Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is the author of the book “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success” and co-author with Peter Eisner of “The Shadow President: The Truth About Mike Pence.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
The way Donald Trump talks and tweets about immigrants, you’d almost think he forgot that his mother and two of his own grandparents emigrated to the United States from abroad, and that their struggles – and troubles – weren’t so different from those experienced by the people he blithely condemns today.
With his latest bigoted tweets, Trump suggested certain members of Congress “go back” to where they came from and that Speaker Nancy Pelosi would offer them “free travel arrangements!” Though he didn’t name them, it was obvious he was referring to Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts. Omar, a war refugee from Somalia, is the only foreign-born member of this group.
Besides demonstrating a dangerous level of racism and demagoguery, Trump’s statements reminded the world that he is never much concerned with being accurate when it comes to origin stories. Trump has mistakenly claimed that his own father was born in Germany, when he was a product of the Bronx. He also repeatedly claimed Swedish blood although his mother came from Scotland and his grandfather, originally Friedrich Drumpf, was German-born.
Friedrich’s immigrant tale is hardly the story of a man who would have been welcomed by an America that was overly concerned with matters of character and patriotism. Having come to New York as an unaccompanied minor, he made his fortune selling liquor and the services of prostitutes to gold miners in the West. When he returned to his native Bavaria for a visit, he made it clear that America was his second choice as he begged to be permitted to stay. Authorities noted that he had never fulfilled his obligation for military service, and rejected the request.
The Swedish thing didn’t come up until World War II made the President’s father Fred a little embarrassed by his heritage. As then-businessman Donald Trump explained to me in an interview in 2013, his father’s customers would have been more comfortable leasing apartments from a Swedish-American, and so the myth was created. His son perpetuated it, talking repeatedly about his Swedish heritage well into the 1980s.
Whether he was touting himself as Swedish or German, Trump always acted as if he was a most American fellow. Although he used a questionable medical diagnosis of heel spurs to avoid military service, he has long promoted himself as a super patriot and law-and-order type. He had been the most ardent supporter of the police who arrested five innocent black and Hispanic youths in the notorious Central Park Jogger rape and as president, he has literally hugged the American flag.
Others, including Barack Obama, haven’t qualified as fully American in Trump’s view. As everyone surely recalls, Trump was the self-made leader of the so-called Birther movement, which sought to cast doubt on Obama’s legitimacy by suggesting he wasn’t American-born, as the Constitution requires of all presidents.
Among more than a dozen birther statements noted by CNN in 2016 were the suggestion that Obama had no birth certificate or possesses one “that he doesn’t like.” He suggested Obama was secretly a native of Kenya, and a Muslim, and persisted in this nonsense for years after Obama’s short and long form certificates were made public.
Echoes of the racism in the birther attacks could be recognized in candidate Trump’s talk of Mexican immigrants as “drug dealers, criminals, rapists” and in his reference, as president, to immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and Africa as undesirable natives of “s—thole” countries. He said he would prefer America welcome “more people from Norway.”
What is the difference between immigrants from Kenya and immigrants from Norway? How about those who come from Mexico and Haiti? Could race have something to do with the level of respect Trump accords to newcomers? How about religion?
When Trump and I discussed his family, he seemed surprised to hear from me that his mother had grown up in an abjectly impoverished place in Scotland and that grandfather Friedrich had run a saloon/bordello and actually tried to abandon America for Bavaria. But for the record-keeping that alerted officials there to the fact that Friedrich shirked his military duty, there might not be a President Trump.
Of course, Friedrich did finally settle in New York, even though some would have deemed him less worthy. He proved that an immigrant who is less-than-perfect can contribute to the greatness of America.
Now his grandson wants to ignore the lesson that Friedrich’s life teaches and separate immigrants and even American citizens into those who belong and those who should go back to where they came from. This latest chapter in the saga of a clan built by an immigrant is a betrayal of the dream that brought the president’s forebears across the Atlantic and a repudiation of the spirit that they displayed as they made it in America.