It was already abundantly clear that President Trump appreciated the racist “Send her back!” chant his supporters directed at Somali-American congresswoman Ilhan Omar at a political rally in North Carolina last Wednesday.
The chant, which Trump let ring out for 13 seconds before resuming his speech, endorsed and expanded the president’s white-nationalism-themed attack on Omar and three other Democratic congresswomen of color, despite all the pushback. It confirmed that his divisive and xenophobic rhetoric had reached and inspired its intended audience, and reaffirmed Trump’s special relationship with that audience and the grievances that bind them. And it kept the four congresswomen who make up “the Squad” in the news, whatever the context, which Trump and his allies expect to damage Democrats and their 2020 chances. This was a win.
The next day, pressured to disavow the chant by concerned GOP lawmakers and Vice-President Mike Pence, Trump didn’t even bother coming up with remotely believable lies to explain why he had seemed to savor the moment. Instead, he claimed that everyone’s eyes were the real liars, insisting he’d tried to “quickly” speak over and cut off the chanting and that he was “not happy” and “disagreed with” it and even “felt a little bit bad” that it had happened.
The day after that, Trump decided he was done pretending to distance himself from the racist spectacle he had incited. In a callback to his infamous post-Charlottesville praise of white-supremacist protesters, he defended the supporters who came to his rally in North Carolina. “Those are incredible people, they are incredible patriots,” Trump told reporters on Friday. Asked if he was unhappy about the chant, this time he said, “No,” and pivoted to an attack in which he falsely implied that Omar has said she hated America. He also said the lawmaker, a naturalized refugee who has called herself Trump’s “worst nightmare,” was “lucky to be where she is, let me tell you that.”
Then, in a second exchange with reporters on Friday, Trump argued that the chant wasn’t even racist. “You know what’s racist to me,” the president deflected, “when someone goes out and says the horrible things about our country, the people of our country, that are anti-Semitic, that hate everybody, that speak with scorn and hate — that, to me, is really a very dangerous thing.”
None of the congresswomen have said or expressed some broad underlying hatred of America or Americans; they have criticized individuals, groups, and agencies, lambasted Trump, and spoken out against what they see as unjust policies. The anti-Semitism charge, presumably against Omar over her use, followed by an apology, of an anti-Semitic trope to criticize Israel earlier this year, has been how he and his allies have tried to refocus the debate from the start, and it’s not the first time Trump has cynically tried to leverage the specter of anti-Semitism for personal gain.
Trump’s conflation of America’s national identity with race is more revealing, if not all that surprising. Per Trump’s logic, for these four nonwhite women’s criticism of America or alleged criticism of “Americans” to be somehow racist by default, America would have to be a white ethno-state. That’s the America white nationalists seek, and the one Trump is proposing in his rhetoric.
On Monday, the president said he wasn’t concerned about anyone thinking his “go back” tweets we’re racist “because many people agree with me” and “a lot of people love it.” By Saturday, Trump had gone from inspiring his supporters’ racism to celebrating it. In the morning, the president shared a tweet from the British right-wing flamethrower Katie Hopkins in which she passed along and championed a video of the “send her back” chant:
New Campaign slogan for #2020?
“Don’t love it? Leave it!”
Send her back is the new lock her up.
Well done to #TeamTrump
Hopkins, a hard-core U.K. nativist who once called for a “final solution” for Muslim immigrants, is also a proponent of the “white genocide” theory, which alleges that liberals, Jews, and nonwhite immigrants and their descendants are trying to eradicate or replace white people and so-called white culture in Western countries.
In retweeting Hopkins, Trump tried to both underline and erase the controversy. He simultaneously re-promoted the chant and amplified a like-minded endorsement of it. Also, in his appended comment, he claimed the video or tweet somehow proved he shouldn’t be held responsible for the chant. The chanters, Trump suggested, just “love the USA!”
Over the weekend, the president continued to attack “the Squad” and make up transgressions in order to demonize them. But none of the women have said they hate America, or referenced “evil Jews,” or called America “garbage,” as Trump has now claimed. But there will be more exaggerations, lies, and blatant attempts to strip the women of their Americanness. This is exactly what his allies and advisers have urged him to push instead of naked racism, as the Washington Post reported on Saturday:
Like others, [Senator Lindsey] Graham urged Trump to reframe away from the racist notion at the core of the tweets — that only European immigrants or their descendants are entitled to criticize the country. Advisers wrote new talking points and handed him reams of opposition research on the four congresswomen. Pivot to patriotism. Focus on their ideas and behavior, not identity. Some would still see a racist agenda, the argument went, but at least it would not be so explicit.
But the Post also reports that a few days before the “go back” attack, Trump had been lamenting how his tweets didn’t command news cycles like they used to.
The president has an insatiable ego to feed and an election and popularity contest to win, and nothing will bring back that 2016 magic (and distract from the lack of the unbuilt border wall) like demonizing immigrants, decrying socialism, owning the libs, and an all-you-can-fear white-anxiety buffet. (Now with even more unapologetic nationalism!) “Love it or leave it” probably will become a Trump-campaign slogan, once again weaponized against the American “other,” just as it has been since the 1840s. And yes, even if Trump wrote his “go back” tweets on his own and is taking flack from norm-fearing Republicans, tripling down on barely veiled racism, red scaremongering, and loud-and-proud nativism is absolutely a political strategy that Trump and his allies, enablers, and apologists will be depending on through Election Day.
On Sunday morning, chief White House nativist and anti-immigrant ideologue Stephen Miller hit Fox News Sunday to advance this strategy. Pressed on the racism charges by host Chris Wallace, Miller pulled out his gaslight, calling the allegations a liberal attempt to silence uncomfortable ideas. He also brought his dog whistle and loyalty card. The (nonwhite) congresswomen “detest America as it exists, as it is currently constructed,” he alleged. They “want to tear down the structure of our country,” Miller claimed. They want to “destroy America with open borders” and “fundamentally transform the country,” even if “American citizens lose their jobs, lose their homes, lose their livelihoods, lose their health coverage, and lose their very lives.”
“Four more years or die” may seem like hyperbolically high stakes, but not to the “white genocide” crowd (and not in in the Trump era, when existential threats have become core issues across the political spectrum). Expect to see Trump make this argument too.
The strategy may also come with a political cost if swing voters’ brains aren’t scrambled by the 15 months of noise and nonsense to come. A new CBS/YouGov poll, released Sunday, found that 58 percent of independents disagreed with the president’s “go back to your country” tweets, mirroring the national average, and 41 percent strongly disagreed — but those opinions won’t matter if they don’t also affect their votes.
We’ll likely hear Trump supporters gleefully chant “send her back” or its equivalent again, and there will be increasing reports — and, one hopes, an increasing awareness — of how often someone tells someone else to “go back to your country” and what that’s like to hear. But it’s obvious that Trump and his true allies, like Miller, aren’t trying to discourage any of it. Perhaps the president will try to wave off another “send her back” chant if and when it happens, but it’s unlikely to come without some kind of smirking in-joke about political correctness and how racism isn’t racism. The chant may also evolve into “send them back,” which Trump and his apologists can claim is about undocumented immigrants and incarcerated migrant children instead of nonwhite Americans. It’s all part of the show — and the dog whistle is fast becoming a bullhorn.