Speaking to reporters from the elegant, muted surroundings of the Cabinet Room this week, President Trump somberly informed America that he had extensive documentation of how four Democratic members of the House hated America.
“I have a list of things here said by the congresswomen that is so bad, so horrible that I almost don’t want to read it,” Trump said. “It’s my opinion they hate our country. And that’s not good. It’s not acceptable.”
A request to the White House for the contents of that list didn’t yield a response. A review of comments from the four — Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), Ayanna Pressley (Mass.) and Ilhan Omar (Minn.) — fails to provide significant examples of anti-American sentiment (an experiment that’s more fruitful when applied to Trump). Certainly the four advocate policies with which many conservatives disagree, but disagreeing on a vision for the country isn’t the same as hating it.
The extent to which this assertion by Trump has gone unchallenged, though, is remarkable. Republicans, elected and not, have accepted his presentation that the four are anti-American, with a special focus paid to Omar, a naturalized refugee from Somalia who is Muslim.
She has been the focus of controversy, certainly. Past comments she has made about the influence of Israel in U.S. politics overlaid with offensive comments about those supporting Israel doing so in exchange for money have resulted in her being identified as anti-Semitic. (She apologized for the latter comments.)
Anti-American, though? At his rally Wednesday in North Carolina, Trump again claimed to have “pages and pages” of examples of anti-American sentiment, but decided instead to focus on a few examples. The anti-Semitism claim was included, but the riff centered on her alleged sympathy for terrorists or opponents of the United States. As with Trump’s claim earlier this week that Omar supported al-Qaeda — an obviously untrue assertion — the president’s arguments were one-sentence summaries of conservative-media-fueled controversies.
Like his reference to a 2013 interview Omar gave after a terrorist attack in Kenya. Responding to a question that suggested terrorist attacks were a “reaction to a situation,” she said that no one wanted to admit that “the actions of the other people that are involved in the world have contributed to the rise of the radicalization and the rise of terrorist acts.” As Fox News reported, Omar added that “nobody wants to take accountability of how these are byproducts of the actions of our involvement in other people’s affairs.”
Trump presented this as Omar “blam[ing] the United States for the terrorist attacks on our country, saying that terrorism is a reaction to our involvement in other people’s affairs."
As he listed four or five similar examples, including ones that have been repeatedly debunked, people in the crowd shouted.
“Traitor!” one yelled. Then, one that caught fire: “Send her back!”
The entire point is that the evidence didn’t matter. Trump didn’t really need to offer any evidence at all. After all, his allies had circled the wagons around him in defense of his claims even before he presented those “pages and pages” of evidence. That Trump said it — and that the media pushed back — was reason enough to accept that Omar et al. were dangers to the republic.
This is one of the recurring effects of Trump’s style of politics. His determined effort to position the media as an enemy is an effort to pull his supporters closer to him. He is the man battling the powerful on behalf of his downtrodden base. He is the man bucking the “politically correct” tide. So when The Media declares that his words are racist, the natural reaction from many of his supporters is not only to defend Trump from attack but to take up and echo his claims as their own.
This has almost nothing to do with Omar. Just the tiniest of pretexts was enough to get people in the crowd energized for her forced deportation. Trump's base, after all, is eager for deportations of immigrants it thinks don't deserve to be in the United States. He won the Republican nomination in large part because of his willingness to adhere to the hardest line on immigration, including a declaration that migrants from Mexico were dangerous criminals as a default.
That Omar is Muslim is obviously a contributor here. Are we really meant to think that Trump declared that Omar should “go back” to Somalia in a tweet only after careful reflection on her history and a full consideration of the context of her comments? This is a man who, in December 2015, publicly stated that he didn’t think Muslims should be allowed in the country at all. Somalia is included in his administration’s ban on migration, the compromise ban that was meant to implement that campaign-trail pledge.
We’re meant to think that his views on a Muslim from Somalia are nuanced? We’re surprised that a crowd of fervent supporters, the vast majority of whom almost certainly voted for him after hearing his campaign rhetoric, doesn’t demand further evidence of Omar’s malfeasance before calling for her to be removed from the country?
There’s a small lesson here for the Democrat who will face Trump in 2020: There’s no avoiding being smeared. Trump will lift up any and everything and frame it negatively against you. We learned that lesson in 2016, watching as long-debunked claims about Hillary Clinton were reiterated over and over — are still reiterated — to present Trump as a more rational actor. It doesn’t matter whose name appears on the ballot opposite Trump’s; the same thing will happen.
The big lesson, though, is specifically that it takes so little to generate so much anger. Trump’s rhetoric keeps his base just under a boil as a default position. Add a tiny bit of heat and it’s at full roil.