A GOP Senator Says “Love It or Leave It” Wasn’t Racist “Back in the ’60s.” He’s Wrong.

Republicans have rushed to defend Trump’s use of a phrase with a checkered past.


Republican Sen. Ron Johnson appeared on CNN’s State of the Union Sunday, where the Wisconsin lawmaker was asked to respond to President Donald Trump’s latest attack questioning the patriotism of four Democratic congresswomen of color. The tweet, which Trump posted Sunday morning, said the lawmakers were not “capable of loving our Country.” 

When asked by host Dana Bash if he agreed with Trump’s tweet, Johnson deflected. 

“The whole ‘America, love it or leave it’ is not a new sentiment,” he said. “You know, back in the ’60s that wasn’t considered racist.”

It’s an argument other Republicans have made recently, including Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who said Trump was simply calling back to the late 1960s, a time when the phrase “emerged as a slogan on bumper stickers and in country songs, and helped boost Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign,” as the Boston Globe put it

“‘America, love it or leave it,’ is not a new sentiment nor a radical sentiment, and it certainly is not a racist sentiment,” Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) said on the House floor on Tuesday. “It should remind us of commonly-held and enduring founding principles that ought to be uniting us as a free people.” 

Even if widely used, the phrase has long functioned as a nativist dog whistle, as some commentators noted on Twitter. Progressive activist Rev. William Barber II pointed out that the Ku Klux Klan even used it on signs in his home state of North Carolina.

Ibram X. Kendi, author of Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, recently told Mother Jones‘ Jacob Rosenberg that phrase has long been intertwined with race in a way its defenders either deny or don’t acknowledge:

What happens in your mind when you hear a phrase like “America: Love it or leave it”?

My initial thought is that it sort of conveys—particularly to people of color—that this is not our home. Because it’s almost this idea that, “How dare you come into my home and criticize it?” And so it makes complete sense if this is not our home that we have no right to criticize it. But if it is our home, then I have just as much right to criticize and want to make it better as anyone else.

And the idea of who can criticize America has been discriminatory?

I think this is fundamentally the point. Historically, when people of color criticize America, they’ve been deemed un-American and unpatriotic, but when white people criticize America, it is normal. It is deemed the way of life. It is deemed essentially American. And therein lies the contradiction.

This history seems to have been lost on Johnson, who told Bash, “I just find it very unfortunate that so many parts of our public debate right now get immediately stuck inside a racial framework.”

He added, “I would like to see us moving toward that colorblind society.”


Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and the wealthy wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2019 demands.

We Recommend


Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.


We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.