“Immigrants, we get the job done.”
—Hamilton, the musical
“I am an American by choice” said Dr. Fiona Hill last week, testifying before Congress as a fact witness at President Trump’s impeachment hearings. Hill noted her poor origins in northern England, the same area that George Washington’s ancestors had come from, and explained that in England her accent—so obviously working class—would have prevented her from the opportunities that were open to her in America. She didn’t use the word, but her statement obviously pointed to the idea of equality: that in America, whatever our origins, we are all equal.
Lt. Colonel Alexander Vindman also testified recently before Congress as part of the impeachment hearings. And he, too, is an American by choice—his father’s choice. Vindman came to America as a Jewish refugee from the Soviet Union with his father, grandmother, and two brothers. Like both brothers, he has devoted his life to America as a member of the armed forces, repaying it for what he called the privilege of citizenship. He closed his statement by telling his father that he’d made the right choice in bringing his family to America. His statement not only pointed to American exceptionalism in regards to religious liberty, but to the rule of law.
Foreign born Hill and Vindman, an immigrant and a refugee, might have been sent from central casting to remind us of the American creed: the idea that America is about principles and values, not ancestry and ethnicity. Vindman captured this perfectly in his statement: “The members of our all-volunteer force are made up of a patchwork of people from all ethnicities, religions, and socio-economic backgrounds who come together under a common oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States of America.”
To be an American is to accept a certain set of political values: the idea that we are all created equal and have the same liberties. G.K. Chesterton famously called America “a nation with the soul of a church” because it was founded on a “creed.” It is telling that America celebrates itself on July 4th—the day it declared its independence to the world, justified by the political principles it set forth, which formed the basis of this creed. In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln posited a nation founded with the Declaration of Independence, rooted in the proposition that “all men are created equal.”
This creed explained why America was engaged in an ugly war to end an even uglier institution. Here Lincoln himself was following precedent: Fredrick Douglass famously turned to the Declaration to speak of America’s “great principles of political freedom and natural justice.”
To become a citizen, you have to take a test about American history and the American Constitution.
It is this history and set of political values that we share in common. It is why new generations, wherever they arrive from, can become part of America. It is why those who claim the Constitution and the American political heritage as their heritage have last names like Scalia and Calabresi and Amar and Katyal—and not just Adams.
Lincoln captured this aspect perfectly, noting that most Americans cannot trace themselves to the founding by blood, yet when they look to the principles laid out in the Declaration of Independence, to the American creed, “they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration and so they are.”
And yet today’s Republicans smear and cast doubt on the loyalty of Hill and Vindman. The Republican counsel for the House Intelligence Committee insinuated that Vindman was loyal to the Ukraine, rather than America. With no evidence at all, a commentator on Fox News suggested Vindman was a spy. Trump himself has repeatedly attacked Vindman. Vindman’s family is currently being protected because of his commander-in-chief’s smears.
While Hill was testifying, Trump supporters, noting her “Prince Andrew” accent, asked if any “Americans” were going to testify? A “Lincoln Fellow” at the Claremont Institute, asked “Why are there so many non-US born people working in our Intel and State Department.”
Such bigotry—and it is real, literal bigotry—is of a piece with Trump and the new Know Nothings. They reject the idea of there being an American creed because they—and Trump—do not understand America as an idea. Nationalism, as these people understand it, is neither civic, nor liberal.
It’s not a commitment to the nation based on the ideas it represents or the values it seeks to uphold.
Instead, it’s a commitment to specific racial, ethnic, and religious characteristics. We’ve seen again and again Trump’s smears of immigrants and racial, ethnic, and religious groups he does not consider to be properly American. In attacking the patriotism and loyalty of Hill and Vindman, the president’s supporters are simply following his lead.
Republicans once knew better. Contrast Trump’s ugly nationalism with Lincoln:
Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we begin by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes.” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty-to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.
Following this logic, the first Republican party platforms rejected any distinction between natural-born and naturalized citizens.
From the 1860 Republican party platform:
That the Republican party is opposed to any change in our naturalization laws or any state legislation by which the rights of citizens hitherto accorded to immigrants from foreign lands shall be abridged or impaired.
Here is a line from the party’s platform in 1866: “Naturalized citizens are entitled to be protected in all their rights of citizenship, as though they were native-born.”
And finally there’s this bit from the party platform in 1876, which bring us back to Hill, and Vindman, and Trump:
We rejoice in the quickened conscience of the people concerning political affairs. We will hold all public officers to a rigid responsibility, and engage that the prosecution and punishment of all who betray official trusts shall be speedy, thorough, and unsparing.
Trump cannot understand those who devote themselves to the public good by way of public service. He has shown again and again that he does not understand the idea of America. And to their shame, today’s Republicans have followed him.
So it is fitting, in these troubled times, that the banner of the republic—the American creed and the rule of law—is being carried forward by an immigrant and a refugee.
True Americans, both of them.