Credulous pundits told us for days that President Trump’s racist attacks on nonwhite lawmakers were brilliant politics, but Republicans disagree: They are widely warning Trump that presiding over a rally chant of “send her back,” directed at a refugee congresswoman, is putting the party at serious political risk.
Trump pretended to disavow the chant on Thursday, claiming he didn’t approve even though video contradicts this, and we are now learning from the New York Times that he came under intense private pressure to do so, including from Vice President Pence and Ivanka Trump.
Yet even as many Republicans profess discomfort with Trump’s display, here’s what else is happening: Trump is effectively trying to end asylum-seeking at the Southern border, and Politico now reports that the administration is seriously mulling an effort to slash refugee admissions to near-zero.
Generally speaking, Republicans are unlikely to be troubled by these radical, extreme changes.
These things are not necessarily contradictory. It’s theoretically possible to support dramatic asylum and refugee cuts for reasons not rooted in the white nationalism driving Trump’s attacks on Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), a refugee, and the other lawmakers, all U.S.-born racial, ethnic or religious minorities.
But it’s now inarguable that Trump’s overall immigration agenda is shaped around the broader goal of preventing as many people as possible from getting asylum and refugee status here, even if they qualify for it on the merits.
Given the totality of what we’ve seen, it’s also inarguable that underlying that is the goal of dramatically reducing the number of immigrants admitted to this country. And as Trump’s own rhetoric has repeatedly confirmed, this is inescapably about reducing the number of nonwhite immigrants here.
You can locate a zone of plausible deniability, in which one can claim support for such policies on pragmatic, economic or “cultural” grounds, and not out of any desire to make the United States whiter. It’s precisely this zone that Republicans now seek to inhabit.
That’s why the GOP panic about the “send her back” chant is significant. It shines a floodlight into this zone and reveals why it’s so hard to credibly inhabit it.
Why “send her back” is a breaking point
What is it about “send her back” that suddenly crossed a line? Consider the timeline:
- Trump tweets that the lawmakers should “go back” to their countries, characterizing them as corrupt hellholes (echoing his “s----hole countries” comment), even though three were born here. That elicits only a bit of discomfort from Republicans.
- Trump then says, “if you hate our country, if you’re not happy here, you can leave.” Trump repeats this: "YOU CAN LEAVE!” Republicans defend this framing, piously pretending it has no racial dimension, even though it was directed at only minority lawmakers.
- Trump presides over the “send her back” chant. After criticism erupts, including among some Republicans, Trump pretends to “disagree” with it.
Why did the last open the floodgates? The Times tells us Republicans fear telling lawmakers to get out will “backfire” because it appears “personal.” Yet Trump had repeatedly said to “go back” and “leave.”
What changed? Well, the Times also reports that Trump advisers privately warned against letting these sentiments get out of control at his rally.
So I submit to you that the key difference is twofold: Trump’s naked hatred and cruelty was captured on live television, and along with it, so was the seething anger of the hard-core Trump base.
The whole nation saw in dramatic fashion that Trump voters understood his meaning perfectly well, and watched them not just agree with it but also amplify it with as ugly and hate-curdled a chant as one could imagine.
The search for a ‘benign’ Trumpian nationalism
Right now, as Trump tries to end asylum-seeking at the border and considers slashing refugee admissions to nearly zero, imagery of migrant children and families enduring horrifyingly inhumane conditions is saturating the airwaves.
The more that the suburban, educated whites who abandoned the GOP in 2018 grow convinced that this agenda is an outgrowth of racial animus and white nationalism, the worse it is politically for Republicans.
And so, officials have explained all this in benign terms: Trump wants to close “loopholes” that allow asylum seekers who don’t actually merit it to game the system; if Democrats would agree, fewer would come and border overcrowding would ease.
But in fact, Trump has taken all kinds of additional steps to make it harder for people to apply and qualify for asylum even if they do merit it. He’s now trying to shut asylum-seeking down. He has already slashed refugee flows dramatically and wants to cut them more. He tried (and failed) to cut legal immigration in half.
The horrific border conditions are driven partly by legitimate logistical difficulties, but much of what we’ve seen (mass arrests, family separations) is also driven by the idea that inflicting maximum cruelty and fear will lead fewer to try for asylum — again, even among those who merit it.
What’s driving this agenda? We know the answer. Trump campaigned on the idea that Muslims should be banned and that Mexican immigrants are rapists who must be walled out or criminals who must be removed en masse, which he reprised in his demagoguery toward Central American migrants in 2018.
A conference of Trump-friendly intellectuals just descended on Washington to develop a conservative nationalism distinct from the racial version. But as many have documented (see Ishaan Tharoor, Adam Serwer, Gabe Schoenfeld and Emma Green), it’s hard to locate the line between such a “benign” nationalism, rooted in “merely” cultural opposition to immigration and dissatisfaction with “cosmopolitanism,” and the more malignant, demagogic variety that fundamentally rejects ideals of civic patriotism in favor of a racialized vision of the nation.
This is neatly embodied in the real world in the Republican search for that zone of plausible deniability on Trump’s actual policies.
It becomes a lot harder to inhabit that zone when Trump goes on national television and, seething with cruelty and hate, signals that a prominent representative of the immigrant and refugee community, a naturalized citizen and duly elected member of Congress, is not a member in good standing of the American nation, and his voters are right there with him on all of it.