CINCINNATI—Donald Trump’s supporters would like to be clear: They are tired of being called racists.
Leave it to the president’s eldest son to set the tone. Last night at the 17,500-person-capacity U.S. Bank Arena downtown here, Donald Trump Jr. strode onto the stage two hours before the president was scheduled to speak. The venue was already brimming.
It had been a rough week for his father. On July 28, President Trump was once again deemed racist after lashing out at House Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings, whose district includes part of Baltimore. Trump referred to the city 40 miles north of Washington as “a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” in which “no human being would want to live.” Those comments came shortly after the president suggested that four progressive congresswomen of color “go back” to the “totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” prompting the crowd at his July 17 rally in Greenville, North Carolina, to chant, “Send her back!” Trump—though he later disavowed the chant—did nothing to stop it.
Last night, Trump supporters in Cincinnati were eager to defend their man.
“It’s amazing that when Donald Trump makes a comment about Baltimore, it’s racist, it’s terrible, it’s this. But when the mayor of that town, when the congressman from that town, says the exact same thing, ‘Oh! No problem!’” Trump Jr. boomed, referring to a statement that Cummings made in 1999, calling Baltimore “drug-infested.”
“It’s sad,” he continued, “that using ‘racism’ has become the easy button of left-wing politics. All right? Because guess what? It still is an issue … But by making a mockery of it by saying every time you can’t win a fight—‘Oh! We’re just gonna push the button! It’s racist’—you hurt those that are actually afflicted by it. People hear it, they roll their eyes, and they walk on. And that’s a disgrace, and that’s what you’ve been given in the identity politics of the left.”
The crowd erupted in jeers and boos. It was a segment of Jr.’s speech that in many ways echoed that of a speaker who’d appeared before him, Brandon Straka, a gay Trump supporter who founded the WalkAway movement to encourage people to leave the Democratic Party. “Insinuations of bigotry and racism,” Straka claimed, were “divisive tactics” used by the “liberal media to control minorities in this country.” “This is a president who serves minorities,” he said, “because he loves minorities.”
As speakers mounted their defenses of the president, it seemed apparent that supporters were cheering them on as a means of affirming not just Trump, but also themselves. Because to accuse a politician of holding virulent racist beliefs is also, if only implicitly, to condemn his or her voters of harboring those same tendencies.
And that’s what the rally-goers I spoke to last night seemed most nonplussed by—not so much that Trump had been roundly condemned in recent days as a racist, or a bigot, but that they, by virtue of association, had been as well. But rather than distancing them from Trump, the accusations have only seemed to strengthen their support of this president. To back down, they suggested, would be to bow down to the scourge of political correctness.
“We’re all tired of being called racists,” a 74-year-old bespectacled white man named Richard Haines told me. “You open your mouth, you’re a racist. My daughter is a liberal, and she’s [using the word] all the time. We don’t talk politics; we can’t—all the time she always accuses me of hate.”
Haines, who told me he had just returned to the United States from Thailand, where he had done missionary work for 15 years with impoverished children, said that he knew what real racism looked like—that his father was a “bigot” who “didn’t like black people.”
“Donald is not racist, you know?” Haines said. “He makes a statement, and they take the words out of context and try to twist everything so that he’s a racist. And I think it’s gonna backfire.”
Before the rally began, I sat down on the floor of the arena with two women—Roseanna, 50, and Amy, 48—who felt similarly. (Neither woman was comfortable providing her last name for this story.) Roseanna, who wore a red T-shirt, white shorts, and a MAGA hat adorned with multiple buttons, including one featuring the likeness of Hillary Clinton behind bars, had driven an hour and a half from Lexington, Kentucky. She defended Trump’s statements about Baltimore. “He didn’t say nothing about the color of somebody’s skin,” Roseanna said, yet it seemed like everyone was “wishing him toward ‘He’s a bigot.’
“I’m sick to death of it. I have 13 grandchildren—13,” she continued. “Four of them are biracial, black and white; another two of them are black and white; and another two of them are Singapore and white. You think I’m a racist? I go and I give them kids kisses like nobody’s business.”
When I asked Roseanna and Amy whether they would join in a “Send her back!” chant were it to take place that night, both women said no, but out of deference to Trump. “He apologized for that, so I think us as Trump supporters will respect him for that,” Roseanna said. She then shared her thoughts on the chant’s target, Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, who came to America as a refugee from Somalia.
“Look, but she is gonna get—you know, I don’t want her stinkin’ Muslim crap in my country,” Roseanna said.
“Sharia law,” Amy chimed in. Her iridescent CoverGirl highlighter glinted under the stadium lights. “Sharia law.”
“That’s not America,” Roseanna said. “She is a Muslim through and through …She wants that all here.” She wondered aloud whether Omar had come to the U.S. illegally. (There is no evidence this is true.)
After a pump-up playlist that included Elton John, The Sundays, and Céline Dion, and after a brief speech by Vice President Mike Pence, the president himself took the stage. It wasn’t long before Trump brought up “the four congresswomen” and bemoaned the conditions of inner cities after years of Democratic leadership. He said he could name one city after another that’s “failed,” “but I won’t do that.” He flashed a grin. “I don’t want to be controversial.” (Multiple rally-goers shouted, “Baltimore!”)
The president’s speech was ultimately more memorable for what wasn’t said than for what was. The rally included its share of greatest hits—a “Build the wall” demand here, a “Lock her up” chant there, a rant about windmills as bird killers, among other things—but there were no deafening incantations about ejecting American citizens of color from their home.
Robert Morris, a 72-year-old man who was fixing his van outside the arena before the rally started, had predicted as much to me. “We’re not that kind. They got a little carried away there,” he said of the Greenville crowd. Morris, too, said he was tired of being called a racist. Just yesterday, he said, he’d given a stranger $20 to help his foster child, who was black. And he sends money as often as he can to a school charity in the Dominican Republic. So if anybody started a chant like that, Morris said, “I’ll tell them, ‘Shut it down. You’re acting like them. We’re not them.’ The Democrats—they call names, they accuse, they’re always slandering, they always have a negative.”
“Send her back?” No, he said, that wouldn’t happen again, because “we’re positive.” He chuckled a bit. “But I’d buy her a ticket so she can go on a cruise back.” Omar was, he said, “a very ungrateful person.”
This article is part of “The Speech Wars,” a project supported by the Charles Koch Foundation, the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, and the Fetzer Institute.
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