It’s so plausibly innocuous — there’s not a naughty word in the bunch — which is what ultimately makes it so cunning. You can utter the sentence without sounding like you’re directly slandering someone and yet, in doing so, slander many people.
What made “Send her back” such a horrifying chant was not how specific it was but how generic. It was not only that it targeted a sitting member of Congress, Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, who is an American citizen. It was that, at President Trump’s rally this week, we saw the dramatic unveiling of a castigation that could now be used against any woman not behaving as she should.
Send who? Send her.
“Send her back” is the granddaughter of “Lock her up,” the chant that populated Trump rallies in 2016 and beyond. For awhile, that phrase also seemed specific and personal, uniquely designed for Hillary Clinton, who, as had been recently revealed, ill-advisedly used a private server for official government business.
In that context, “Lock her up” seemed to be about that woman and that incident, at that moment in time.
But then the chant resurfaced, and it wasn’t in reference to Clinton. It was in reference to Christine Blasey Ford, the professor who accused then-Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh of assaulting her when they were teenagers. From another rally podium, the president mocked her testimony and reprimanded her for leaving Kavanaugh’s life in “tatters.” “Lock her up,” the crowd chanted in response.
At another rally a week later, the chant morphed into an attack on Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), whom the president accused of leaking documents to the media. “That’s another beauty,” the president sardonically said of Feinstein, and his fans called back, “Lock her up!”
Lock up who? Lock up her.
The “her” had become fungible. Any woman could become a woman who should be locked up; it required only running afoul of what Trump thought she should be doing.
“It’s meant as a deterrent to all women,” said Linda Hirshman, author of “Reckoning: The Epic Battle Against Sexual Abuse and Harassment,” when I asked how she thought these slogans worked. “You’re intended to feel vulnerable and be deterred from the...behavior of disagreeing with him.”
I took the same question to a cognitive linguist/philosopher, George Lakoff. “ ‘Send her back’ has the same grammatical structure as ‘Lock her up,’ and the same sound structure — it’s very straightforward,” he said. “And it has virtually the same meaning.”
Lakoff said there was significance in the fact that both chants dispensed with names in favor of pronouns. The pronouns make these women into “not a person,” he said. “She’s this thing that’s out there that should not be paid attention to — that should be gotten rid of.”
On Thursday, the president said he had been unhappy with the chant — though if he’d truly disapproved, it would have been easy to correct on the spot, as Sen. John McCain did when one of his supporters referred to Barack Obama as “an Arab” at a town hall. Instead, Trump “paused to savor it for several seconds before continuing his speech,” noted Jennifer Sclafani, a linguist who studies political discourse and gender. “He even thrice nodded his head back and forth in time with the chant, as if to prod the audience on.”
And, of course, the wording of the chant was cribbed from one of the president’s tweets: “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” he’d written.
“They” weren’t named in the tweet, just as they weren’t named in the chants. He had shorthanded his targets as “ ‘Progressive’ Democrat Congresswomen,” leaving followers to determine that he was likely referring to four women known colloquially as “the Squad” — a whole bunch of hers who had made it their business to criticize him. It’s worth noting, as many have, that these were all women of color and that the chant reserved for Omar was even more antagonistic than the one used for Hillary Clinton. “Lock her up” implies she should be prosecuted under the American legal system; “Send her back” implies she’s not even deserving of due process, that she doesn’t belong here anyway.
On the same day that an arena full of North Carolinians were screaming, “Send her back!” video footage surfaced of the president attending a 1992 party with Jeffrey Epstein, surrounded by cheerleaders for the Buffalo Bills. He laughed, he danced, he flirted with clusters of partying blondes.
At first blush, the two events seemed like opposite ends of the spectrum. Here was the president on stage, basking in the hatred flung toward one group of women. Here was the president on the dance floor, bestowing affection on another.
At one point in the short clip, he posed for a photograph with a cluster of women and then patted one of them on the butt with the same absentmindedness one might use on the rump of a dairy cow before sending her along.
It was a quick pat, barely notable. But it’s what I was thinking of, a few hours later, while watching footage of the rally. The pat had the same kind of dehumanization as did the chants about Ilhan Omar or Hillary Clinton or Christine Blasey Ford. The “good” women, in his book, are rewarded with pats, like pets. The bad ones are punished with prison or deportation, like criminals.
We could think of exceptions to this brutal dichotomy, of course. His daughter Ivanka, or Kellyanne Conway, or Nikki Haley, or Jeanine Pirro, the reality TV judge who has joined the president in maligning Omar. But, in general, his relationships with women are three-syllable ones, easily distilled into chants.
Send her back.
Lock her up.
Pat her butt.
They’re all part of the same world, where women are either cheerleaders to grab or insolent shrews to be put in their place. What they don’t often seem to be, in his mind, is real people.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.