Let’s start at the beginning, before what happened gets lost in a farrago of lies and revisionism. Because it didn’t start with some bad apples chanting “send her back!” and they didn’t chant “send her back!” out of patriotic fervor. But these excuses will get an increasingly respectable airing—as if they’re offered in good faith—because the alternative would require neutral institutions to abandon neutrality and take a moral stand against throngs of American citizens.
Several days ago, the president of the United States, directed a racist attack at four congresswomen—all Americans by definition, but none of them white—because he had just watched a segment about them on Fox News. He told them to go back where they came from.
This attack was unprompted—not that a racist outburst would be a forgivable response to anything, but it was a response to nothing. The four congresswomen weren’t feuding with Donald Trump. They were at odds with members of their own party. The Fox segment was about Democratic infighting. Trump simply saw some black and brown members of Congress challenging their leaders, and tweeted the first smears about them that came to mind. Lo and behold, what occurred to him was foul bigotry.
When Trump realized his comments had ignited swift and overwhelming outrage—enough to threaten meaningful defections among his Republican allies on Capitol Hill—he invented a cover story, grabbed a shield, and picked a scapegoat.
Trump dishonestly reimagined his own tweets (which neither he nor Twitter has deleted) as a call for all of his critics to get with the program or self-deport—still an unacceptable sentiment from a U.S. president, but one that clears the lowest bar of being race neutral. He used Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN)—one of the women he’d attacked, and the only one who’s a naturalized citizen–as an avatar for those critics, and lied about her nonexistent “history of launching vicious antisemitic screeds.” This was the prompt for his rallygoers to chant “send her back” in North Carolina Wednesday night—a chant they reserved for Omar alone, not for Nancy Pelosi or Bernie Sanders or any of the president’s other white critics.
Republican officialdom now exists to lie about the value system Trump and his feral supporters proudly espouse—that non-white citizens who don’t wear MAGA hats should be defamed and deported—and if you challenge the lie, these Republicans will exploit the suffering of Jews (who overwhelmingly reject Republican politics) to stifle dissent. This is the 2020 campaign they intend to inflict on us.
Suffice it to say, Republicans’ interest in the well-being of Jews is tissue thin. It wasn’t Ilhan Omar who praised “very fine people” among a horde of neo-Nazis who chanted “Jews will not replace us” and murdered a woman two years ago. So the lie is sustained with the bad-faith exploitation of a religious minority hostile to their politics, and it’s all in service of obscuring the racism of their leader. The question for the rest of us is whether we let them reprise this tactic over and over again uncontested or whether we describe it for what it is every time. Here, the outlook is poor.
It has never been controversial to observe that President Trump is abnormal, but it took two and a half years of his presidency for mainstream institutions of journalism to accept the factual claim that something Trump did was racist—and even that generated enormous controversy within the industry, because racism—and more importantly Trump’s exposure of racism’s vast political constituency—can’t be contained in the framework of norms.
From the moment Trump launched his candidacy, reporters have asserted without qualification that Trump has contempt for norms and institutions, and in important ways, it’s true. All politicians spin but normally they try to avoid lying outright. Thus the fact that Trump lies pathologically can be expressed as a matter of abnormality rather than as a matter of moral deficiency. Modern presidents relinquish control of their assets and place them in blind trust, so Trump’s decision to run a real-estate and branding organization from inside the White House is easily framed as an example of his contempt for norms, rather than as evidence of graft, theft, and other crimes. Trump doesn’t appreciate the values of free speech, rule of law, or free and fair elections, and his unwillingness to conceal those authoritarian predilections is indeed abnormal. But the concept of normalcy fails to capture either the ubiquity or the moral horror of white supremacy. In this realm, it’s not that Trump is abnormal. It’s that he’s bad.
Worse, his very badness guarantees that the incitement he unleashed against Ilhan Omar will recede into the realm of controversy. Did he solicit the chant? What did the chant even mean? Did Omar have it coming? Was any of this really racist or do Republicans simply have a chauvinistic—that is, abnormal—sense of patriotism? Were the chanters merely condensing some racially charged rhetorical targeting? Mitt Romney said the chant “didn’t speak well of that crowd,” and maybe that’s all the condemnation that’s needed.
These evasions aren’t tempting because the referees can’t tell right from wrong. They know David Duke is bad and they know Louis Farrakhan is bad, and they say so regularly. If Ilhan Omar had said we should send Jews in Congress “back” to Israel, she would have been promptly expelled from the body, and no mainstream institution would have lacked the language to condemn her, her character, or her supporters.
That language is elusive now because to deploy it against Trump is to implicate millions of people who relish these very values. To vote for him, knowing the first thing about his character, is to reveal a moral defect. To don his hat and chant at his rallies isn’t abnormal in the slightest anymore, but it is bad. The imperative to report what’s true and the imperative to maintain studious neutrality between the parties have always created tension within media organizations, but until Trump they could still leave certain moral abominations outside the sphere of respectable discourse. Trump forces reporters, editors, commentators, to choose between the principle of neutrality and personal fidelity to the tenet that racism is unacceptable.
One way to resolve this dilemma would be for these institutions to embrace their roots in the small-l liberal tradition and mix moral language into the craft of fact gathering—to bear witness to Trump’s war against multiracial democracy faithfully, and say that it is bad. The other is to dodge the dilemma altogether by letting the obfuscatory fog Republicans are pumping into the news environment cloud public memory about what just happened. At every turn before now, they have chosen the latter. Sadly, the window for people of good faith to spread the plain truth about what just happened, untainted by propaganda and mainstream credulity, will soon be closed.