“Racially charged” is how both CNN and the Wall Street Journal described a series of tweets sent by Donald Trump over the weekend targeting four Democratic women of color, Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib. In the tweets, Trump wrote that the women should “go back” and “fix” what he described as the “totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”
The tweets came as the president attempted to capitalize on days of public infighting between the four progressive congresswomen and party leadership, made public after Speaker Nancy Pelosi criticized the women in a conversation with the New York Times’s Maureen Dowd. Ocasio-Cortez responded to Pelosi in an interview with the Washington Post, accusing Pelosi of “the explicit singling out of newly elected women of color.” Enter Trump who reframed the debate within his own racist perspective, echoing his familiar rhetoric about immigrants, immigration, and people of color.
Far from being “racially charged,” Trump’s tweets were simply racist, summoning up a particularly old iteration of American racism—a history of ugly nativist language that’s often defined American discourse and policy on immigration, from warnings of foreign invaders, to suspect politics that run afoul of the foundations of American to the racist language of dirt and disease. (Consider Trump’s description of “infested places” in his thread, a strong contrast to his earlier depiction of “well-run and clean... children’s detention centers” operated on the southern border. It’s a telling contrast of aesthetics without any sense of morality.)
Trump laid it out quite clearly with little room for interpretation. But Republicans seem determined to obscure the president’s intentions; to squabble over interpretation, as though semantics is what is at stake; as though Trump hasn’t expressed these racist sentiments over and over again.
Trump wrote that the women“originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe,” effectively labeling four women of color—three of whom were born in the United States (Omar emigrated to the United States from Somalia in 1992)—foreign simply because of their skin color. “These places need your help badly,” Trump continued, adding that the women couldn’t leave the United States “fast enough.” “I’m sure that Nancy Pelosi would be very happy to quickly work out free travel arrangements,” he added, referencing the public disagreement between Democratic leadership and the four congresswomen.
Such racism isn’t particularly new territory for the president who, in the past, has warned about an immigrant “invasion,” luridly framing refugee and asylum seekers as a little more than a criminal army waiting to prey on vulnerable white women. The animating spirit of Trump’s immigration policies has always relied on this visceral sense of debasement; underscoring a fundamental belief that black and brown immigrants are innately subhuman, that they are animals. Consider, for example, Trump’s comments in January 2018, when he railed against immigrants from what he called “shithole countries,” referencing African nations, as well as Haiti. His comment, reportedly said in meeting on the immigration lottery system, made Trump’s worldview devastatingly clear.
That same ideology was repacked and refocused on Pressley, Tlaib, Ocasio-Cortez, and Omar on Sunday. Here, four elected congresswomen were transformed into foreigners who were undermining the Trumpian view of America; they were reminded that, in the United States, their citizenship is fundamentally suspect, regardless of birth certificates. As with his vocal questioning of Barack Obama’s citizenship, Trump not-so-subtly implied that America, and by extension its politics, are white, and should remain so.
Just as Republicans and pundits excused Trump’s “shithole” remarks, they also excused his attacks on the four congresswomen. The Week reports that Texas Representative Chip Roy tweeted that while Trump “was wrong to say any American citizen... has any ‘home’ besides the U.S,” he added that “Reps who refuse to defend America should be sent home.” That line of thinking was reiterated on Monday by Maryland Republican Andy Harris who told WBAL that Trump’s tweets were “obviously not racist.” “Clearly it’s not a racist comment,” Harris continued, “he could have meant go back to the district to the district they came from, to the neighborhood they came from.”
Suddenly, Trump’s racism was simply an issue of interpretation or overuse of the accusation itself. “Whenever someone disagrees with someone now, the default is to call them a racist, and this is no exception,” Harris said. That defense was repeated online by Fox News analyst Brit Hume who tweeted, “Trump’s “go back” comments were nativist, xenophobic, counterfactul [sic] and politically stupid. But they simply do not meet the standard definition of racist, a word so recklessly flung around these days that its actual meaning is being lost.” That a nativist, xenophobic worldview is somehow independent of racism is ridiculous on its face, but Harris and Hume’s line of defense will undoubtedly cement, transforming Trump’s racism into a debate about what constitutes the “standard definition” of racism and who is allowed to write that definition.
But if Hume and Harris were invested in a twisted debate of interpretation, Senator Lindsey Graham exercised that power with a clear defense of Trump. In a Monday appearance on Fox and Friends, Graham refused to condemn Trump’s tweets, calling Pressley, Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, and Omar “a bunch of communists.” “We all know that [Ocasio-Cortez] and this crowd are a bunch of communists, they hate Israel, they hate our own country,” Graham said. “They’re calling the guards along our border, the border patrol agents, ‘concentration camp guards.’ They accuse people who support Israel of doing it for the Benjamins. They’re anti-Semitic. They’re anti-America.”
Graham effectively reiterated what Trump said, framing the four freshmen congresswomen as foreign agents whose politics have no room in truly American (read: white) politics. Shortly after Graham’s appearance, Trump tweeted again, this time demanding an apology. “When will the Radical Left Congresswomen apologize to our Country, the people of Israel and even to the Office of the President, for the foul language they have used, and the terrible things they have said,” Trump wrote. “So many people are angry at them & their horrible & disgusting actions!” In a follow-up tweet, Trump accused the four of “racist hatred.” It’s telling that Trump finally found it fitting to use the word racist, turning it away from himself and toward women of color.
Perhaps even more revealing is that in less than 48-hours, Republicans have managed to transform another instance of blatant racism into a referendum on interpretation—both of language and of the very nature of American citizenship. Just a few hours ago, Utah Senator Mitt Romney said that the president “fell short” but added that these “new members of Congress have views that... are not consistent with building a strong America.” Romney refused to describe Trump’s remarks as racist, even though he was directly asked, but he was quick to imply that Pressley, Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, and Omar were undermining America. Republicans might distance themselves from Trump’s language, but they have embraced his fundamental message: that four women of color are simply not real Americans.