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President Donald Trump speaks with reporters on the South Lawn of the White House before departing, Friday, July 19, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

President Donald Trump brought last week to a close by declaring that, as long as he is president, criticism of the United States will not fly.

“I can tell you this,” Trump told reporters on Friday — referencing four Democratic congresswomen who have vocally criticized his administration’s policies — “you can’t talk that way about our country, not when I’m the president.”

Brushing aside for the moment the fact that Trump himself has been, under previous administrations, an unsparing critic of American policies and culture, there’s something else to consider here. The president’s statements run counter to the Constitution — to the core values on which this country was founded.

That’s an obvious point, one that everyone should know to be true. And yet, it bears repeating. Silencing or deterring criticism from within is not an American value.

The four congresswomen — Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan — have not hesitated to call out Trump and his administration for policies with which they disagree, primarily related to immigration, race relations, justice and the environment.

Last Friday, Trump told reporters those congresswomen “can’t get away with” speaking badly about the U.S.

This came days after the president suggested the lawmakers “go back” to “the crime infested places from which they came.” Although only Omar was not born in the United States, Trump tweeted that the lawmakers “originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe.”

It also came after several days worth of tweets from the president declaring that “certain people HATE our country” and sharing statements from Republican lawmakers who called the four congresswomen “anti-America.” It came after a crowd at a Trump rally in North Carolina erupted into a “Send her back!” chant directed at Omar, a naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in Somalia.

“IF YOU ARE NOT HAPPY HERE, YOU CAN LEAVE!” Trump tweeted last Tuesday.

Sure. Of course you can. Or, if you love this country and you’re not happy with the way things are going, you can try to do something about it. You can vote. You can write and speak and protest. You can support candidates you think will do the right thing in office. You can run for office yourself. That’s what these four congresswomen did.

“I believe as an immigrant, I probably love this country more than anyone that is naturally born,” Omar said earlier this month — not that it needs to be a contest.

It would be easy enough to dismiss Trump’s comments as bluster — but he’s not the first president to deploy a “love it or leave it” sentiment, and if he opted to back up the statement with policy, he wouldn’t be the first to do so. We’ve been through this before.

In 1798, as the United States stared down the prospect of a war with France, President John Adams sought to jail those who would “write, print, utter or publish” statements critical of the federal government. Through the Alien and Sedition Acts, Adams enacted policies to silence criticism of the government, restrict freedom of the press and make it more difficult for immigrants to enter and stay in the United States. Newspaper editors and a member of Congress were imprisoned.

Although the laws expired, the sentiments behind them have re-emerged regularly throughout the country’s history — often under the justification of a foreign threat. The nations from which immigrants arrive change, but the swiftness to prey on fear of the “other” remains.

Our country is made great by the opportunity and promise it offers to those who wish to make it better for all who live within its borders. Progress does not happen without critical reflection. With few exceptions, courts and elected officials have recognized the need for citizens to be free to criticize their government without fear of reprisal. This must remain true today.

Chicago Tribune columnist Heidi Stevens recently shared on Twitter a column she found in the July 21, 1969 Chicago Daily News, written by the late journalist Sydney J. Harris, headlined, “The ‘love it or leave it’ nonsense.”

Fifty years ago.

“Most people who want to change conditions do like it here: they love it here,” Harris wrote. “They love it so much they cannot stand to see it suffer from its imperfections, and want it to live up to its ideals. It is the people who placidly accept the corruptions and perversions and inequities in our society who do not love America; they love their status, security and special privilege.”

It is our right and responsibility, Harris wrote, to protect the efforts of those who seek to improve our society and our country.

“No community can afford to lose these good ‘agitators,’” he wrote.

Let us learn from our history and remember his wisdom.

Jessie Opoien is opinion editor of The Capital Times. jopoien@madison.com and @jessieopie

Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to tctvoice@madison.com. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.

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Jessie Opoien is the Capital Times' opinion editor. She joined the Cap Times in 2013, covering state government and politics for the bulk of her time as a reporter. She has also covered music, culture and education in Madison and Oshkosh.

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