America is known as a “nation of nations”, namely, a nation whose population is made up literally of people who come from, or whose ancestors have come from every cranny around the world. Unlike other nations, it has shown itself superbly adept at assimilating immigrants. Hey, that’s how America makes a living.
We’re all Americans, ordinary, level-headed Americans will tell you, whether our ancestors were white, Anglo-Saxons who arrived here on the Mayflower in 1620, seeking religious freedom in the New World; harrowed and beaten Irish men, women and children escaping the potato famine in their homeland in the mid 1840s; or brown-skinned East Asians in search of the American dream in recent decades. And, indeed, every other type of immigrant in between. That’s who we are, these ordinary, level-headed Americans will tell you.
‘Nation of nations’
That’s what America is all about, and it’s all inscribed on a bronze plague on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty — “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free … “ — from the sonnet by the American poet Emma Lazarus (d. 1887), herself the offspring of Jewish immigrants from Portugal. We do that America honour if we recognise how heavy is the burden of that glory.
And to say, as I will, that that greatness — the ability to create such unity within diversity from such a vast pool of manifold cultures and races — will likely never again be replicated in human history seems like a perfectly rational statement to make, though in the deepest sense a shocking statement, since it sets a defiant limit to human hope.
The irony here is that President Trump’s tweets have inadvertently served to remind us that America is becoming more, not less, the “nation of nations” that history has destined it to be. Representative Omar, for example, is far from being the only congressional lawmaker who had immigrated to the United States, or was born to immigrant parents. In the House, for example, there are currently at least 52 voting members who are immigrants or children of immigrants.
True, President Trump’s tweets have resulted in lead, front-page stories in the national media, and they elicited Democratic outrage on Capitol Hill.
As a case in point, Rashida Tlaib, who is of Palestinian descent and openly advocates a one-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, berated the president thus: “You are angry because you can’t conceive of an America that includes us”. Representative Justin Amash, who is now an Independent after giving up on the Republican Party recently, and is the child of Syrian and Palestinian immigrants, declared them as “racist”. And Representative Joaquin Castro, Democrat of Texas, and chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, called Mr. Trump a “bigot”. And that’s just a sample.
America is unique. There is not now and there has never been a country like it in human history.
The irony thickens. Trump’s tweets, it would appear, ended up uniting a House Democratic Caucus that had been torn apart in recent days by infighting between Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the four activist congresswomen of colour, known in the liberal media engagingly as The Squad.
Pelosi had the last word on the issue, that served both as rebuke to President Trump and as a statement about America. “Diversity is our strength”, she said. “Unity is our power”. Right on, Nancy!
— Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.