Bring it on.
At the moment, it is difficult to see the coming contest in any other light. Make America Great Again has completed its sinister transformation into Make America White Again, and it’s foolish to pretend otherwise.
No sensible person should want such a fight. In a sprawling, diverse nation such as ours, with such a long and troubled history on issues of race, a certain amount of pretense is necessary. We try to bury our ugliest fears and resentments beneath a nobler commitment to the pluralistic ideals enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. At our best, we subsume our private prejudices beneath a sense of civic responsibility.
But Trump is no sensible person, and he obviously does not represent our best. He is a demagogue with one highly effective political move: driving wedges. He is now trying to open a chasm between white and nonwhite Americans, and he wants to force his potential supporters to choose a side.
I hope and expect that Trump’s race-baiting will fail — but hope and expectations are not enough. His shamefully divisive tactic must be called out, labeled with its proper name and fought without quarter. Based on Trump’s public comments and his Twitter feed, it seems obvious that race is what he wants the nation to be talking about right now, as opposed to his administration’s incompetence and corruption. But to ignore his white-power tactic would be a much bigger mistake than facing it head-on. Trump may believe his political opponents lack the stomach to confront him. He must be proved wrong.
Trump has chosen as his foils four Democratic first-term members of Congress — Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), Ilhan Omar (Minn.) and Ayanna Pressley (Mass.) — who all, not coincidentally, happen to be women of color. The president has demanded they “go back” to the countries from which they came (all but Omar, a naturalized citizen, were born in the United States), and claimed they have no right to express their progressive views.
Last week, at a campaign rally in North Carolina, Trump was blasting Omar, who came to this country as a refugee from Somalia, when the crowd began a shocking chant: “Send her back! Send her back!” Before continuing his speech, the president paused to let the chant gather force and then gradually die out.
Members of the White House staff were reportedly appalled — but no one quit in protest. Republicans in Congress were reportedly aghast — but almost all of them refused to directly criticize the president.
After making the perfunctory (and apparently false) claim that he disliked the chant, Trump went on to amplify it. He demanded that those who do not love the United States — by which he clearly means his vision of the country — should leave it. On Sunday, he tweeted, “I don’t believe the four Congresswomen are capable of loving our Country. They should apologize to America.” On Monday, he called them “a very Racist group of troublemakers.”
This will surely be a theme of Trump’s white-power appeal — that minorities who have the nerve to raise their voices are the “real” racists who should be blamed for any and all hardships afflicting whites. It is incredible that our national political discourse has sunk to this kind of hideous scapegoating, but here we are.
Democrats, independents and Republicans disgusted by Trump’s use of race as a wedge cannot pretend this is a normal election. Republican officeholders and candidates who stand by Trump, perhaps for reasons of self-preservation, must be pressed: Do they believe all Americans, regardless of race, have a right to participate in our democracy, or not? Do they believe Americans who disagree with Trump’s policies should leave the country, or not? Do they agree with white supremacists that whites are somehow threatened by “racist” minorities, or not?
Anyone tempted to support Trump because of his economic or foreign policies should be constantly reminded that this is not an a la carte menu. If you plan to vote for Trump because of his tax cuts, for example, or his uncritical support of Israel, you’re also voting for his racism.
This is nothing less than a fight for the soul of the nation. Everyone needs to take a stand.
Read more from Eugene Robinson’s archive, follow him on Twitter or subscribe to his updates on Facebook. You can also join him Tuesdays at 1 p.m. for a live Q&A.