In recent days, President Trump has been widely condemned for firing repeated racist criticisms at several freshman minority congresswomen, saying in a Sunday tweet (and several times since) that they should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came” before voicing their opinions on how America should be run. To which the North Carolina crowd that assembled for a raucous Trump rally Wednesday night responded: Hold our beers.
After Trump embarked on a lengthy diatribe against one of those congresswomen, Minnesota representative Ilhan Omar, who immigrated as a refugee from Somalia as a girl, his fans rewarded him with a rousing and novel chant: “Send her back! Send her back!” Trump waited, expressionless, for the crowd to chant itself out—about ten seconds—and then proceeded with his invective.
The ugly chant called to mind the “Lock her up” chants that were directed at Hillary Clinton during Trump rallies in 2016—and, for that matter, ever since. But the content of the chant was far uglier. While it was certainly unseemly that Trump egged on crowds in crying for the imprisonment of his political opponents, at least that chant was predicated on the audience’s belief that Hillary Clinton had committed imprisonable crimes. Contrast that with the chant against Omar: We were nice enough to take her in from Somalia, and we don’t think she’s been sufficiently grateful for that. Who cares if she’s a U.S. citizen? Back she goes!
If you think about it, the chant was more wretched even than Trump’s own despicable attacks against Omar and her cohorts. At least Trump was merely urging Omar and her colleagues to leave of their own accord. The North Carolina crowd sounded thirsty for them to be thrown onto a trans-Atlantic barge in a sack.
In another way, however, the chants of “Send her back” and those of “Lock her up” are two sides of the same coin. Both are acts of deliberate transgression against what many Trump supporters have come to view as the supposedly stifling ethics of our cultural elites. But while such transgression may have started, in the minds of some, as a way of pushing back for unpopular truths, it is increasingly clear that many on the right these days just enjoy the transgression for the perverse pleasure of it. If “Send her back” is what’s going to send those damn media types into a tizzy, you can bet that’s what they’re going to chant.
The danger here—besides the obvious repulsiveness of the chant itself—is that this accelerating culture of political transgression is like a ratchet that can only turn one way. For a critical mass of conservatives, it is a sign that a given act is actually praiseworthy and brave if it draws condemnation from the despised left-wing media. “Send her back” is a chant that might make some cringe today—but once it’s been digested by the media cycle and the battle lines drawn, and it’s been repeated at rally after rally, it will become, in the minds of Trump’s fans, just another handy weapon for triggering the pearl-clutching libs.
At which point it will be stale. And they’ll need a new, more baldly indefensible, transgression. And so on, and on, and on.
There is, of course, one way that a cycle like this can be deescalated: the president himself could try to tamp it down. Watch the clip of the moment on Wednesday and you can see that Trump, in real time, isn’t sure quite how to respond. It’s his own energy they’re throwing back to him, but he doesn’t revel and cavort in this interaction, as he often does. Instead he just waits it out and proceeds as though nothing had happened. You don’t have to squint that hard to see him issuing a mild rebuke after the fact: Hey team, listen, nobody understands how you feel about Ilhan Omar better than me, believe me—but still, let’s try to keep the racism on Twitter, where people can’t take video of it, okay?
After all, a “Send her back” news cycle should be, in theory, an enormous headache to Trump—since he and his media allies have been insisting for days that he was merely inviting them to leave on their own accord—“it’s their choice”—and that America’s door was open to them: “they can come back when they want.” Before the North Carolina rally made it inoperable, the official line from Trump’s professional apologists was that only fools and cowards could possibly construe his comments about Omar and her accomplices as a racist call to get rid of minority congressman who are duly-elected representatives of the American people.
But who are we kidding? Donald Trump didn’t get this far by talking down to his crowds—that’s the stuff losers like John McCain do. So here’s maybe a more likely scenario for you: Six weeks from now, Trump gets to the Omar segment of his monologue at another rally, and another “Send her back” chant starts up. Trump pauses, looks around, and grins—You know, I’m not supposed to say that. We’re really not supposed to say that. That makes the Fake News call us racists. Does not wanting the socialists and al-Qaeda fans to run America make us racists?
And following along at home on Fox, some viewer will think to himself: Hey, you know what? I guess that doesn’t sound too racist after all.