US President Donald Trump, after spending more than a week escalating his attacks against four Congresswomen of colour and infuriating opponents who accused him of racism, continued his smears Monday.
In a tweet, Trump labelled the freshman Democrats known as “The Squad” a “very racist group of troublemakers”, and accused them of being bad for the country.
“The ‘Squad’ is a very Racist group of troublemakers who are young, inexperienced, and not very smart. They are pulling the once great Democrat Party far left, and were against humanitarian aid at the Border... And are now against ICE and Homeland Security. So bad for our Country!” Trump wrote.
Hardly a day earlier, on Sunday, the US president tweeted: “I don’t believe the four Congresswomen (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley) are capable of loving our Country,” and accused them of “destroying the Democratic Party”.
Like in previous tweets and statements, he said the four Congresswomen should apologise, ironically first to Israel and then to America.
Trump’s tweets confirmed that he had no intention of backing down, despite warnings from some close supporters that his handling of this confrontation was dangerous, not just for his own Republican Party, but for the future of race relations in America and keeping the country united.
After stirring a wave of criticism last week when he said the four young representatives should “go back” to the “totally broken and crime infested places from which they came”, he attended a rally on Wednesday in North Carolina where the crowds passionately shouted “Send her back!” in reference to the Somali-born Congresswoman Omar. All three other Congresswomen were born in the US to immigrant parents.
While the US president said he was “not happy” with the chant the day after the event, he did not push back on it during his rally. Instead, Trump let the chant continue for 13 seconds without interruption. One day later, he quickly moved into praising the crowd, describing them as “patriotic”.
Representative Tlaib of Michigan, a key “Squad” member who comes from Palestinian origins and has been sharply attacked by Trump supporters for criticising Washington’s blind support for Israeli occupation, vowed to hold her ground during a speech in Detroit on Monday.
“I’m not going nowhere, not until I impeach this president,” Tlaib said at the NAACP annual convention in Detroit. In her remarks, Tlaib did not directly address the president’s latest tweets, but later in her speech she said: “We need bold action, folks. I know what’s happening out there... it’s beyond just the four of us.”
She added: “The Squad is all of you. I can tell you, you are all the squad, trust me. If you support equity, you support justice, you are one of us.”
Tlaib has long pushed for impeachment, and made headlines hours after her swearing in to Congress when she told the audience at a progressive event, “We’re gonna go in there and we’re going to impeach the motherf****r,” a reference to the US president.
Democratic Senator Kamala Harris of California, the most viable woman of colour to run for president, said that the scenes from Trump’s rally, while personally upsetting, were not surprising. “When we’re on that stage together in the general, I know he’ll try to pull the same thing with me,” Harris said.
“But I’m fully prepared for that. I’m up for it. Because he is small. He is wrong. He is a bully.”
And at a fund-raiser in Los Angeles on Friday, former vice president Joseph Biden told supporters that Trump is “tearing at the social fabric of this country”. He added: “The fact of the matter is this president is more George Wallace than George Washington.”
However, for Trump’s defenders, such as Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, the four Congresswomen are, “a bunch of communists.” Therefore, their political stance is far more deserving of denunciation than the president’s attacks.
What seems to be worrying Trump most is winning the 2020 presidential elections. To reach that goal, he signalled his intent to rely on nationalism and identity politics, portraying Democrats as out of sync with American values.
Despite sharp attacks he encountered from the liberal media and Democrats, his stunning comments on the four Congresswomen did not appear to be backfiring with the conservative voters he hopes to bring out in force in 2020.
Supporters said they were willing to ignore Trump’s outbursts, pointing to strong hiring in local factories as evidence he was doing a good job.
Others raised fears about a move towards “socialism” within the Democratic Party, and suggested that Trump’s remarks might even gain him support by showcasing just how far left the Democratic Party has shifted.
While the president was mostly energising his base by attacking the four women, the Democrats’ shift to the left could also work to Trump’s advantage among swing voters in 2020, according to US pollsters.
In many of the crucial swing states in the mid-west and the south, the version of the Democratic Party presented by the two dozen candidates seeking the party’s nomination to face Trump in 2020 seem antithetical to their concerns, such as decriminalising illegal border crossings and offering Medicaid to undocumented immigrants.
The Congresswomen “very much represent the loony left, from my perspective”, said one Trump supporter who attended the North Carolina rally.
“I think mainstream Democrats don’t necessarily agree with these folks,” he added.
“Those women are a little extreme,” noted another Trump voter. “They’re actually doing Trump a favour every time they open their mouth. Anti-Israel, for starters. That’s not a good thing. Moreover, I think the economy has done very well since he’s been in office,” he added.
Democrats are seeing clear signs in their own research that the president is not as weak politically as he might appear. Last week, lawmakers were presented with the findings of a new poll where a generic Democratic presidential candidate beats Mr Trump by only two points.
Trump obviously believes that his campaign highlighting racial resentment and fears of growing numbers of immigrants flooding the US will likely drive up turnout, even more among groups favourable towards his populist agenda.
However, the openly divisive language used by Trump threatened a rise in hate speech, if not crime. Over the weekend, a Louisiana police officer came under fire for a Facebook post suggesting that Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest serving Congresswomen whose parents originally came from Puerto Rico, needed a “round” — an apparent exhortation for the New York Congresswomen to be shot.
A Republican group in Illinois was also denounced for sharing a fake movie poster that referred to the Congresswomen as the “Jihad Squad”. In April, a New York man was arrested for threatening to kill Omar.
Some Republican members of Congress also denounced Trump’s strategy and tolerance of racist chants made during the rally he attended Wednesday.
Paul Mitchell, a conservative Republican, said Trump must be cautious. “I do believe this strategy will be damaging to this election,” he said.
He has asked for a meeting with the president, hoping to add his voice to other Republicans who have urged Trump to restrain himself, and to consider that as a president, he was supposed to be representing all the American people. “I was appalled by the chanting ‘Send her back,’” Mitchell said.
Other Trump supporters who later turned against him for differences over policy or his revolving-door hiring since he became president, pointed out that over decades in business, entertainment and now politics, the US president has approached America’s racial, ethnic and religious divisions opportunistically.
With his eye on the White House, he opened his campaign in 2015 against former Democratic president Barack Obama by igniting debate over whether he was actually an American citizen, claiming that the first coloured US president was actually born in Africa, and not in the United States, which is a condition to run for the top post.
His own campaign in 2016 was marked by slurs against Mexicans, a proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the US, and obscene language against women.
“Let me be clear: Donald Trump is a disgusting, filthy, petty racist and he is trying to start a race war in this country and what we saw this week is just the beginning,” said Manigault Newman, a former White House staffer who was fired after a short stint.
Anthony Scaramucci, who briefly served as White House communications director, tweeted Monday that Trump would never have told a white immigrant to “go back” to his country. “That’s why the comments were racist and unacceptable,” he said, remarks that got him disinvited from a Republican fund raiser.
For some who defended Trump against charges of racism in the past, the North Carolina rally and chants of “Send her back” was a turning point.
“As much as I have denied it and averted my eyes from it, this latest incident made it impossible,” Geraldo Rivera, a roaming correspondent at large for Fox News and long-time Trump friend.
“My friendship with the president has cost me friendships, it has cost me schisms in the family; my wife and I are constantly at odds about the president,” he added.
“I do insist that he’s been treated unfairly. But the unmistakable words, the literal words he said, is an indication that the critics were much more right than I.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Baying the crowd