The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump embraces the ‘reverse racism’ feared by his supporters in a new ‘squad’ attack

Supporters of President Trump cheer for him at a "Keep America Great" campaign rally in Greenville, N.C., on July 17. (Jonathan Drake/Reuters)

For a week, President Trump and his supporters have been scrambling to distance his attacks against four Democratic congresswomen earlier this month from the obvious racist subtext they included. Trump decided that he’d present the attacks as being not about his views of the national origins of the women, none of whom are white, and instead on unsupported claims that they hate America. But as often happens when Trump is struggling to toe a line of argument, he couldn’t help but say what he actually thinks.

So, en route to the Supreme Court to pay his respects to the late justice John Paul Stevens, Trump tweeted a less-nuanced critique of the four, who refer to themselves as “the squad.”

“The 'Squad’ is a very Racist group of troublemakers who are young, inexperienced, and not very smart,” Trump wrote. “They are pulling the once great Democrat Party far left, and were against humanitarian aid at the Border . . . And are now against ICE and Homeland Security. So bad for our Country!”

The opposition to “humanitarian aid” is a reference to a vote in which the four — Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (Minn.), Ayanna Pressley (Mass.) and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.) — opposed a funding deal last month because of concerns about increasing funding for Homeland Security agencies of which they’re critical. But that, of course, is the less interesting part of the tweet.

Trump has suggested before that the four are racist. As the controversy over his tweets telling them to “go back” to the places they came from was boiling last Monday, Trump tweeted that Democrats should be wary of uniting “around the foul language & racist hatred spewed from the mouths and actions of these very unpopular & unrepresentative Congresswomen.”

Asked later in the week about the “send her back” chant targeting Omar at his rally in North Carolina, Trump denied that the chant was racist, instead offering a counterexample of racism.

“No, you know what’s racist to me? When somebody goes out and says the horrible things about our country — the people of our country — that are anti-Semitic, that hate everybody, that speak with scorn and hate,” Trump said. “That, to me, is really a very dangerous thing. I think these four congressmen — and I could say some worse than others. But if you look at the statements they’ve made, when they call the people of our country ‘garbage,’ when they hit Israel the way they’ve hit Israel so hard, so horrible — I think, to me, that’s a disgrace.”

We’ll note, again, that this is not an accurate representation of what the four congresswomen have said. Trump and his allies have given multiple examples purporting to show anti-American activity on the part of the Democrats, the examples of which are centered on policy disputes with the administration.

In other words, Trump is claiming that allegations of racism directed at himself and his policies — and the supporters who embrace them — are themselves examples of racism. Analysis by The Washington Post found that Trump is three times as likely to accuse nonwhite people of racism as he is white people.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. When segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace was asked if he considered himself to be a racist during a 1968 interview, he offered a similar deflection.

“No sir, I don’t regard myself as a racist,” Wallace said, “and I think the biggest racists in the world are those who call other folks racist. I think the biggest bigots in the world are those who call other folks bigots.”

Last year, as the anniversary of the violent 2017 protests in Charlottesville arrived, Trump tweeted a condemnation of “all types” of racism. This was an obvious reference to the sort of reverse racism embedded in his and Wallace’s rhetoric: Purported racism against white people.

As we pointed out then, nearly two-thirds of Trump voters say they’re at least somewhat concerned about “reverse racism” impacting their lives — that is, the idea that whites are the focus of discrimination. That includes a quarter of that group who say they’re very concerned about it. Research from the Pew Research Center released in March shows that white Republicans and Republican-leaning independents see whites, blacks and Hispanics as about equally the target of discrimination.

About a tenth of respondents told Pew that whites face more discrimination than blacks; 80 percent of that group identified as Republican or Republican-leaning.

Trump’s response to the women criticizing him and his policies is to suggest that they are themselves racist. Ironically, it’s an example of what White House adviser Stephen Miller said in an interview Sunday that Democrats did all too often.

“I think the term ‘racist’ has become a label that is too often deployed by the left,” Miller said. “Democrats in this country simply to try to silence and punish and suppress people they disagree with, speech that they don’t want to hear.”

That raises an important subtext to this. Trump ran for office leveraging opposition to “political correctness,” the idea that traditional American conversation and interactions were being criticized out of existence. In the first Republican primary debate in 2015, the first question directed at him addressed his offensive criticisms of prominent women.

“I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct,” he said, to applause. “I’ve been challenged by so many people, and I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness.”

Changing mores have meant more skepticism about and condemnation of racist or sexist comments. Those who make those sorts of traditionally racist and sexist comments or who reinforce traditional race and gender roles are generally members of the more powerful racial and gender groups: whites and men. Being told that it’s unacceptable to say or do things that others see as racist or which reinforce racial hierarchies is seen as a race-based criticism. Is seen, apparently, as racist.

Shortly after the 2018 midterm elections, journalist Yamiche Alcindor asked Trump if he wasn’t worried that his rhetoric was emboldening white nationalists. That, Trump declared, was a racist question.

What’s really remarkable about Trump’s tweet Monday is how it overlaps with his efforts over the past week to claim that he was just taking issue with purported anti-Americanism on the part of the Democrats. That’s his (bad) defense of his tweets telling the women to “go back” where they came from: He was simply telling them to leave because they hate America as manifested in their approach to Israel and immigration policy.

So then, what makes them racist? They are racist because they “want to tear down the structure of our country” (as Miller claimed on Fox News), largely because they oppose Trump’s policies on immigration?

If so, what does that say about whom Trump’s immigration policies are meant to support?

Earlier this month, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi revised Trump’s campaign slogan into “Make America white again.” It was the latest effort on her part to tweak the president, linked to his push for a question on the census centered on citizenship.

Asked about it last week, Trump described Pelosi’s comment as “racist.”