US President Donald Trump redoubled what many deemed “racist” attacks on a quartet of non-white Democratic congresswomen Monday, insisting they leave the United States if they wished to continue complaining about his policies.
On Sunday, the first-term congresswomen — known as “The Squad” on Capitol Hill — were the target of yet another series of controversial tweets from Trump. Yet, this time, the Republican president seemed to have crossed a red line. Considering that the US was built on the concept of a melting pot, and the notion that immigrants from all over the world made the nation stronger, Trump’s remarks that those who disagreed with his policies should “go back and help fix the totally broke and crime infested places from which they came” offended tens of millions of Americans who reject Trump’s apparent belief that the country belongs first and foremost to whites.
On Sunday, Trump tweeted: “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.”
He added: “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how it is done. These places need your help badly, you can’t leave fast enough. I’m sure that Nancy Pelosi would be very happy to quickly work out free travel arrangements!”
Since they took office early this year, Representatives Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts have found themselves at odds with leaders in their own Democratic Party, as well as the target of attacks by the president.
Trump denied his attacks on the four — all women of colour — were racist. He also said he was unbothered by statements of support from white nationalists, who say they hear common cause in the president’s statements.
“It doesn’t concern me because many people agree with me,” Trump said on the White House South Lawn, where an event focused on American manufacturing took a dark turn towards inflammatory rhetoric as the president defended himself.
Trump repeated the most controversial part of his tweets: if the congresswomen don’t like the United States, they can leave. “As far as I’m concerned, if you hate our country, if you’re not happy here, you can leave,” Trump said. “If you’re not happy in the US, if you’re complaining all the time, you can leave. You can leave right now,” Trump added.
Questioned about the charge by Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that he was attempting to “make America white again,” Trump employed a favourite tactic: turning accusations against him around on his accusers. “That’s just a very racist statement,” Trump said.
Originally, Trump did not name who he was attacking in Sunday’s tirade. Asked Monday who he was talking about, Trump said: “You can guess.” Eventually he did single out Omar, alleging she “hates Jews” and falsely asserting she had expressed support for the terrorist group Al-Qaeda.
Those appeared to be references to earlier controversies in which Omar, the first veiled Muslim-American of Somali origin to be elected to Congress, made comments criticising US support for Israel that were seen as invoking anti-Semitic tropes and stereotypes. A video of her discussing the 9/11 attacks was also seized by conservatives earlier this year as allegedly downplaying the terror attacks.
Ocasio-Cortez is the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. The freshman Democrat, who previously worked as a bartender, has risen to become one of the most high-profile members in the House and boasts nearly five million Twitter followers.
Tlaib, who was elected in 2018, is the first Palestinian-American woman to serve in Congress, and she and Omar are the first two Muslim women ever elected to Congress. Like Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib has embraced progressive ideas like Medicare for All, a $15-dollar minimum wage, debt free college education, and has called for abolishing US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Tlaib aligned herself with a political cause far outside the Democratic mainstream when she said that she supports the controversial Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement targeting Israeli institutions that support the continuing occupation of Palestinian territories and illegal settlements.
Pressley is the first black congresswoman to represent Massachusetts. Earlier this month, she sharply criticised poor conditions for detained migrants and the growing humanitarian crisis on the southern border after touring Texas border facilities with other Democratic lawmakers.
Omar, the only one in “The Squad” who was not born in the United States, came to the US more than two decades ago as a refugee and became an American citizen in 2000 at the age of 17. She won her election last year, and now represents Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District. Omar has been a vocal critic of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, calling its government the “apartheid Israeli regime” in a tweet. Earlier this year, Omar apologised after receiving a backlash for suggesting Republican support of Israel is fuelled by donations from a prominent pro-Israel group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
Shortly after Trump insisted Monday that there was nothing racist in his tweets, the four Democratic lawmakers held a news conference at the Capitol, and confirmed they were there to stay. “I want to tell children across this country that no matter what the President says, this country belongs to you,” said Ocasio-Cortez. “And it belongs to everyone and today that notion, that very notion was challenged.”
Pressley noted that the inhumane conditions at migrant detention facilities at the US southern border should not be lost in the coverage of Trump’s tweets. “I encourage the American people and all of us in this room and beyond, to not take the bait,” Pressley said. “This is a disruptive distraction from the issues of care, concern and consequence to the American people.”
Omar condemned Trump’s Twitter attack against the freshmen congresswomen as “a blatantly racist attack on four duly elected members of the United States of House of Representatives, all of whom are women of colour.” Omar went on to say, “This is the agenda of white nationalists, whether it is happening in chat rooms or it’s happening on national TV, and now it’s reached the White House garden.”
Omar said Trump’s comments evoked a familiar sentiment among people of colour. “You might have noticed how when he said go back to where you came from there was an uproar through all of our communities, because every single person who is brown or black, at some point in their life in this country, heard that,” she noted.
In her remarks, Tlaib insisted that Trump was overseeing a “failed presidency”. When asked about how Trump’s supporters applauded his remarks at the White House on Monday, she replied: “No, there’s more of us than them.” She added: “There’s more love for unity, for respect for each other. There’s a love that this is a nation of immigrants.”
What added to the outrage over Trump’s tweets was that they coincided with Sunday’s scheduled raids by immigration authorities ICE, targeting migrant families with court-ordered removals that had previously been called off by the US president. The ICE operation targeted approximately 2,000 people in major cities across the nation.
As of Monday, there weren’t any confirmed reports of migrants being apprehended in Baltimore, Chicago or New York, immigrant advocacy groups in those cities said. However, news of the raids left many undocumented immigrants frightened. They’ve been stocking up on groceries and making plans to stay in their homes with the lights off and the blinds down. Some are staying home from work.
While most Republican leaders in Congress sought to avoid commenting on Trump’s tweets, some GOP members publicly condemned his comments. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, one of Trump’s strongest allies on Capitol Hill, declined Monday to condemn the president over his tweets. However, he dubbed the four women Democratic members of Congress a “bunch of communists”.
“Well, we all know that (New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) and this crowd are a bunch of communists; they hate Israel, they hate our own country,” Graham said during an appearance on “Fox and Friends.” “They’re calling the guards along our border, the border patrol agents, ‘concentration camp guards’. They accuse people who support Israel of doing it for the Benjamins. They’re anti-Semitic. They’re anti-America.”
Asked by co-host Steve Doocy if he thinks Trump “went too far” with his comments, Graham, who represents South Carolina, said the president should “aim higher” than the personalities of the congresswomen and instead talk about their policies. “You don’t need to — they are American citizens. They won an election. Take on their policies,” he said.
Trump rejected that suggestion during his remarks Monday. “I disagree with Lindsey. These are congresswomen,” he said. “What am I supposed to do, just wait for senators?”
Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, who was the 2012 Republican nominee for president, told reporters the president “failed badly” with his tweets. When asked if they were racist, Romney responded: “You know, a lot of people have been using the word and my own view is that what was said, and what was tweeted, was destructive, was demeaning, was disunifying, and frankly, was very wrong.”
Meanwhile, Republican Representative Mike Turner of Ohio tweeted: “I am confident that every Member of Congress is a committed American. @realDonaldTrump’s tweets from this weekend were racist and he should apologise. We must work as a country to rise above hate, not enable it.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Trump stirs a storm