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Confused About Trump’s Twitter Rant? Look to the Birther Movement

When President Donald Trump said Sunday to suggest that American representatives critical of U.S. policy should go back to where they came from, a firestorm of backlash erupted both online and through traditional media channels.

While Trump did not name his targets, whom he referred to as "'Progressive' Democrat Congresswomen," in the tweet, his critique was widely understood to be about freshmen members of Congress sometimes referred to as “the squad,” namely Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Ayanna Pressley. 

Trump suggested they “originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe,” and they should instead “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came.”

Democrats expressed outrage and even shock that the president could insinuate that U.S. elected representatives were somehow inauthentically American. Republicans, for the most part, were silent, though Texas Republican Rep. Chip Roy tweeted that it was “wrong to say any American citizen, whether in Congress or not, has any ‘home’ besides the US.”

Anyone looking for clues to Trump’s latest racially-fueled remarks need look no further than his original political conspiracy: the birther movement.

As early as 2011, Trump began echoing a conspiracy (first launched by fringe political candidate Andy Martin) calling for then-President Barack Obama’s birth certificate, insinuating that the Hawaii-born politician was not, in fact, an American.

At the heart of Trump’s latest criticism Sunday is the same ugly nut of the birther movement: a suspicion that people of color, and especially Americans from immigrant families, are somehow less authentically American. It's a conspiracy theory that can be traced further, too, finding its roots as far back as mid-19th century nativism and the idea that immigrants—and their children—cannot have the interests of so-called "native" Americans in mind.

First, the facts are important. To begin, the congresswomen in question, Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, Omar, and Pressley, are all Americans. All except Omar—who came to the country at the age of 12 as a Somalian refugee—were born in the U.S.

The tweet from Trump came as the four Congresswomen have been speaking out against Trump’s policy of family separation and ICE raids. Several of the congresswomen were quick to point out that Trump’s remarks came as they led mass protests over the treatment of immigrants attempting to cross into the U.S.

Trump’s tweets about the congresswomen echoed most closely his own history with birtherism vis-à vis Obama. The claim that Obama was not born in the U.S., a falsehood that Trump admitted in 2016, was a lie that the president continued to tout for years, both at numerous public appearances and on television. Trump even said on the Laura Ingraham show in 2011 that Obama’s birth certificate would list him as “Muslim” (religion is not in any way listed on U.S. birth certificates). Claiming that Obama was neither American nor Christian was a way to paint him as the other in every possible way. 

The roots of birtherism find their ideological roots in a much older American political tradition—the so-called Nativist movement that started to spring up nearly 200 years ago. The xenophobic Know-Nothing party of the mid-19th century reached its height in the 1850s, with more than 100 representatives in Congress, campaigning on a fiercely anti-immigrant platform. Two of their main goals were to ban all Catholics from government office and to impose a 21-year naturalization period for all immigrants. Posters called Catholics “vile imposters, liars, villains, and cowardly cutthroats” and depicted immigrants as ignorant drunks, the Smithsonian reported.

The question of who is unquestionably American has often fallen along the arbitrary lines of skin color. As Irish-American Congressman Brendan Boyle put it: “I’m young, from an immigrant family, also very critical of Trump. Funny thing though, he never tells me to ‘go back where I come from.’ Hmm I wonder why?” For his part, precisely none of Trump’s grandparents, and only one of his parents, was born in the U.S. And yet, no one has led a crusade to force Trump to produce a birth certificate. 

“THIS is what racism looks like. WE are what democracy looks like. And we’re not going anywhere,” tweeted Rep. Pressley of Massachusetts. 

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