Donald Trump has made it clear: the only 'real Americans' are white and Christian

Theodore R Johnson
Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

On Sunday morning, while journalists and talkshow pundits were busy discussing visits to two migrant detention centers by Vice-President Mike Pence and Senator Lindsey Graham, Donald Trump sought to change the subject by upping the ante.

As conversation swirled around the deplorable conditions that immigrant men, women and children are facing, Trump refocused the attention on himself by suggesting that US congresswomen of color were the ones who should voluntarily deport themselves back to the countries they came from.

On Twitter, his very own digital bully pulpit, the president wrote: “So interesting to see ‘Progressive’ Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe … 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.”

He wrapped up his tirade saying: “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”

There’s just one problem: three of the four women he was obviously targeting – Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omay – were born in the United States. And Omar, whose family escaped Somalia and came to the United States when she was a child, has been a US citizen her entire adult life.

They are Americans, and this is their country. Of course, in Trump’s worldview, the women’s actual birthplaces and citizenship are immaterial.

Instead, his remarks suggest that “real Americans” are precisely two things: white and Christian. And the whole of his presidency has been an attempt to push this view by linking symbols of America with an exclusionary ethnic and religious nationalism.

This is not a new development. From the day Trump declared his presidency in 2015 to his tweeting this past weekend, his rhetoric and actions have made it clear that he holds an exclusionary view of who he considers can be American and who can lay claim to the rights and privileges of citizenship. His political career took flight with his birtherism claims that accused Barack Obama of being neither American nor Christian. He launched his campaign by declaring Mexicans drug-dealing rapists, and he promised – and attempted – to institute a ban on people from majority-Muslim countries entering the United States. He declared black NFL players unpatriotic and un-American for kneeling during the playing of the national anthem, saying, “Maybe they shouldn’t be in the country.” Meanwhile, when an all-white hockey team comprised of mostly foreign players visited the White House, he called them “incredible patriots”. He has no interest in black immigrants from “shithole countries” and would much prefer immigrants from Norway, which is one of the whitest countries in the world. The list of such slights is endless.

His most common critique of all who disagree with him or critique his presidency – to include members of Congress – is to declare that they are trying to “destroy our country” and that they hate America. And he saves his harshest words for people of color. Conversely, those who agree with him are patriots, love the flag, love the military, and simply want to make America great again.

What Trump is doing is commandeering the American civil religion and using it to push a divisive ethnoreligious nationalism that demonizes people of color and of other faiths. The concept of an American civil religion was described in a seminal 1967 essay by Berkeley professor Robert Bellah. In it, he argued there are certain elements of American institutions that “provide a religious dimension for the whole fabric of American life, including the political sphere” and are “expressed in a set of beliefs, symbols, and rituals”. Among the many sacraments of this civil religion are the Declaration of Independence, the American flag, the national anthem, and ceremonial places and events like Arlington National Ceremony and presidential inaugurations.

But scholars have long noted the danger of civil religion being used by states and political elites as a means to shape and manipulate the public. One of its devolutions is a religious nationalism that, as the Princeton professor Philip Gorski writes, is a “toxic blend of apocalyptic religion and imperial zeal that envisions the United States as a righteous nation charged with a divine commission to rid the world of evil”. It promotes the demonization of others who dare criticize the nation and encourages views of them as evil. The nation’s symbols and leaders become its embodiments, and thus, beyond scrutiny. So all who don’t revere Trump are cast as enemies of the state and deemed a threat to the American identity.

This approach plays on the fears that changes occurring in the United States are disrupting the American way of life. A March 2017 Associated Press-NORC poll found that seven in 10 Americans believe the country is losing its identity, but there was little agreement on what the primary threats were. For Trump’s party, its members felt that illegal immigration was the biggest threat to the American identity. And they believe that speaking English and sharing a culture based on Christian beliefs and European values are at the core of the nation’s identity. Sociologists Rhys Williams suggests this is a result of the sub rosa association that makes “white Christian American” the baseline and default cultural understanding of the United States.

The president has intertwined these fears and the perceived threat felt by some of white America with a clinging to the nation’s symbols, even going so far as to literally hug the flag at times, as way of laying claim to “real Americanism” for himself and his supporters. This necessarily means that he considers those who oppose him and his presidency – especially those who are people of color or of other faiths – must be lesser versions of American.

And this is exactly what led to him telling four congresswomen of color – American citizens who represent millions of American citizens – to “go back” to some set of imagined countries of origin. Trump has hijacked the American civil religion, a concept that should serve as a basis for unity for citizens and used it in an attempt to further divide us along lines of race, party and religion in the name of political expediency.

With every word and action the president and his party – which has been eerily silent on his latest affront – take to entrench themselves in power by playing on fear in the public, they may cling closer to the symbols of America’s civil religion, but they are pulling the nation further from the principles those symbols are intended to espouse.