Last Monday, Donald Trump gave a speech about the terrorist attack that had occurred over the weekend at a gay nightclub in Orlando. Among his many notable comments was the somewhat alarming way in which he referenced the shooter, Omar Mateen, saying he was “born an Afghan, in the United States.” Mateen might have pledged his allegiance to ISIS, but he was nevertheless an American citizen. Trump’s comment, although perhaps seemingly innocuous, reveals that the presumptive Republican nominee thinks about citizenship and nationality in a distinctly un-American way.
Trump’s remarks are part of his heavy nationalist overtones that encourage an “us” versus “them” approach to conceptualizing America, where “us” means the white working class, the “real” Americans, and “them” refers to everyone else. Trump wants to “Make America Great Again” by closing the borders and limiting trade, the standard mantra nationalists trot out throughout the world, especially right-wing, anti-European Union parties in Europe. Saying Mateen was born an Afghan is just another way to inflame this narrative that some U.S. citizens aren’t really Americans.
His statement indicates that it doesn’t matter if someone was born in America, that person’s country of origin is where their true nationality lies.
America Is About Ideas, Not Ethnicity
As usual, Trump has is all wrong. The entire project of America is rooted in the fact that you don’t have to be from any particular place or claim a certain ethnic background to be an American. This is part of what makes America so exceptional. It’s what the country was built on, the idea that anyone can come and make his home here and become a citizen. We have birthright citizenship, which means if you were born in America you get to become a U.S. citizen, regardless of your ethnic heritage.
All of this is of a piece with what Trump has said previously about Judge Gonzalo Curiel, the federal judge in the Southern District of California presiding over the lawsuit against Trump University. Trump has repeatedly claimed Curiel was biased and should recuse himself from the case based solely on the fact that he is the child of Mexican immigrants, although Curiel was born in Indiana.
Trump claimed that his own position of wanting to build a wall between the United States and Mexico was surely offensive to the judge because of his “Mexican heritage,” and that the judge’s objectivity was thus hampered. Despite being given numerous opportunities to rescind or apologize for these absurd statements, in true Trump fashion, he doubled down, indicating it wasn’t just a slip of the tongue: he really meant it. Trump might want to put America first, but he doesn’t see his fellow citizens as Americans first.
This is further evidence Trump really doesn’t understand America. One of the things that makes our country so special is that anyone can be an American. This is why, in part, there’s a self-selecting group of immigrants who tend to come to the United States. They want to take part in a country that allows them to retain their religion and culture, but doesn’t question their Americanness.
We Used to Be Different from Europe
A French friend once remarked to me how surprised she was to find that immigrants in New York City expressed such positive attitudes toward America when asked about it. This was utterly foreign based on her experience in France, where immigrants feel disgruntled and ostracized (she was of North African origin). She couldn’t believe immigrants in America loved their adopted country so much.
There are a lot of reasons for this, including economic opportunities. But on a more basic level, it’s the fact that we don’t have the same idea of nationalism that a country like France has, where being “French” is so wrapped up in ethnicity, language, and patrimony. National identity is an important concept in most European countries and it’s very difficult to break into the “native” group.
This doesn’t mean there haven’t been periods of tension in American history, when waves of immigrants have come from new countries and were treated as outsiders, as with Irish or Italian Catholics. But ultimately these tensions work themselves out, so that in 1960 John F. Kennedy, himself an Irish Catholic, was able to be elected president.
Trump is, in part, reacting to the ultra-politically-correct culture of our times and our current president, Barack Obama. He thinks if no one is willing to talk about Islamic extremism he’ll go two steps further and talk about how this guy was an Afghan, no matter where he was born. But by doing this he’s tipping his hand and letting us know that, to him, ethnicity trumps citizenship—even in America.
This is a slippery slope because it can lead to making policies for certain parts of the populace based on their ethnicity, something that would violate their basic rights as U.S. citizens. These fundamental rights are something that Americans can’t afford to lose, no matter where their parents were born.