SEND HER BACK! SEND HER BACK!
This was the scene at Donald Trump’s recent rally in Greenville, North Carolina, evidence that every time we think Trump and the GOP have hit rock bottom, there is a new low to which to sink. The audience’s chant was in response to the president’s remarks on Ilhan Omar, which wrongly characterized the first-term representative from the state of Minnesota as an anti-Semite, someone who “looks down with contempt on the hardworking American.”
Trump also criticized fellow freshman Rashida Tlaib, like Omar, a Muslim, as “not somebody that loves our country,” lashed out at Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (eventually just calling her “Cortez” because he decided saying “Ocasio-Cortez” is too much work) for sponsoring the Green New Deal and for correctly reporting that the “concentration camps” at our southern border holding detained migrants offer substandard, inhumane conditions, and ridiculed Ayanna Pressley (“Is she related in any way to Elvis?”) for supposedly saying that “people with the same skin color all need to think the same” and somehow connecting her to violence committed by some anti-fascists (which pales in comparison to atrocities committed by white supremacists, but whatever).
Trump’s attacks on Reps. Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, Pressley, and Tlaib amid his jabs at potential 2020 election rivals including “Sleepy” Joe Biden, Elizabeth “Pocahontas” Warren, Pete Buttigieg, and Bernie Sanders are no accident. He’s painting these newcomers to Congress as leaders of the Democratic Party, thereby trying to get his supporters to fixate on them, their ideals, their ethnicities, their religions, their identities as strong, outspoken women, and reject them and other Democrats as a function of subscribing to an anti-liberal, racist, sexist, xenophobic outlook on life.
As Trump would have it, these critics of his are the face of a party that hates America and everything it stands for, and if they don’t like it, they should leave or, more specifically, “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came.” Trump also tweeted that these “Progressive Democrat Congresswomen… (“progressive” in quotes, as if to doubt how interested in progress they really are) originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe.”
Trump’s public comments, as per the usual, are riddled with inaccuracies and intentional falsehoods. These particular diatribes against the four aforementioned women, however, are especially onerous and reflect egregious and dangerous rhetoric.
First things first, there’s the matter of labeling these women as “originally” from another country, as if they aren’t truly Americans. Ocasio-Cortez was born in the Bronx and is of Puerto Rican descent. Pressley is black and was born in Cincinnati, raised in Chicago, and eventually relocated to Massachusetts. Tlaib was born in Detroit, the daughter of Palestinian immigrants. Omar is the only one of the four born outside the United States, originally from Somalia, but her family sought and secured asylum in 1995 and she became a U.S. citizen in 2000. These women are all American citizens and were duly elected to their positions in Congress by their constituents. Referring to them in any other capacity is to engage in unadulterated bigotry.
Well, that is, unless you ask Republicans or the president himself. Trump’s initial “go back” rant directed at AOC et al. sparked international outrage and condemnation. In the aftermath, the hashtags #RacistInChief and #TrumpIsARacist were trending on Twitter and continue to be used as part of the ensuing conversation about his verbal assault on the first-term congressional quartet. All the while, most members of the GOP have defended Trump against claims he is a racist. He doesn’t have a racist bone in his body! He’s saying what many people are thinking! On the latter point, saying average Americans agree with Pres. Trump means that he’s not a racist is a logical fallacy. Popularity is not an indicator of moral rectitude.
On the Democratic side, meanwhile, the House voted 240 to 187 to condemn Trump’s use of racist language. All House Democrats recorded an “Aye” vote. Newly-minted independent Justin Amash joined them, as did Republicans Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, Fred Upton of Michigan, Susan Brooks of Indiana, and Will Hurd of Texas. Of course, Nancy Pelosi was quick to specify that this was a vote to condemn Trump’s comments as racist, not the man himself. It would apparently be untoward to level such charges against him. Or to hold him accountable in any meaningful way. (But let’s bank on 2020 when we lost in 2016, right?)
Speaking of the Speaker of the House, it bears underscoring that it was her derisive remarks about Pressley, Tlaib, Omar, and Ocasio-Cortez which helped lead to the group receiving their unofficial nickname: “The Squad.” Back in November, Ocasio-Cortez posted a picture of the four of them together with the one-word caption “Squad” on Instagram. This moniker was invoked again by New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd in her profile earlier this month on Pelosi, in which the Democratic leader panned their vote against the House’s version of an emergency border funding bill, saying, “All these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world. But they didn’t have any following. They’re four people and that’s how many votes they got.”
Since then and notably following Trump’s personal attacks, the use of the Squad nickname has increased exponentially. The widespread employ of this term is not without some pushback, to be sure. Some might see it as appropriative, deprecating, or sexist. On the other hand, it might be conceived of as intentionally exclusive on the representatives’ part.
These four congresswomen, however, have clarified that their “squad” includes, as Rep. Pressley puts it, “any person committed to creating a more equitable and just world.” Which, in response to a piece by The Onion, evidently includes the octogenarian Bill Pascrell, my district’s representative. (Props, Bill, props.) By this definition, you or I might be considered members. It’s a concept with real grassroots appeal.
Trump’s harsh rhetoric hasn’t met with much approval outside his most ardent backers and his most shameless apologists on Capitol Hill and in the media. Moreover, his attempted claim that he denounced the “Send her back!” chant during the event is verifiably false, earning him further censure for trying to gaslight everyone.
As for Speaker Pelosi, her downplaying of The Squad’s influence as one segment in an ever-lengthening line of reprobation and dismissal of progressive Democrats has earned her scorn in her own right as out of touch, markedly from leftists and others who have remained critical of her steering of the Democratically-led House. If nothing else, her repudiation of these women of color and failure to come to their defense except when called out by the president is bad optics for a party that touts its diversity among its strengths. In fact, as Ocasio-Cortez believes, this pattern of behavior on Pelosi’s part doesn’t speak to some innocuous, unprejudiced treatment of The Squad—and she’s not alone in this assessment.
Through all of the slurs, the death threats, the denigration, and the lies hurled at these women, their commitment to their principles and their resolve hasn’t wavered. Consequently, their stars are only shining brighter. Rep. Omar, who received a hero’s welcome when she returned to her home state, addressed Trump’s vitriolic barbs directed at her, defiantly promising to be the “nightmare” the president has made her out to be. Hers was not a threat, but a warning: mess with The Squad and prepare to live with the consequences.
The comments Donald Trump made denigrating the members of The Squad and his refusal to squelch the chants of his attendees aimed at Ilhan Omar speak volumes about the president and the current state of the GOP. A common refrain from those paid to be in attendance and/or professionals within the political sphere (and thus presumably with at least a modicum of discernment apart from Trump’s faithful) as gleaned from social media was that it was one of the most frightening sights they had ever witnessed in the world of politics. Many of those same people felt a sense of dread, suggesting Trump was doing his best to get Rep. Omar killed. Other onlookers professed they’re beginning to understand how the atrocities of Nazi Germany could’ve happened from the very tenor of the event.
The few defections on the resolution about Trump’s racist language aside, Republicans’ inaction and silence on this front make one wonder what line could be crossed that would result in substantive intercedence on their part. For example, Lindsey Graham, one-time Trump critic, has apparently become a full-time sycophant, reversing course on the president after calling him a “race-baiting bigot” in 2015.
Mitch McConnell likewise defended Trump against allegations he is a racist, saying the president is “on to something” in his claims that these women want “to turn us into a socialist country,” dodging questions about the “Send her back!” chorus of nights earlier. Mitt Romney, in true Mitt Romney fashion, said Trump “crossed a line” but isn’t a racist. Marco Rubio. Ted Cruz. Paul Ryan, where was this semblance of a spine when you were Speaker of the House? Where is the conscience of these men, some of whom thought they could represent the entire country? Or was it all a big con, a ploy motivated by political opportunism? Can the same be asked of Trump and the Republican Party at large?
Lest we give the Democrats too much credit, leadership’s inability or unwillingness to rein in moderates bent on opposing the “far left” or defend The Squad against baseless accusations of anti-Semitism further emboldens Trump and his enablers. As far as the “Racist-in-Chief” is concerned, it may as well as be open season on Reps. Tlaib, Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley, and Omar. I mean this in terms of his wont to say anything he wants without fear of reprisal, but returning to reported instances of death threats and even a planned plot to kill Omar, he doesn’t need to pull the trigger. Putting a target on their backs is enough. The Democratic Party bears some culpability here beyond signing onto a toothless House resolution admonishing the president for spreading hate from his bully pulpit.
The ugliness of Pres. Trump’s remarks, whether or not it’s a distraction from the horror of the concentration camps at the border or Jeffrey Epstein’s depravity or the implications of the Mueller report, drives home the notion that representatives of both major parties sooner or later need to take a stand. Republicans must decide at what point political expediency has its limits, consider whether they’ve ceded full control of their party to a fascist, and confront what this arrangement means for the long-term viability of the GOP. Democrats have to face the possibility that waiting for 2020 could take too long, not to mention that standing for something—anything—signals to their base that their cause is worth fighting for. Not merely to be hyperbolic, but the future of these parties and the concept of American democracy as a going concern might just depend on it.
As suggested earlier, popularity doesn’t equate to moral rectitude nor does it necessarily translate to votes or other forms of political engagement. For Democrats and Republicans alike, though, going after The Squad is ill-advised. In the face of adversity, these women are proud inspirations to other political entrants like them. To underestimate them and their supporters is to underestimate the power that everyday people coming together at the grassroots level possess when fully realized. In the end, it could be a costly miscalculation to make.