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How Trump’s Racism Divides Democrats

True Detective, Season Five? Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photos: Getty Images

From one angle, Donald Trump’s hateful tweets are to the Democratic Party as Thanksgiving Day football is to a dysfunctional family: an objectively harmful pastime that nonetheless serves as a healing distraction from bitter arguments.

Before the president instructed several nonwhite, progressive congresswomen to return to the countries “from which they came” on Sunday, the Democrats were in disarray. Nancy Pelosi’s decision last month to yield to her caucuses’ moderates — and approve new funding for the humanitarian crisis at the U.S. southern border without putting strict limits on how the Trump administration could spend such funds — had horrified House progressives. In Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s view, voters hadn’t sent Democrats to Washington to improve staffing and soap rations at Trump’s “concentration camps”; thus her chief of staff publicly likened Blue Dog Democrats to southern segregationists. Pelosi returned fire, belittling AOC and her allies Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley (a.k.a. “the squad”), in an interview with the New York Times. “All these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world,” the speaker mused. “But they didn’t have any following. They’re four people, and that’s how many votes they got.” Ocasio-Cortez lost patience with Pelosi’s “explicit singling out of newly elected women of color.” Pelosi’s allies gasped at AOC’s unseemly deployment of “the race card” (before playing said card for all it was worth). All this culminated over the weekend in a lurid, intra-Democratic social-media slugfest over who the real racists were, until the president graciously provided House Democrats with an answer they all could accept.

Specifically, Trump asserted that the progressive Democratic congresswomen who’d been giving Pelosi such a hard time “originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all),” and therefore, instead of “viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run,” they should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”

These remarks would be every bit as grotesquely racist if they’d been directed exclusively at nonwhite Americans born outside of the U.S., such as Ilhan Omar. But by including native-born U.S. citizens Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, and Pressley in his line of fire, Trump betrayed his fundamentally white-nationalist conception of American identity. For our president, black and brown-skinned U.S. citizens have a strictly provisional claim to national belonging. This country was not founded by or for their people. If they show sufficient deference to the nation’s first-class citizens, they are welcome to call themselves Americans. If they don’t, they are welcome to go back to “where they came from” (even if their ancestors were on this continent centuries before Trump’s). When Gonzalo Curiel did not summarily dismiss a lawsuit against the president, he stopped being a son of Indiana and became a “Mexican judge.” When Pressley denounces Trump’s immigration policies, she ceases to be a native of Ohio and becomes one of Africa.

These hideous sentiments displaced the Democrats’ civil war from Monday morning’s headlines. In fact, the Washington Post declared that Trump’s tweets had “swiftly united a House Democratic caucus that had been torn apart in recent days by infighting.” Various other outlets affirmed this use of the past tense. “Democrats in disarray” literally became yesterday’s news.

Yet if Trump’s hate speech has unified Democrats in the immediate term, it threatens to deepen their divides in the long run. Put simply, the president’s nakedly white-nationalist rhetoric can’t mend the fractures that his tacitly white-nationalist policies have opened in Team Blue’s “big tent.” Thanks to the inequities of GOP gerrymandering and political geography, Pelosi’s majority can’t survive without appeasing voters in right-leaning districts, some of whom are less perturbed by Trump’s approach to immigration than by Omar’s very existence. And congressional progressives can’t retain the enthusiasm (or respect) of their party’s liberal base by gamely acquiescing to racially motivated human-rights abuses for the sake of easing Kendra Horn’s reelection.

When the president reveals that he does not see nonwhite people as fully American — no matter their citizenship status or place of birth — it becomes all the more difficult for Democrats to see eye to eye on issues like “border security.” After all, if moderates agree that the Trump administration is led by a virulent racist, how can progressives agree to hand that administration new funds for migrant detention with no strings attached?

Democrats are united in opposition to overt bigotry, but they disagree about whether there is an inherent connection between the callous words in the president’s tweets and the “egregious conditions” in America’s border facilities. Everyone in Pelosi’s caucus condemned Trump’s rhetoric on Monday. But some believed they were censuring an expression of personal prejudice; others, a summation of the modern GOP’s true faith. Opposing racism may be unifying for the Democratic Party, but defining it is anything but.

How Trump’s Racism Divides Democrats