It felt like President Trump’s rally in Greenville, North Carolina, on Wednesday night was probably going to be an ugly one. It was grotesque. The East Carolina University arena was pulsing with white nationalist synergy through the president’s time on stage, provided a horrifying glimpse of what the next 16 months are going to look like.
And, perhaps more hauntingly, what they’re going to sound like.
As expected, Trump continued his attacks on Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), and Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), the four congresswomen of color the president has spent the week demonizing as un-American after they made comments critical of his administration’s immigration policy. When Trump mentioned Omar, his liberal bogeyman du jour, the audience began chanting “SEND HER BACK!,” a chilling successor to the “LOCK HER UP!” chants directed at Hillary Clinton throughout the 2016 campaign and beyond. This time, the call is not merely to jail a political opponent, but to forcefully expel an American citizen from the country.
Plenty have howled about how damaging politically it was for Trump to tweet on Sunday that Omar and her colleagues should “go back” to the “totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” The same people warned of the consequences of Trump’s countless racist provocations as he geared up for his first run at the White House. He kept it up then, and it shouldn’t be surprising not only that he has double, triple, and quadrupled down on his recent attacks against the congresswomen, but that he appears poised to turn the issue into the beating heart of his 2020 campaign.
Crowd at tonight's Trump rally in North Carolina breaks out into chants of "Send her back!" as the president attacks Rep. Ilhan Omar pic.twitter.com/0q5L39W61h
— Jon Passantino (@passantino) July 17, 2019
Xenophobia is Trump’s gin card, and by virtue of tuning in to watch Fox News rail against Omar and her colleagues on Sunday morning, he’s stumbled into a fresh way to play it ahead of 2020. Though some public-facing conservatives have bristled at his comments (and many others have excused them or supported them), Trump knew his base would have his back. “It doesn’t concern me because many people agree with me,” Trump said on Monday when asked if he was worried about his attacks energizing white nationalists.
“SEND HER BACK!” was the resounding confirmation, and Wednesday night’s event in Greenville isn’t likely to be the last time thousands of the president’s supporters chant it in unison.
Similar to how it responded to his tweets on Sunday, the media excoriated Trump for talking about Mexican rapists flowing over the border when he announced his campaign in the summer of 2015. He took the attention as a sign to keep hammering the point, upping the ante whenever necessary. Build a wall? Build a wall! What about a Muslim ban? Why not! He soon found himself at the top of the polls, and, ultimately, in the White House. There’s no reason why Trump wouldn’t run it back again for 2020.
The polls say it’s unpopular; political scientists and pundits warn it’s bad politics. But they said all that in 2016, and like a trained dog, Trump will keep hitting the racism button harder and harder and keep expecting treats.
He’s certainly not done with Omar, either. One of the first Muslim women elected to Congress is too convenient of a vessel into which he and his supporters can pour their prejudices. Trump is treating her like a new toy, citing her “hatred” of “Jews” (a right-wing delusion), her praise of al-Qaeda (which never happened), and her disagreement with his immigration policy (to be expected from a Democrat in Congress) as the reasons she should probably just get go ahead and get the hell out of the United States. The real reason, of course, is that Omar is a powerful women with brown skin and a hijab, and Trump and Fox News find that so threatening and jarring that they’ve conjured these absurd narratives they feel justify their bigotry.
Omar responded Wednesday night with a stanza from Maya Angelo’s poem “Still I Rise.”
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.
-Maya Angelou https://t.co/46jcXSXF0B
— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) July 18, 2019
A few hours later, Omar tweeted a picture of herself standing at the podium in the House of Representatives. “I am where I belong, at the people’s house,” she wrote, “and you’re just gonna have to deal!”
UPDATE: President Trump on Thursday tried to distance himself from the chant. “I was not happy with it, I disagree with it,” he told reporters at the White House.
This post has been updated.