It’s hard to watch.
So outlandish was Donald Trump’s Wednesday evening attack on Ilhan Omar (delivered during a raucous rally in Greenville, North Carolina) that any responsible online news portal, mainstream or otherwise, should hesitate before posting the video out of concern for the possibility that doing so risks inadvertently amplifying the message.
We did not post it initially, but because it was plastered all over the front pages of every politically-focused website in America within hours and because it’s drawn the ire of politicians both in America and abroad, we begrudgingly ran the clip.
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There it is, a moment that will almost surely be remembered as one of the low points in modern American history: The President of the United States, telling a series of Islamophobic, racist lies about a sitting US congresswoman, and encouraging the crowd (which included young girls) to chant “Send her back”.
The first thing you should note is that “distorting” or “mischaracterizing” aren’t the right words to use when critiquing how Trump described Omar’s remarks about 9/11 and al-Qaeda. Rather, the president is simply lying. This isn’t strategic “spin”. He is referencing a March speech Omar gave at an event hosted by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (where she spoke about stereotyping) and a 2013 interview with Twin Cities PBS, in Minnesota. You can read the verbatim quotes, in context, here.
Trump has been after Omar for months and the reason for his attacks goes beyond a desire to exacerbate tensions between Nancy Pelosi and “The Squad”. In Omar, Trump has the perfect scapegoat: A Muslim woman hailing from a failed state who wears the hijab in Congress. She embodies every hateful stereotype Trump relies on to keep the base whipped into a xenophobic frenzy. Let’s be clear: Trump is essentially telling his supporters that a terrorist from a “sh*thole” country has infiltrated Congress. That’s the message.
That Omar is one of four congresswomen who are together the face of the progressive movement is even better for Trump, as it affords him an opportunity to add “communist” to the list of derisive labels he’s attempted to sear into Omar’s forehead, like he’s branding cattle (which, not coincidentally, is precisely how he wants his base to see minorities – as animals).
Throw in the fact that Omar is, by association with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, at odds with Pelosi, and the whole situation is ripe for exploitation by a president who revels in controversy, divisiveness, race-baiting and xenophobic dog-whistling.
Read more on the history of Trump’s assault on Omar
Some on Thursday called “Send her back” the new “Lock her up”. That’s a convenient way to conceptualize of this situation, but it trivializes Omar’s plight and it also falls woefully short of communicating the gravity of it all.
For instance, look at the two young girls donning oversized MAGA hats positioned over Trump’s left shoulder in the clip above. Both mouth “Send her back” along with the crowd. One looks to be no older than ten. He is subjecting young children to indoctrination – plain and simple. It is impossible to know how many children were in that crowd. One can’t even begin to fathom what the long-term psychological consequences might be for a ten-year-old who is forced into a situation where thousands of adults (including the child’s parents) are yelling and chanting while the leader of the country demonizes minorities and entire religions.
The nation, and the world, are appalled.
“It saddens me beyond belief that the standard-bearer for the Republican Party, my Party, is making ‘Send her back’ his re-election rallying cry. It’s so ugly. It’s so un-American. It just saddens me beyond belief”, former congressman Joe Walsh said.
“Regardless of what you think about Ilhan Omar, calling for her to go back to Somalia is particularly shameful”, The Washington Examiner’s Siraj Hashmi remarked.
“Trump is stoking the most despicable and disturbing currents in our society. And that very hatred and racism fuels him”, Bernie Sanders tweeted, calling Trump “the most dangerous president in the history of our country”.
“It’s vile. It’s cowardly. It’s xenophobic. It’s racist. It defiles the office of the President. And I won’t share it here”, Kamala Harris lamented. “It’s time to get him out of office”.
European MP Guy Verhofstadt called on the entire “free world” to condemn the situation. “This is monstrous”, he said.
“A tweet. Then a chant. And it won’t stop there”, Bill De Blasio warned.
“Standing idly by as the moral fiber of our country is shredded by unapologetic racism may seem politically expedient to some, but it is ruinous for our nation”, Sally Yates cautioned, in a particularly pointed message from someone who is not shy about delivering harsh criticism of Trump. She quoted Edmund Burke (who actually may not have said the following, by the way): “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”.
“The crowd at Trump’s rally chanting ‘send her back’ after the President viciously and dishonestly attacked Ilhan Omar is one of the most chilling and horrifying things I’ve ever seen in politics”, Obama’s former head speechwriter Jon Favreau cringed.
“It is difficult to overstate how horrifying this is”, Jill Filipovic remarked. “No safe, sane, decent country or leader should ever speak of its own citizens this way”.
Earlier this week, Anthony Scaramucci told the media that Trump may have fallen victim to his own narrative, something we’ve warned was possible on numerous occasions. “I don’t think the president is a racist but here’s the thing, if you continue to say and act in that manner, then we all have to look at him and say, ‘OK, well, maybe you weren’t a racist, but now you’re turning into one'”, Scaramucci told BBC on Tuesday.
Consider Scaramucci’s remarks in the context of the following warning we delivered back in November:
We have our doubts about whether Trump is a racist in the sense that a lot of people seem to think. Trump is too selfish to be the kind of racist that spends his spare time pondering “white power” as a movement or as an ideology. Trump probably can’t even define the term “ideology”. His nationalism is a strange hybrid of tacky glitz and truck stop, bumper sticker jingoism. This is a man who spends his evenings gorging himself on well-done NY strips doused in Ketchup while watching Fox News. He’s not holed up in his study penning genocidal political manifestos by candle light.
That said, Trump has a long history of demonstrating a kind of dumb racism (all racism is inherently “dumb”, but here we use that term to describe the kind of racism that makes one think, for instance, that every African American in a Walmart is going to steal something or that every Mexican is a drug dealer) when it’s convenient or when he thinks he might be able to garner some publicity. Over the course of his presidency, Trump’s racism has become more dangerous to the extent he’s stumbled into adopting overtly nefarious narratives, the most glaring example of which is the anti-Semitic “globalist” conspiracy meme.
Now you’re seeing this play out in real time.
Just 48 hours (give or take) after Scaramucci’s remarks to the press, The Palm Beach County GOP disinvited him from addressing its annual fundraising event, a testament to what the Party (and it’s probably time to start capitalizing “Party” when referring to the GOP) will do to anyone who speaks ill of its leader.
Republican defector Justin Amash implored Americans to remember that “this is how history’s worst episodes begin”, and that is perhaps the most important point.
In the months after Trump declared his candidacy, it was easy to write off his demagoguery as the rantings of an ignorant, power-hungry narcissist who suddenly figured out that his own half-hearted prejudices were, in fact, deeply ingrained into the consciousness of a large portion of the American electorate. Those voters, by virtue of not being handed ~$400 million by their parents, are angry and highly susceptible to a message that ostensibly validates the notion that America’s problems are the fault of outsiders, foreigners, non-Christians and minorities.
Fast forward four years and Trump’s hapless publicity stunts have morphed into thousands of people chanting about forcibly deporting a sitting congresswoman.
As difficult as this is for some people who prefer a measured approach to the president to accept (people like Nancy Pelosi, for example), “it” not only can happen here, it has happened here. The only question is how far it will go.
For her part, Ilhan simply quoted Maya Angelou.
You may shoot me with your words, You may cut me with your eyes, You may kill me with your hatefulness, But still, like air, I’ll rise.