At a time when the Democratic Party is deeply divided between its progressive and establishment wings – even on the point of race politics, President Donald Trump took the opportunity early Sunday morning to tweet a tirade of racist remarks, saying that “progressive Democrat Congresswomen” of colour should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came”.
Although he did not mention them by name, his remarks are most certainly directed at the four progressive Congresswomen of colour known as “The Squad”: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rep. Ayanna Pressly of Massachusetts, and Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan.
While Trump’s racist demagoguery should come as no surprise, the timing and potential effects of his comments, the “Israel” justification for his bigotry this time around, and the implications for race politics in the 2020 presidential race, are very significant.
The classic “Go back” racist trope
President Trump used a well-known “Go back to where you came from” racist trope, a commonly used slur against people of colour to imply that non-whites do not belong to America.
Suggesting that people of colour are not truly American is a trademark of white nationalist rhetoric.
This is also not new to Trump; after all he was the force behind the “birther” movement, launching his political prominence by claiming that Barack Obama, the first African American US President, is not a natural born citizen.
This is the very definition of racism
Trump’s suggestion that the four Congresswomen of colour are “foreign”, affirms the view that the citizenship, belonging, and loyalty of non-whites is always suspect.
When asked if he was concerned that “white nationalist groups are finding common cause” with him, he said “It doesn’t concern me because many people agree with me.”
After widespread condemnation of his tweets (with the exception of Republicans), Trump changed his rhetoric from “go back” to “leave if you are unhappy,” as he (falsely) accused the Congresswomen of always complaining, hating America, and being terrorist sympathisers.
Besides the fact that they are lawmakers and it’s their job to better the country and represent the interests of the American people, and the fact that Trump ran his entire political campaign on what’s wrong with the country, this discourse of asking people to leave if they disagree with the President’s policies is still as problematic as it is unconstitutional.
This bigoted language and conduct only represent a continuation of Trump’s long-held racist views. He discriminated against African American tenants in his buildings, rallied to execute innocent African American and Hispanic teenagers, called Mexicans rapists and drug dealers, enacted inhumane immigration policies at the US-Mexico border, accused a Hispanic judge of not being able to do his job because of his race, vilified immigrants and asylum seekers as criminals, implemented a Muslim ban, repeatedly made anti-Semitic remarks, referred to African nations and Haiti as “shithole countries”, bragged about sexually assaulting women, and said there are good people on “both sides” when asked about white supremacist violence that killed a protestor, among many other comments.
When the President of the United States attacks the four Congresswomen who are US citizens, elected lawmakers, and sitting members of US Congress, by highlighting their identity and background as a focal point of his assault, this is the very definition of racism.
The problem with the President’s racism is twofold. First, when a sitting US president uses such language attacking fellow Americans, no less elected officials, stripping the Congresswomen of the legitimacy of their citizenship solely based on identity, this dangerously stokes hate and discrimination, encourages and condones racism, and could incite violence against minorities.
Secondly, the fact that Trump is unyieldingly unapologetic and adamantly denies that his remarks are racist, while receiving both applause and silent complicity from his cabinet and Republican leaders, only serves to normalise this type of hateful language and standards both within the Republican Party and in America.
The Israel factor
While Trump’s demagoguery is expected, what was remarkable in his comments this time around was the excessive use of “Israel” to apparently defend and justify his racism and hurl attacks against the non-white congresswomen.
After his initial “go back” tweet, Trump continued his string of attacks later on Sunday accusing the members of Congress of speaking “so badly of our country and… hate Israel with true and unbridled passion”.
Trump referenced Israel in tweets, speeches, and interviews at least 15 times in the span of two days
On Monday morning, he doubled down asking the “radical left congresswomen” to “apologise to our country, the people of Israel and even the Office of the President”, calling them “very unpopular & unrepresentative congresswomen” and that “they have made Israel feel abandoned by the U.S.”.
He echoed Lindsay Graham’s statements calling the Congresswomen “a bunch of communists, they hate Israel, they hate our country,” then Trump called them “anti-Semitic, anti-American” who “talk about Israel like they’re a bunch of thugs, not victims of the entire region”.
Following Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s announcement of a resolution condemning the President’s remarks as xenophobic, Trump stepped up his attacks on Monday specifically singling out Rep. Omar as someone who “says horrible things about Israel, hates Israel, hates Jews, hates Jews”.
He then doubled down in tweets on Monday afternoon saying “Certain people HATE our Country…. They are anti-Israel, pro Al-Qaeda”.
As the four Congresswomen held their joint press conference on Monday afternoon, Trump tweeted accusing the Democrats of “endorsing Socialism, hate of Israel and the USA!”
On Tuesday morning, he accused the Congresswomen of “spewing some of the most vile, hateful, and disgusting things ever said by a politician” and calling them “Horrible anti-Israel, anti-USA, pro-terrorist”.
In this specific episode of personal attacks on the four Congresswomen of colour, Trump referenced Israel in tweets, speeches, and interviews at least 15 times in the span of two days.
The recurring theme of Israel and anti-Semitism in Trump’s attempt to explain his racist comments is remarkable.
The pattern of naming Israel alongside America in the President’s claims of “hating our country” underscores the issue of questioning American loyalty based on the test of support for Israel, which Ilhan Omar herself has said that she was the target of.
Both Omar and Tlaib have been outspoken critics of Israeli policies and have been the target of attacks by pro-Israel groups and individuals in both parties. Using this rhetoric to justify racism against individuals and lawmakers that disagree on policy issues sets a precedent too dangerous to be ignored.
A closely related issue is that of conflating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. Trump’s tweets cite “anti-Israel” and “anti-Semitic” almost interchangeably.
Here, the President nonchalantly conflates the two while weaponising anti-Semitism to spew hate and racism against those who oppose the Israeli occupation and policies.
The irony of employing Nazi and neo-Nazi language while justifying it by referencing anti-Semitism is not lost. More so, politicising anti-Semitism in this fashion and spreading unfounded accusations over social media further endangers serious efforts aimed at addressing the rising problem of real anti-Semitism in the United States.
This only serves to normalise this type of hateful language and standards both within the Republican Party and in America
Additionally, Trump is well aware of the large Evangelical Christian base among his supporters and knows the importance of Israel for this voter demographic. He is using the Israel reference to garner support among Evangelical Christians and the powerful pro-Israel lobby ahead of the 2020 presidential elections.
This is not the first time President Trump has referenced Israel to sell some of his controversial political agenda items. For example, he defended his border wall by saying “walls work, just ask Israel” referring to the Israeli annexation and apartheid wall inside the West Bank, which the International Criminal Court considers illegal.
But Trump’s approach of persistently inserting “Israel” into his otherwise unrelated tweets and weaponising anti-Semitism against the Congresswomen of colour just goes to show that he believes this tactic will shield him and serve his numbers among wider audiences, as well as further divide the Democratic Party.
Party politics ahead of 2020
Trump’s comments come on the heels of Democratic infighting. The progressive Congresswomen have clashed with Pelosi and the Democratic leadership about border security funding, but this clash is viewed more generally to be ideological. The freshmen Justice Democrats, who enjoy a high level of media visibility, are perceived as threats to the re-election chances of establishment democrats.
Additionally, the party has recently been roiled by race politics, including questions of busing and border funding.
Against this backdrop, Trump tried to chime in and intensify the division and feud within the Democratic Party, especially following powerful public testimonies and intense criticism by the four Congresswomen of the Trump administration’s inhumane immigration policies and the treatment of asylum seekers at border detention facilities.
While some argue that Trump’s tweets have had the opposite effect of uniting the Democrats, the rift in the Democratic Party is much more ideological, generational, and very much tied to the future of the party, the direction of which remains to be seen in 2020 and more so in 2024.
The recurring theme of Israel and anti-Semitism in Trump’s attempt to explain his racist comments is remarkable
Similarly, on the Republican side, Trump’s tweets have ignited a struggle for the very values of the Republican Party. According to CNN, only a fraction of Republicans (19 members of Congress) have denounced the President’s tweets.
Members of the Republican leadership diverted from the issue; House GOP leaders held a press conference in which they avoided the question of racism while attacking the Democrats as socialists and criticising their language and policies as “destroying” the country.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did not denounce Trump’s remarks or even mention them, but repeated accusations against Democratic congresswomen and called for “lowering the temperature” on all sides.
The House resolution condemning Trump’s tweets as racist passed on Tuesday evening with only four Republicans voting for it. While this resolution is largely symbolic, the vote has forced House Republicans to go on record supporting or denouncing the president’s comments.
The Republicans are too afraid to lose these votes to speak out
Trump’s voter base has not been shaken by any accusation of racism in the past and is unlikely to be impacted now. On the contrary, Trump is fanning racial conflict and the politics of fear that motivate his right-wing base, and the Republicans are too afraid to lose these votes to speak out.
This is a defining moment for the Republican Party, it must determine if it will be a party tolerant of overt racism at the highest levels, for political ends.
What this latest episodes of Trump’s racism, outrage by Democrats, and Republican complicity shows is that the United States is very much and very dangerously divided along the lines of race politics, which will certainly play a critical role in the upcoming election cycle.
Whether the American people will choose to support or at least tolerate racism over the values of diversity and democracy remains to be seen.