Donald Trump rose to power by fueling a consistent narrative that you’re either for America and for him, or you’re against him and against America, painting those who criticize him and his policies as fundamentally unpatriotic. So, perhaps his actions at a campaign rally in Greenville, North Carolina, on Wednesday night — spending several minutes attacking Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., as anti-American and saying that “she looks down with contempt on hard-working Americans” after which his supporters chanted “send her back” for 15 second while he made no effort to quiet them — shouldn’t be as shocking as they are.
Still, many pundits in the conservative world found these chants to be surprisingly appalling and hate-laced. But that is par the course, and has been for this president. And he’s already painted exactly that picture about Omar and the three other Democratic congresswomen he has attacked on Twitter this week — Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan — and even used similar words to the ones his audience later cheered.
Trump’s earlier Twitter tirades against the four women are just another example of his outright racism that is unbefitting of the Oval Office and goes against American values in general. The congresswomen are, in fact, Americans and it is quite disturbing that he would tell them to go back to the “totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” And nobody chanting “send her back” about Omar on Wednesday night meant Minnesota, or thought the president meant Massachusetts, the Bronx or Michigan when he was talking about all four congresswoman on Twitter, for that matter.
Trump can claim, as he did on Thursday, that he was “not happy when I heard that chant” and he can respond to the backlash by telling reporters “I disagree with it,” but he is the one who first said of Omar and the others, “Why don’t they go back” and “IF YOU ARE NOT HAPPY HERE, YOU CAN LEAVE!” These statements imply exactly what his supporters were chanting — plus, if Trump wanted to stop it, he could have, rather than letting it continue for close to 15 seconds.
All of this is just another example of the dangerous narrative Trump is perpetuating about who is really an American, and that should give all Americans pause. Instead, it’s firing up Trump’s base of supporters. A Reuters/Ipsos survey conducted after the president’s racist tweets showed that his approval had risen among Republicans.
What’s more, this type of “us vs. them” rhetoric has always ignited Trump’s base: When NFL players such as Colin Kaepernick protested racial injustice in the United States by kneeling during the national anthem, Trump quickly reframed the protests as something unpatriotic rather than acknowledging the actual reasons for the protests. This narrative struck a chord with Trump voters because according to polling, those who viewed the NFL unfavorably spiked from 20 percent to 60 percent after his comments, and Trump’s own popularity increased among his base.
He has successfully (and frighteningly) further polarized Americans on the issues of race and culture, is weaponizing our polarization and some people’s fear. His success is apparent because a majority of people within his own party repeatedly refuse to denounce his comments or are remaining silent, knowing that being at odds with Trump risks their electoral demise.
What’s more, staunch Trump supporter Sen Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., even said after the rally: “No, I don’t think it’s racist to say. … I don’t think a Somali refugee embracing Trump would have been asked to go back.” This type of support for a man Graham once called “race-baiting and xenophobic” on the campaign trail is twisted, but further shows just how far the Republican Party has fallen and strayed off course with Trump at the helm.
A few Republican lawmakers, including Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Joni Ernst of Iowa and Cory Gardner of Colorado, denounced the earlier comments — but two of the three are still supporting the president, showing that they remain spineless in the face of re-election. Other Republicans called for Trump to disavow his comments after Wednesday’s campaign rally, but that is too little, too late.
This is the sad reality of the times that we live in: Politicians care more about getting re-elected than they do about their moral character and doing what’s right. Republicans seemingly no longer care about principles and policy and instead care solely about fueling their base. But this isn’t a long-term strategy: After the 2012 election, the Republican Party commissioned an autopsy report that explicitly showed that Republicans couldn’t rely solely on the support of white voters in elections and needed to conduct outreach to minorities and women. Somehow all of that has changed as Trump instead plays white identity politics.
While this controversy is the flavor of the week, there are still 16 months until the general election and that means that there will sadly be dozens of new controversies and incendiary rhetoric from the president between now and then as election battles heat up. It’s clear that Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric is not going to turn off his staunch base of supporters; if anything, it will continue to fuel their support for him, and he is increasingly relying solely on turnout — and what he assumes will be a weak Democratic candidate who won’t appeal to centrist voters and the suburban women the party lost in the midterms.
Trump’s ability to weaponize patriotism is dangerous for America and will continue to further divide us. The irony, though, is that the intolerant rhetoric he espouses and that his supporters chant is fundamentally anti-American. The only way to stop it is to not play into it, something that would bother Trump bigly.
Ashley Pratte is a political commentator and communications strategist who previously served as director of media relations and public affairs at the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the director of media relations and consultant for Better For America. She currently serves on the Board of Republican Women for Progress.