In the day since President Donald Trump issued a series of racist tweets claiming that four Democratic women of color in Congress should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” the president’s history of racism has been back in the media spotlight.
“So interesting to see ‘Progressive’ Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all), now loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run,” Trump tweeted on Sunday.
His attacks on the congresswomen extended into Monday, with the president claiming that the women owe the country an apology for their “horrible & disgusting actions.” At a press conference later in the day, Trump argued that he wasn’t concerned about backlash to his remarks or his use of a long-used racist trope. “It doesn’t concern me because many people agree with me,” he said. “And all I’m saying — they want to leave, they can leave. Now, it doesn’t say, ‘Leave forever.’ It says, ‘Leave if you want.’”
The targets of Trump’s ire have mostly gone unnamed, but the remarks seem to be clearly addressing Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), and Ilhan Omar (D-MN). Each is a progressive woman of color serving her first term, and all have attracted considerable attention for their outspoken critiques of DC politics in general and the president in particular. In recent days, some of the women — at times referred to as “the squad” by reporters — have been locked in a fight with Democratic leadership over a recent border bill and the direction of the Democratic Party.
But Trump’s comments have shifted attention away from that fight and to the president’s longstanding history of racism and his frequent attacks on high-profile people of color, which has drawn criticism from both Democratic Party officials and political leaders in other countries. His remarks fit into a broader pattern of attacks on his critics of color, with the president regularly questioning these individual’s patriotism in an effort to undercut their arguments.
Ultimately, Trump, both in his worldview and approach to the presidency, sees his ability to inflame cultural and racial tensions as a political strength.
The media’s mixed reaction to these remarks have raised questions as well, with some outlets hesitating to call the president’s comments or actions racist. But even if some in the media are unwilling to state this clearly, the president has long positioned American identity as something naturally inherited by whites and only conditionally granted to other races, wielding patriotism and citizenship as a cudgel to be used against people of color. His comments about the Democratic congresswomen show that he will only continue to rely on this argument.
These Democratic women in Congress have faced heated criticism from Trump before
Omar, a naturalized citizen, Somali refugee and one of the few Muslim women in Congress, has been repeatedly criticized by the president. He has framed her criticisms, particularly of Israel, as nothing more than open hate for the country and its main ally, the United States. “She’s been very disrespectful, frankly, to Israel,” Trump said in the spring. He added that he believed that Omar has been “extremely unpatriotic and extremely disrespectful to our country.”
The Congress member reported receiving death threats soon after.
This week, Trump singled out Omar again, claiming that she “hates Jews” and has praised al-Qaeda. This criticism seems to closely mirror recent critiques of Omar from Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who said that the congresswoman is “living proof that the way we practice immigration has become dangerous to this country.”
The other women of color included in Trump’s criticism have also faced heavy criticism during their time in Congress. As Nisha Chittal wrote for Vox, in addition to Omar, Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib “have been three of the most scrutinized, most frequently attacked new members of Congress.”
The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer notes that Trump’s “go back to your country” argument continues a line of racist attacks that people of color have faced for generations. “When Trump told these women to ‘go back,’ he was not making a factual claim about where they were born,” Serwer writes. “He was stating his ideological belief that American citizenship is fundamentally racial, that only white people can truly be citizens, and that people of color, immigrants in particular, are only conditionally American.”
The comments also continue a pattern for Trump. As Vox’s German Lopez has reported, Trump’s racism has been well documented since the 1970s, when his earliest brushes with national media came as he and his father were sued for housing discrimination.
Years later, the real estate developer would call for the Central Park Five, a group of black and Latino teens convicted (and later exonerated) for the assault of a white female jogger to face the death penalty. He still has not apologized for his comments more than a decade after the men were exonerated.
The closest analogue to Trump’s most recent remarks can be seen in his backing of birtherism, the completely false argument that then-President Barack Obama was not an American citizen. It was one of Trump’s most potent efforts to tie race to citizenship and national identity, with Trump arguing that the country’s first black president was not simply outside of the American political mainstream, but stood outside of American identity entirely.
In the years since, Trump has honed his argument and deployed it against different groups. There was his 2015 campaign launch where he referred to Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “criminals,” and his 2016 claims that Colin Kaepernick, a US-born athlete, should “find a country that works better for him” rather than protest police violence during NFL games. From the black parent of a college basketball player to a grieving Gold Star family, Trump’s critics of color have been painted as un-American instigators.
Trump’s attacks are racist, but there is a reluctance to call them that
Trump has argued, often openly, that he views whiteness as a core feature of American identity. And while his theory of nationalism is automatically applied to white Americans, those with other identities — African Americans, Latinos, Muslim Americans, and recent immigrants — have been quickly ostracized and treated as “other.”
During his three years as president, Trump has only refined his messaging further. When criticized by a person of color, Trump often presents them as ungrateful, disrespectful, and most importantly for Trump’s argument, unpatriotic. From the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, to black women, to kneeling NFL players, and anyone in between, the president has argued that their criticism is tantamount to openly hating America and its ideals.
Alongside these arguments, the president has pursued policies that have punished many of these same groups. His 2018 criticism of “shithole countries,” a reference to places like Haiti and several countries in Africa, came as he fought to limit diversity visas and worked to end temporary protected status for several countries. (Conversely, Trump has notably praised immigrants from predominantly white countries like Norway, and previously called a nearly all-white but mostly non-American NHL team “incredible patriots.” )
His attacks on the perceived lack of patriotism from NFL players kneeling to protest police violence followed the Justice Department’s move away from enforcing police reform agreements with agencies that had a history of officer misconduct. And more recently, Trump’s attacks on the four women in Congress came as these lawmakers criticized the reportedly brutal conditions seen in migrant detention camps at the US border, and as the president ended his fight to get a citizenship question onto the 2020 census.
In doing so, the president has amplified a practice of using racist attacks on people of color that has long occurred in American politics. But unlike in prior years where these attacks were deployed subtly, Trump has largely abandoned coded language in favor of overt taunting, even as he argues that his use of policy to target specific minority groups is not racist or discriminatory.
“Much of Trump’s agenda rests on this idea that the boundaries of rights and citizenship are conterminous with race,” New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie wrote on Monday. “Those within Trump’s boundaries enjoy the fruits of American freedom, while those outside them face the full force of American repression.”
In many ways, the president has taken advantage of America’s inability to openly discuss race and racism. Even now, after years of arguments that they should do so (and a recent nudge from the AP Stylebook used in many newsrooms across the country), some national media outlets and politicians continue to hesitate to identify the president’s remarks and actions as racist.
While Bouie openly criticized Trump’s tweets as racist, earlier articles from the Times argued that Trump’s recent tweets played into a “racial fire” or used other euphemisms. Other outlets, like CBS News and NPR, argued that Trump’s remarks were “incendiary,” or “racially charged.” When outlets did call Trump’s comments racist on Sunday, many hedged by relying on quotes from Democrats criticizing the president. Figures like Fox News’ Brit Hume claimed that Trump’s remarks were “nativist” and “xenophobic”, but failed to meet the definition of racism. Republican politicians meanwhile, largely looked away from the issue entirely.
Much of this is due to a deeper problem with how the American public discusses racism. Many Americans rely on a definition of racism that focuses on individual acts committed intentionally by “bad” people. It’s a framing that largely relies on racism that can be clearly seen and heard, obscuring the ways that racism can occur even in the absence of slurs or obviously racist remarks.
But it also helps to explain how so many reporters and politicians can witness Trump’s racism and still not identify it as such. In an analysis of the coverage of Trump’s racist tweets on Monday, the Columbia Journalism Review noted many older outlets still struggle to see the term “racism” as a factual descriptor, adding that there is still “a residual, old-school squeamishness in newsrooms around charged words that—before Trump broke all the rules, at least—smacked of opinion or activism.” And it’s hard to separate this deep-seated belief from the media’s continued struggle to attract and retain reporters of color.
This understanding of racism also shows why some outlets and writers find it difficult to respond to Trump’s openly racist comments. Racism has come to be treated as an epithet, with many arguing that to be called a racist is as bad as actually experiencing racism itself.
That can do real harm to our ability to grasp the impact of comments like those the president tweeted this week. But it also reflects a longstanding cognitive dissonance, a divide between what America currently looks like for marginalized communities and what America has long professed to be for all of its citizens. As Serwer explained, the discussion of racism seen in recent days (and even long before that) is “is not, fundamentally, a battle over facts, but a clash of values.” The question is how this clash will be understood moving forward.