Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump turns away from the cameras as he speaks at a town hall event in Appleton, Wis., March 30, 2016.
Photo by Mark Kauzlarich/Reuters

Shifting the debate from race to patriotism doesn’t do Trump any favors

In the White House Cabinet Room yesterday, a reporter asked Donald Trump whether he’d be willing to avoid the phrase “go back to your country.” The president ignored the question and stuck to the latest Republican strategy: shift the debate from race to patriotism.

“I think it’s terrible when people speak so badly about our country, when people speak so horribly.” Trump replied. “I have a list of things here … said by the congresswomen that is so bad, so horrible, that I almost don’t want to read it. It’s so bad.”

In fairness, some comments are tough to overlook. When Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), for example, argued that the United States is a corrupt country that’s “going to hell,” she should’ve expected an angry backlash from those who prioritize patriotism.

Wait, did I say that was a quote from the Minnesota congresswoman? It was actually Donald Trump who said that – just one month before he launched his campaign in 2015.

Part of the problem with his current gambit is that the president can’t – or at least, shouldn’t – pretend that his attacks against congresswomen of color are unrelated to race. It’s far too late for that.

But the other part of the problem is that Trump is under the mistaken impression that a fight over patriotism leaves him on stronger ground. As this New York Times analysis helps make clear, it really doesn’t.

America stinks. At least that’s what Donald J. Trump seemed to be saying before becoming president.

He did not believe in “American exceptionalism,” he said, because America was not exceptional. Instead, it was a “laughingstock” that was no better than Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia. By promising to make America great again, he made it clear that he believed it was not great anymore.

The analysis added that Trump is “the president who trash-talked America more than any other in modern times.”

The Washington Post ran a related piece this week, highlighting instances in which the Republican said the United States has “lost all sense of direction or purpose” and has become “stupid.”

I recently pulled together some related examples, including one instance in which Trump whined about “how bad the United States is.”

Jon Chait added soon after, in reference to Trump, “That a man who has expressed contempt for American governing ideals and has cooperated with its enemies while chasing secret payoffs from them can win the presidency is outrageous. That such a man can then run for reelection by accusing his opponents of lacking patriotism positively boggles the mind. Trump has to be the most unpatriotic major-party presidential candidate in American history.”

My point is not that Trump should be encouraged to pack his bags over his repeated criticisms of the United States and his stated belief that we’re a “bad” country. He’s entitled to his opinions.

Sure, it’s a little weird to have an American president who’s disparaged his own country so aggressively, but Trump was well within his rights to register his dissatisfaction with our country, and no one should try to silence him or stifle his ability to malign the United States.

But given Trump’s rhetorical record and the eagerness with which he’s denigrated our country, it’s a little tough to stomach his claim to the patriotic high ground.

“I think it’s terrible when people speak so badly about” the United States, the president said yesterday. When Trump is ready to denounce all of his previous criticisms of the country, he should certainly let us know.