WASHINGTON — Donald Trump once saw a country that had lost its greatness — its cities wracked with crime, its borders a pathetic sieve, its leadership corrupt, its standing in the world a joke. "The American dream," he said, "is dead."
In contrast he praised the fruits of communist leadership. "China, you go there now, roads, bridges, schools, you never saw anything like it," he marveled. "I love China," he went on. The U.S.A.? "We're dying. We're dying. ... We've got nothing."
Harsh, loveless words about his country. But Trump did not leave it and "go back" to anywhere, as he's saying other critics of the country should do. Instead, in those 2015 remarks forever associated with a descent down a gilded escalator and rough comments about Mexican immigrants, Trump announced his presidential candidacy and set about trying to make America great "again" in the ways he defines greatness.
In his mind and those of his supporters, it was the patriotic thing to do.
But if that was disruptive patriotism, what is the rhetoric from new agitators now — the four liberal Democratic women he says should leave the country if they don't love it? He says it's America-hating trash talk.
Trump set off an uproar Sunday with tweets that falsely portrayed the women of color as foreigners and told them they should go back to the "broken and crime-infested places from which they came." The Democratic-led House rebuked his "racist comments" Tuesday, a step that has no effect except it forced Republicans to take sides on an episode that makes them uncomfortable. All but four sided with Trump.
Trump is unbowed. At his North Carolina rally Wednesday night , he soaked up the crowd's new chant, "Send her back," and said of the women: "They never have anything good to say. That's why I say, 'Hey if you don't like it, let 'em leave, let 'em leave.'" In the light of day Thursday, he dissociated himself from the chant — "I was not happy with it" — while saying the women "have a big obligation, and the obligation is to love your country."
Like Trump, the four women are provocative scolds, highlighting what they think is wrong with the country and trying — from far different angles than the president — to set some things right. Like Trump, Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota can be hot-headed about it. But their contempt is directed at him, not the flag.
To be sure, Ocasio-Cortez raised eyebrows in March when she suggested the state of America today is perhaps 10% better than the "garbage" of the Ronald Reagan years.
Just as Trump raised eyebrows in his strikingly dark inauguration speech about empty factories "like tombstones across the landscape," urban decay, crime, gangs drugs, failed education — "this American carnage."
Demanding love of country — or expressions of it — as a condition for living in it is something of an un-American activity, per the Constitution's enshrinement of the right to talk trash, engage in nonviolent dissent and rant on Twitter.
The oath of citizenship taken by immigrants requires no expressions of affection for the United States.
New citizens must agree to obey laws, serve militarily if drafted, renounce any allegiance to another state and pledge faith — not to America and certainly not to a president, but to a constitution. Oaths swearing in members of Congress, the president, vice president and justices also don't ask for any nation love.
Constitutional protections — Americanness — give Trump a free hand to unload on the women he's been assailing for days.
That Americanness also gave Tlaib a free hand in January to call Trump an F-word (it began with "mother-") when she coarsely vowed in a speech that he will be impeached.
And it makes voters free to exact a political cost or to reward them.
The Constitution and the laws and culture that flow from it make for an impulse, circumscribed in many countries, to let people do and say what they want.
You can praise dictators, like Trump does, and refuse to criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin for allegedly killing critics because, "Well, I think our country does plenty of killing also."
Or you can say that terrorism is a byproduct of U.S. "involvement in other people's affairs," as Omar has put it.
You can call people "a bunch of communists," as Sen. Lindsey Graham branded the Democratic foursome, even if that's not what they advocate or call themselves.
In his dire words opening his campaign four years ago, Trump spoke not at all about intrinsic American goodness — the Reaganesque, shining-city-on-a-hill bromides and conceits about American exceptionalism that come routinely from politicians of both parties. There was nothing, for example, like Ocasio-Cortez's observation in a TV interview Wednesday that "America has always been about the triumph of people who fight for everyone."
Trump only granted his country the "tremendous potential" to make a comeback under him. "Tremendous people," he added.