Donald Trump is using every chance he gets to redefine who gets to be “American”

The decider.
The decider.
Image: Reuters/Jim Bourg
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In a speech about the Orlando atrocity on Monday (June 13), Donald Trump doubled down on his plan to protect America from future mass shootings by blocking the flow of certain immigrants into the US. Nixing immigration from countries with a “proven history of terrorism,” is the best way to avoid a future Omar Mateen, Trump implied, adding that the 29-year-old Orlando shooter was, after all, “born in Afghan.”

There are many problems with Trump’s conceit, but the most obvious is that Mateen wasn’t from Afghanistan at all. He was an American, born in New York state.

Trump’s prepared text correctly identified Mateen as American, which makes it hard not to wonder whether his slip-up was deliberate. By slyly calling Mateen an Afghan, Trump managed to shoehorn the Orlando attack into the narrative that has typified his approach with supporters: America is under attack from outsiders, and only Americans can decide who’s really one of them.

In Trump’s worldview, Muslims don’t appear to make the cut. During his speech, Trump said that would-be immigrants and asylum-seekers from Muslim countries should be kept out because many of them “have the same thought process as this savage killer,” adding that local Muslim communities are knowingly harboring terrorists. Trump appears to believe it impossible for anyone to be both Muslim and a civic-minded, law-abiding American.

Also excluded from Trump’s America: Mexican-Americans. That became clear earlier this month when Trump insisted that the “Mexican heritage” of federal judge Gonzalo Curiel—born in Indiana, by the way—makes him too biased to preside over the Trump University fraud case. In a lengthy follow-up interview, CNN’s Jake Tapper pressed Trump about the comment, reminding him repeatedly that Curiel is an American and a legal citizen. No matter. To Trump, Curiel is defined exclusively by his Mexican parentage. Take this exchange:

Tapper: [I]f you are saying he can’t do his job because of his race, is that not the definition of racism?

Trump: No. I don’t think so at all. He’s proud of his heritage. I respect him for that.

Embracing diverse heritage is fine, goes the logic, as long as we can agree that certain heritages are incompatible with being American.

Of course, this isn’t to conflate a mass murderer with a federal judge. What’s important here is that the way Trump uses non-white heritage to characterize people he perceives as untrustworthy. In each of these cases, someone’s being born and growing up in the US doesn’t make them unassailably American, according to Trump. (This standard is hazy; Trump himself was born to a woman from Scotland and all but one of his children have immigrant mothers.)

It’s tempting to chalk Trump’s comments up to political laziness. After all, arguing that mass shootings can be fixed by closing US borders (a messy, expensive idea, to say the least) is a lot easier than professing sympathy for shooting victims while also refusing to enact gun control measures. Likewise, questioning a federal judge’s impartiality is a great distraction from an embarrassing fraud suit.

But Trump is also stoking the prejudices of his overwhelmingly white supporters. It’s a strategy he used on the campaign trail throughout the spring, and one that has served him well. De-Americanizing people renders them undeserving of America’s wealth, opportunities, rights, and dignity. After all, those things are reserved for the “real” Americans—the people who want Trump to be president.