Trump Knew Exactly What He Was Doing

The crowd in Greenville understood the president and his platform far better than he—or Republican senators—proved willing to admit.

Thom Tillis and Donald Trump
Senator Thom Tillis speaks to President Trump at the White House in 2018. (Andrew Harnik / AP)

Republican politicians saw what happened at President Donald Trump’s rally last night in Greenville, North Carolina, where a crowd chanted “Send her back!” about Representative Ilhan Omar, the Minnesota Democrat and U.S. citizen born in Somalia.

They didn’t like it. And they know who to blame: anyone but Donald Trump.

“The chants were offensive and very unfortunate,” Senator Mitt Romney said. “It did not speak well of that crowd.”

“People chant what they want,” said Senator John Barrasso. “I’d rather attack ideas than people.”

Senator Jim Inhofe is “not really convinced that the president himself knew what the shouting was.”

“A group of people chanted, he didn’t ask them to chant it. You can’t control that any more than you can control the reaction at a rock concert,” said Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina, who was at the rally but has apparently never in his 58 years attended a rock concert.

By this afternoon, even Trump had disavowed the chant, despite his campaign issuing a statement implicitly endorsing it. “I was not happy with it. I disagree with it,” the president said.

If anyone believes Trump, I’ve got 500 miles of newly built wall along the Mexican border to sell them. Review the tape: The president tweeted about Omar and Democratic colleagues, “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” At the rally, he slowly, methodically worked the crowd up to a lather about Omar. He told the crowd, “You know what? If they don’t love it, tell them to leave it.” He stood and smirked faintly while the crowd chanted, passing up any opportunity to calm it. Trump doesn’t disagree with it, because disagreeing with it would mean disagreeing with himself. He’s made clear that he brooks no criticism from anyone else; there’s no indication he’s willing to listen to the objections of his own conscience, either.

It’s strange to see politicians criticizing their own voters, for obvious reasons. Tillis at least had a score to settle with the crowd, some of whom had booed him. But if politicians had no control over the way audiences reacted to their speeches, they wouldn’t hold rallies. That’s the point of rallies.

The problem is that these Republican senators have no other viable option. Most of them can’t accept Trump’s comments or the chants he inspired, because those are straightforwardly racist. But they can’t repudiate them, either, because doing so would repudiate what has now become the central agenda of the Republican Party and of the Republican president running for reelection. Well, they could—like Representative Justin Amash of Michigan, who left the GOP on July 4—but everyone who wants to remain a Republican officeholder has to make bizarre contortions like the ones on display this morning.

The fact that Trump has been a racist, with a political career rooted in racism, should have been obvious all along, and to many people, it was. But to those who remained unconvinced, the past few days ought to have caused scales to fall from their eyes. I wrote on Monday that Trump had chosen to make a shift from the barely veiled racism of the 2016 campaign to open racism in 2020—a shift from openly demonizing migrants to openly demonizing American citizens of color.

You don’t have to believe me, or even adopt a plain reading of the tweets, because Trump and his aides have confirmed the strategic decision. Campaign aides told the Associated Press and CNN that the president is arranging his reelection campaign around the current fight, betting on racism as a winning play for reelection.

“I do think I am winning the political fight,” Trump said at the White House yesterday. “I think I am winning it by a lot.”

Senators like Barrasso, Romney, Inhofe, and Tillis are not natural Trumpers. They belong to an earlier Republican Party, where racism was at least meant to be denied, obscured, hidden behind insistences of “color-blindness.” Trump’s language and politics do not come naturally to them. Romney has even staked out a claim to be the sitting Republican senator most willing to criticize Trump—though that’s not saying much—and he refuses to make attacking Trump his political identity.

But the party is Trump’s now, not theirs. If they haven’t embraced the GOP’s new, ethnonationalist project, they haven’t worked up the courage to reject it, either. There may be a personal political expedience to this fence-sitting, since incurring the president’s wrath can be career suicide, and leaving the party equally risky, but the stance is logically and morally incoherent. It leads people to make self-evidently silly statements, as when Romney calls on Trump to use his “special responsibility to unite Americans,” as though Trump’s entire political career hasn’t been built around dividing people. He’ll get around to unifying us any day, surely!

This problem affects even Republicans who have been critical of Trump, like Senator Susan Collins of Maine, or Representative Tom Emmer, the chair of the House GOP’s campaign arm, who said, “There’s no place for that kind of talk. I don’t agree with it.” Senator Lindsey Graham at least offers a coherent stance, saying that any Somali refugee is welcome as long as that person is not critical of Trump. (This is not only contrary to the American ideal of dissent, it’s also untrue: Trump signed an executive order banning refugees from Somalia.)

Trump’s rare repudiation of the chant—which is to say of his own remarks—suggests that, however pitiful the public reaction from Republicans, there must have been greater blowback than he expected. But the specific dismissal of this chant is unlikely to be connected to a broader shift in his political approach. The truth is that the crowd in Greenville understood Trump and his platform far better than any of these Republicans are willing to admit.