Even in the numbing parade of seemingly daily outrages since November 8, 2016, there is the occasional outlier—something so spectacularly outrageous, so mortifying, that it still has the capacity to stun.
Charlottesville was one. The event was bad enough, but President Donald Trump’s remarks afterward, about “very fine people on both sides,” when one side included neo-Nazis chanting “blood and soil” and running down peaceful protesters, remains a low point of his presidency, and of the American experience of the past few years.
Last week brought a new turning point. It happened at one of the political rallies for the president’s seemingly endless reelection campaign, this one in Greenville, North Carolina, on July 17. To the list of things many people never thought they’d hear chanted at a “respectable” political rally, there’s a new entry: “Send her back!”
Even the president tried to back away from the chant, suggesting (falsely—there’s video) that he tried to stop it, instead of soaking it in. While a few Republicans decried the chant, U.S. Representative Lee Zeldin, who represents the East End and has a hair trigger over some forms of hate speech, was mostly silent this time, except for a tin-eared joke (“Paper straws should go back to where they came from”) and an attempt to further the false choice the president puts out, that loving the country means not criticizing it (“America First vs. Blame America First. The choice should be clear and obvious”). His “contributions” to the most important conversation of the week were puerile, and the fact that he speaks for the 1st District should give its citizens pause.
Why is this a turning point? It’s not because of the racist tweets that the president had sent earlier in the week, targeting the “squad” of Democratic members of the House of Representatives, all women of color, and suggesting they “go back” to the countries they came from (three were born in America). From the day he rode the golden escalator down at Trump Tower and declared his candidacy with a broadside about Mexico sending drug mules, criminals and rapists (“And some, I assume, are good people …”), racism and xenophobia have been at the core of his message.
Is the president a racist? There is plenty of evidence, dating back to his and his father’s landlord days, to the birther conspiracy and the Central Park Five—but it’s beside the point. Greenville matters not because of anything Donald Trump believes. It’s hard to parse what he actually does believe in his heart. Because he has no other goal except to be reelected in 2020, and that overshadows anything like principles.
What’s frightening is that Donald Trump knew his crowd was ready to take his message up a notch. He is smearing the four congresswomen simply to further his chances next November, but the crowd wasn’t satisfied with political victories. It was thinking “blood and soil.” This respectable political rally turned into something much darker in a moment—and the idea of forcibly removing an elected congresswoman from American soil seemed not only reasonable but urgent.
Whether or not the president believes there are people who should be removed from America, that crowd certainly did. In fact, they seemed to come up with the idea on their own this time, rather than parroting back a canned political slogan. That chant—“Send her back! Send her back!”—with dark echoes in history, was loud, and firm, and it entered the vernacular and the public consciousness for good.
It’s terrifying not because the president said something. It’s because a group of Americans did.
It is the sound of a line being crossed, and ideas forming that breed nightmares.