One of the most chilling things about President Trump’s hate-rally in North Carolina — which devolved into chants of “send her back,” directed at a nonwhite immigrant member of Congress — was the profusion of tweets about it from abroad.
Robert Mann, the historian of the civil rights era, lamented from across the Atlantic that it’s “shocking” to be in Britain while “one of the top stories” all over the British media is “just how much of a vile racist my country has for a president.”
Tweeting from Australia, the New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb noted that in Sydney, “many people” have asked him about Trump’s “latest bigotry spree.” Cobb added: “this is a reminder that the entire world is an audience for this abject racist stupidity.”
As the president of the United States leads a domestic hate movement, the world is watching.
In case you think this is too American-centric a view, Cobb pushed back on that, as well. “Believe it or not,” he noted, “if you have the world’s largest economy, people pay close attention to you.”
The world will be watching this spectacle for at least the next 16 months: New reporting is now confirming that Trump views his racist and white-nationalist provocations as key to his reelection effort.
“These left-wing ideologues see our nation as a force for evil,” Trump ranted at his North Carolina rally on Wednesday night. “They want to demolish our Constitution, weaken our military, eliminate the values that built this magnificent country.”
Trump, of course, was referring to the four lawmakers he has attacked for days on end — all members of racial, ethnic or religious minority groups — at one point suggesting they “go back” to their countries, even though three were born in the United States.
The “go back” language is apparently resonating deeply with Trump supporters. When Trump singled out Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), the only one who wasn’t born in the United States, the crowd erupted in a blood-curdling chant of “send her back.”
Trump’s mention of Omar drew loud, sustained boos. Trump mangled Omar’s words to dishonestly paint her as an al-Qaeda sympathizer, and his tone dripped with contempt as he lingered over his pronunciation of Omar’s last name. This produced more scattered, angry catcalls.
When Trump repeated that the “hate-filled extremists” should “leave,” the cheering grew deafening. It’s important to reiterate here that Trump is talking about duly elected members of Congress and singling out those who are members of racial, ethnic and religious minorities as targets of his call to “leave.”
In other words, they are not members in good standing of the American nation. These are well-worn white-nationalist tropes, a contemporary iteration of this country’s long history of illiberal racial nationalism. These are what the crowd cheered.
Racist tropes are central to Trump’s campaign
Trump views energizing his base around such tropes as central to his reelection. The Associated Press reports that Trump and his campaign believe that placing “racial polarization at the center of his call to voters” carries “far more benefits than risks.”
We know what Trump is doing here. The reporting has established a pattern, in which Trump’s racist provocations are employed deliberately to foment racism, rage and/or hate among his supporters. Trump’s belief that his base would cheer was partly what drove his attacks on African American athletes and his refusal to condemn white-supremacist violence.
Not all of Trump’s advisers are so sure this will work in 2020. According to the New York Times, some believe “divisive cultural clashes” are risky. They think Trump’s “relentless focus on immigration and other nationalist themes” may have alienated suburban swing voters, leading a large popular majority to deliver the House to Democrats in 2018.
The early polls suggest the worriers are probably right. Large majorities reject Trump’s attacks as racist and offensive. You can bet many of those voters are ones Trump must win back after the GOP lost them in 2018.
A lot is at stake
With reports coming in from abroad of intense interest in how we’re handling this moment, it’s worth recalling that America’s racial struggles have commanded international attention throughout our history.
During the Civil War, as Helena Rosenblatt writes in “The Lost History of Liberalism,” European liberals believed the long-term international survival of liberal democracy was “linked to the survival of the Union” and saw Abraham Lincoln as a test for whether enlightened leadership could prevent popular government from sliding into despotism.
Mann, the historian mentioned above, notes that the civil rights movement also drew intense global scrutiny. “From the Montgomery bus boycott through Selma and beyond, the movement in the United States was an international story,” Mann told me.
Movement leaders regularly noted that the endurance of Jim Crow and the era’s violent white-supremacist resistance undermined our international “moral standing,” Mann added. When the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts passed in the 1960s, seemingly putting us on a better path, he said, it sent a “message to oppressed peoples around the world.”
It has been widely noted that Democrats are consumed in a debate over how aggressively to confront Trump’s racism and white nationalism. But, notwithstanding that most Republicans are sitting this out or actively rallying behind Trump, shouldn’t this be a national debate?
A lot is at stake here. As Vox’s Sean Illing notes, the sight of Trump “leading a white mob in a chant” about sending a black Congresswoman “home” will be “featured in history books for decades to come.”
History and the world are watching.