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Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) says he disagrees with the notion advocated by President Donald Trump that the four Democratic congresswomen he targeted with racist attacks last week are incapable of “loving” America.
Trump made the new comment in a tweet Sunday morning, responding to a Washington Post story about the fallout over his initial comments in which he told the four women of color to “go back” to their country even though all four are U.S. citizens.
“I don’t believe the four Congresswomen are capable of loving our Country,” Trump tweeted. “They should apologize to America (and Israel) for the horrible (hateful) things they have said. They are destroying the Democrat Party, but are weak & insecure people who can never destroy our great Nation!”
Pressed about the first portion of the tweet during an interview on Sunday, Johnson said, “I mean, that’s his opinion. I don’t agree with it.”
But the Wisconsin Republican also seemed to object to those calling Trump a racist, lamenting that “so many parts of our public debate right now are getting immediately stuck inside a racial framework.” To support his point, Johnson argued that telling people to leave America if they don’t like it wasn’t considered racist during the Vietnam War era.
“I would say in general the whole, ‘America: love it or leave it’ is not a new sentiment,” Johnson told CNN’s Dana Bash. “You know, back in the ’60s that wasn’t considered racist.”
“I would like to see is us moving toward that colorblind society. ... I truly believe that Americans, by and large, all have the same goal in mind,” he added. “We all want a safe, prosperous and secure America.”
The “Love it or leave it” slogan was often leveled against anti-war protesters in the 1960s and 1970s, but it also has an ugly, racist past in the U.S.
Trump hurled it against four progressive Democratic congresswomen last week, accusing them of “hating” the United States and suggesting they leave the country if they’re not happy here.
“We don’t leave the things we love. When we love this country, what that means is we propose the solutions to fix it,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), one of the congresswomen targeted by Trump, told reporters on Monday.
Suggesting a person ought to leave the country if they disagree with how it is being governed betrays a fundamental ignorance of the rights to free speech and expression, something the nation’s founders understood as vital to democracy. Despite his comments this week, Trump himself frequently criticized America and its leaders before and during his run for president in 2016.
In the Senate, some Republican members were more willing to break with Trump than others over his comments and voice support for one’s right to political dissent.
“If you’re unhappy with something in our country, I think the right course is to follow the political process, the constitutional process, and try and fight for change in the direction you think is needed,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), a frequent critic of the president, told HuffPost on Tuesday.
Other senators who lived through the Vietnam War said Trump’s incendiary rhetoric was opening old wounds.
“It reminds me of during the Vietnam War, where I was one of the protesters, and there was this whole ‘Love it or leave it’ thing, and those were not good times,” Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) said on Tuesday.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost.