America deserves better than Trump's 'go back' message

We have recently had to deal with the drama of a president who claims his racist comments about four Democratic congresswomen of color were not racist.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump fires intelligence community inspector general who flagged Ukraine whistleblower complaint Trump organization has laid off over 1000 employees due to pandemic: report Trump invokes Defense Production Act to prevent export of surgical masks, gloves MORE tweeted that the four members of Congress should “go back” to the “places from which they came.” He ignored the fact that three of them were born in the United States and that the fourth was a naturalized U.S. citizen. He then fanned the flames of hatred even more by allowing his followers at a Wednesday rally in North Carolina to chant, “send her back.”

I have some personal experience with these types of comments.

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In 1978, I was elected as the first (and still only) ever Jewish congressman from Texas. My then-wife, Valerie, and I both had a long history of involvement in the Jewish community.

I taught Valerie at Temple Beth-El in Fort Worth, Texas. Many years later we were married and moved our family to Northern Virginia when I was elected to Congress. We became active members of Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Va., where two of our daughters celebrated their Bat Mitzvahs.

Valerie became an officer of the local chapter of Hadassah, a Jewish women’s service organization. We visited Jewish “refuseniks” on a trip to the Soviet Union and led several missions to Israel for newly-elected members of Congress.

One day in the 1980s, Valerie took part in a demonstration in Washington supporting the right of Russian Jews to emigrate to other countries.

During the protest, an anti-Semitic counter-demonstrator shouted, “Go back to where you came from!” Valerie, quick on her feet, shouted back: “What do you mean … Fort Worth?”

We laughed about it afterwards because neither one of us had encountered that type of overt prejudice growing up in Texas, and both of our families had been in the United States for more than 100 years. I now realize that this incident was no laughing matter.

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Bigots of all types have been using this type of rhetoric against blacks, Jews and other minorities for years. Quite frankly, I never expected to hear that kind of blatant racism out of the mouth of any president of the United States.

And it doesn’t make this any easier to stomach since I have a 16-year-old granddaughter living in North Carolina—the scene of Trump’s most recent rant.  

For the president to pretend that he didn’t know this was a racist trope is ludicrous.

It’s hard to know how all of this will play out in the 2020 elections. Democratic candidates for president generally receive about 70 percent of the Jewish vote nationwide. Republicans in recent years have been making a concerted effort to attract support in the Jewish community, but they have been largely unsuccessful.  Racism doesn’t play well in the Jewish community. We understand that prejudice directed at one racial or ethnic group could also be turned against us at any time.

Trump obviously is trying to solidify his white nationalist base. But politics can be a zero-sum game. What increases your support in one part of the electorate can cost you votes elsewhere. In the 2018 midterm elections, this was true among suburban college-educated women, who moved away from Republicans because of Trump’s emphasis on non-college-educated white men.  

The president continues to embarrass our nation in the eyes of the rest of the world. Our country deserves better.

Martin Frost represented the 24th Congressional District of Texas from 1979 to 2005 and was chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for the 1996 and 1998 cycles.