Hillary Clinton had a point. In September 2016, the Democratic presidential candidate criticized some of her rival’s supporters for backing him. “You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right?” she said at a fundraiser in New York. “The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic—you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up.”
Clinton distinguished these people from some of Trump’s other supporters, whom she described as “people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them ... and they’re just desperate for change.” She told her supporters that this latter basket included “people we have to understand and empathize with as well.” That nuance escaped the Trump campaign, which rallied around the “deplorable” label and said it showed how Clinton was out of touch. Mainstream news organizations tsk-tsked her for breaking a cardinal rule of political campaigning by criticizing the electorate.
Two years into Trump’s presidency, “deplorable” seems almost kind. It’s clear by now that racism is an animating force of Trump’s presidency, yet many of Trump’s supporters and most of the Republican Party still back him after every bigoted slight and discriminatory policy he makes. They may not be willing to admit that they agree outright with everything he says or does, but their continued political support makes the distinction meaningless. Even those Republicans who do voice objections to Trump tend to treat each outburst as a discrete incident, thereby denying the obvious, deeper problem. At this stage, to not object to the president outright is to be complicit in his racist presidency.
The latest evidence comes from where it often does: the president’s personal Twitter account. Speaker Nancy Pelosi sparred last week with “the squad,” a group of four progressive freshman House Democrats, leading its most prominent member, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, to claim Pelosi was singling out women of color in the Democratic caucus. Trump, for whatever reason, decided to publicly defend Pelosi by saying she wasn’t a racist. When those lawmakers then criticized Trump, he responded with an extraordinary series of tweets attacking their citizenship.
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. 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!
His hostility is unsurprising. The squad—which also includes congresswomen Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley—represent everything that Trump is not. These young women are unsparing in their criticism of him and his presidency; Tlaib famously said they would “impeach the motherfucker” shortly after she was sworn into office in January. One can hardly blame them for their zeal, since voters first elected them to Congress in the 2018 midterms as part of the electorate’s broader rebuke of Trump.
Even by Trump’s standards, it was an extraordinary diatribe. “Go back where you came from” is a popular taunt among white nationalists, one that’s used to instill feelings of otherness and alienation in the target. It’s also become a staple of schoolyard bullying against children of color after Trump took office. It did not matter to the president that all four of the lawmakers are American citizens, or that three out of the four were born in the United States. His underlying assertion is that they—and other nonwhite Americans—can never be full members of the American nation by virtue of their race.
If this were the first indication that Trump harbored racist views, his remarks would have been a tremendous shock. But it was not. He announced his presidential bid by claiming Mexico was sending murderers and rapists across the border, and campaigned on banning Muslims from entering the United States. He said an Indiana-born federal judge couldn’t be fair to him because he was “Mexican.” He told lawmakers he didn’t want immigrants from “shithole countries.” He constantly taunts Senator Elizabeth Warren’s claims of Native American ancestry by calling her “Pocahontas.” He described the white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville as “very fine people.” And that’s just since 2015.
Trump, who knows these views helped elect him, doubled down on his remarks in a press conference on Monday, rebuffing criticism that they echoed white nationalists. “It doesn’t concern me because many people agree with me,” he replied. “All I’m saying is if they want to leave, they can leave. It doesn’t say leave forever. It says leave.” Trump didn’t bother denying that his comments were racist, just that they weren’t as racist as everyone believed. His assumption that his racist views hold quiet but widespread currency is a familiar trope among racists, too. In their eyes, they are bold truth-tellers amid a silent majority that keeps quiet out of political correctness.
Denialism abounds. Marc Short, Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff, argued that Trump couldn’t be a racist because Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao is Asian American. “So when people write the president has racist motives here, look at the reality of who is actually serving in Donald Trump’s cabinet,” he told reporters. (Chao is married to Trump’s most powerful ally in Congress, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.) Others tried to define racism down into oblivion. “Trump’s ‘go back’ comments were nativist, xenophobic, counterfactual and politically stupid,” Fox News anchor Brit Hume opined. “But they simply do not meet the standard definition of racist, a word so recklessly flung around these days that its actual meaning is being lost.” Hume did not explain how one could be a nativist xenophobe without also being racist.
At the same time, by Monday afternoon, a number of elected Republicans chimed in to critique Trump, but not without caveats; some made sure to also criticize the four women lawmakers in question, as if to insulate themselves from potential backlash from the Republican base. “POTUS was wrong to say any American citizen, whether in Congress or not, has any ‘home’ besides the U.S.,” Texas Representative Chip Roy wrote on Twitter. “But I just as strongly believe non-citizens who abuse our immigration laws should be sent home immediately, & Reps who refuse to defend America should be sent home 11/2020.”
Even moderate Republicans had to make clear that they were offering a qualified defense of their fellow lawmakers. Maine Senator Susan Collins alluded to the squad’s “views on socialism, their anti-Semitic rhetoric, and their negative comments about law enforcement” before admonishing Trump to “take that [tweet] down.” South Carolina Senator Tim Scott noted that the Democratic Party was “embroiled in racial controversy” before Trump’s “unacceptable personal attacks” stole the spotlight. “I couldn’t disagree more with these congresswomen’s views on immigration, socialism, national security, and virtually every policy issue,” Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey said in a statement. “But they are entitled to their opinions, however misguided they may be.”
What could be driving such tepid responses? Maybe they really disagree with the squad’s views so strongly that they have to mention them whenever given the chance. Maybe they’re so intimidated by the Republican base’s embrace of racist politics that they don’t want to distance themselves too much from it. Maybe they’re simply worried that Trump will turn that base against them. Whatever the reason, their hesitation gives the appearance that they don’t really oppose Trump’s racism. They just want him to be quieter about it.