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Ilhan Omar and Rand Paul

Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.

From the Founding Fathers to Abraham Lincoln to Susan B. Anthony to Martin Luther King Jr. and beyond, America’s history is filled with visionaries who looked at the country around them and said: This isn’t good enough. We can make this better. True patriots seek to improve America, to nudge it toward fulfillment of its own stated principles. Those today who stake out a “love it or leave it” stance fail to understand this fundamental strength of our nation.

To that brigade of the clueless add Sen. Rand Paul, who suggests that Somali-born Rep. Ilhan Omar should return to her native country in order to better appreciate her adopted one — as if getting elected to Congress and fighting to better America indicates some lack of appreciation.

In an interview last week, Paul, a Kentucky Republican, offered to buy Omar a plane ticket to visit Somalia, so “she could look and maybe learn a little bit about the disaster that is Somalia … and appreciate America more.”

Paul claimed, without evidence, that Omar, a Minnesota Democrat, has characterized America as “rotten.” Fact checkers have found this assertion to be not only false but the opposite of what Omar has said and written.

Paul’s narrative follows President Donald Trump’s racist rant (and, yes, that’s what it was) suggesting Omar and three other congresswomen of color should go back to the “places from which they came,” though the other three were born in America. All four are vocal critics of Trump’s presidency, which, of course, his fragile ego cannot abide.

Perhaps Paul conflates Omar’s criticism of America’s current president with criticism of America? If so, that’s a disturbing mindset from a sitting senator. That Trump has shown himself to be the most irresponsible, demagogic, dangerously uninformed president in modern times is beside the point. He could be Lincoln reincarnated, and it would still be within the right of every American — including naturalized citizens like Omar — to criticize his administration. That’s America.

Even Omar’s tough talk toward Israel, denounced by her critics as overly harsh, doesn’t define her as someone who hates America and needs a lesson in appreciation. That’s called a policy debate; it’s what members of Congress do.

As a New York Times op-ed recently noted, “The beauty of this country is not that our democracy is perfect. It’s that embedded in our Constitution and democratic institutions are the tools to make it better. … The proudest moments in our history — from the Emancipation Proclamation to the civil rights movement to the struggle against fascism — have come when we fight to protect and expand basic democratic rights.”

Those words were written by Omar. They indicate a genuine understanding of what it means to be an American. Paul should try to appreciate them.