Lawmakers and presidential candidates know to expect a particular set of reactions after criticizing Donald Trump. He might call them a loser, or give them their own unique nickname—the provenance of which might depend on how often he thinks they lie, whether they look sleepy, or how pencil-like he finds their neck. He might go so far as to endorse their primary challengers, or even the critics themselves, if he thinks his stamp of approval might hurt them.
Only for women, though, do Trump and his supporters deploy their most sinister lines of attack. In 2016, it was not enough to call Hillary Clinton “Crooked Hillary” or criticize her vision for the country. Rather, it was necessary to call for her physical removal from public life, and her sentencing to a place where she wouldn’t be heard from again. “Lock her up!” is as identifiable with Trumpism as “Build the wall!,” and the chant continues at rallies to this day, even as Clinton, true to Trump’s wishes, has faded into the background.
There was a troubling sense of déjà vu, then, when the crowd at Trump’s rally in Greenville, North Carolina, on Wednesday trained their eyes on Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, chanting “Send her back!” in a play on Trump’s own words from a few days before. It was an evolution, an even darker version of the invective against Clinton—where the president’s supporters once called for a female opponent’s imprisonment, now they are longing for another to be literally banished from the country. The episode prompts urgent questions not only about what Omar can expect as Trump’s 2020 campaign ramps up, but also about what Trump’s eventual challenger, if it’s a woman, can anticipate as well.
Speaking with reporters at the White House yesterday, Trump said, “I was not happy with it. I disagree with it,” referring to the chants. But Trump was the one to first assert, in tweets over the weekend, that Omar and three of her fellow congresswomen of color—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan—should leave the country. “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” Trump tweeted. “These places need your help badly, you can’t leave fast enough.” As his supporters chanted the natural extension of those words on Wednesday, Trump seemed content to bask in the ritual, letting their cries continue without interruption.
“Send her back!” could well prove just the beginning of a campaign against Omar and her progressive female colleagues as a group. To remember the lessons of “Lock her up!” is to remember that, with Trump, a tidy three-word chant is unlikely to sound just once. The president’s supporters use these chants in lieu of actual, reasonable arguments against his opponents, and instead of focusing their energy on beating them at the ballot box. Menacing action, not the democratic kind, is what’s called for.
And as the 2016 election cycle showed, a campaign against the congresswomen could encompass much more than a chant. Trump rallies were also convenient sites for the purchase of merchandise reading Trump that bitch or Hillary sucks, but not like Monica. At a rally in Richmond, Virginia, that June to kick off the general election, a supporter yelled “Hang her!” as Trump began leveling his attacks against Clinton. “Supporters don’t just want to defeat her, but they seem to want to see her hurt,” Melinda Henneberger, Roll Call’s former editor in chief, told me at the time. “Disagree with her, dislike her, vote against her, but to even talk about hanging her?”
This history could foreshadow an anxious, if not dangerous, election cycle for the Democratic nominee. With an unprecedented number of women running for president, the likelihood of a woman winning the party’s nomination is higher than in previous elections. If the chants against Clinton and Omar do, indeed, suggest a pattern when it comes to Trump’s female opponents, it’s not difficult to imagine what, say, an Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris could have in store for herself.