After days of inflaming the nation’s racial tensions, President Trump stood before a mostly white crowd of supporters Wednesday and observed what he had wrought.
“Send her back! Send her back!” the crowd chanted as Trump looked on silently for 13 seconds, basking in the response to his attacks on a Somali-born Muslim congresswoman whom he had accused of supporting terrorists and hating America.
The new rallying cry of Trump’s supporters unleashed emotional responses from people across the country, with some outraged by and others supportive of the president’s latest polarizing act.
“I think he’s tearing the world apart with what he says and how he says it,” Lu Norman, 88, said while visiting the library in the rural west Texas town of Stanton. “I don’t think he’s presidential.”
Also at the library Wednesday, Lori Valles said the president was being “petty” and turning “people against each other.”
Trump “needs to be impeached,” the 42-year-old certified nurse’s aide said.
Dan Wendel, a Boston contractor, had a different view about Trump’s attacks on Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and three other congresswomen.
“You really want to know? I love it!” he said Wednesday outside a building he was working on in Southie, a gentrifying working-class neighborhood of Boston.
Wendel said Trump was right to call out Democratic lawmakers for “bad-mouthing America.”
During his rally in Greenville, N.C., on Wednesday, Trump accused Omar and Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Ayanna Pressley (Mass.) and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.) of being unpatriotic. Following up on his tweets Sunday — in which he urged the four minority lawmakers to “go back” to their countries of origin — Trump told the crowd that the four women ought to leave the United States.
All four lawmakers are U.S. citizens and only Omar was born outside the country.
By Thursday, Trump expressed a measure of regret for how things had escalated at his rally, saying he “felt a little bit badly about” and was “not happy with” the chants that have been roundly condemned by Democrats and several Republicans.
But the president’s attacks have reverberated across the country, injecting yet more division into a nation fraught with tension over issues such as immigration, religion and changing demographics.
Trump has long rejected the traditional presidential role of a unifying figure for America’s broad and diverse population, and his decision to spread such inflammatory rhetoric was bound to escalate beyond his control, said Russell Riley, a presidential historian at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.
“You can’t strike a match near gasoline and not expect something to happen, and when you’re trafficking in highly charged racial language — which he was doing, regardless of his denials — then you’re playing with incendiaries,” he said. “You simply cannot disavow the explosion after you have struck the match.”
The division Trump has seized on for political benefit is reflected by voters across the country, who have widely differing views about the president’s spat with Omar and the three other lawmakers, known as “the Squad.”
While some people see Trump’s attacks as evidence of deep-seated racism, others have defended him from charges of bigotry and say he is simply standing up for the country.
A 10-minute drive from Southie, in the racially mixed neighborhood of Dorchester, Trish Mullen said she has never felt as unsafe as she does with Trump as president.
“It’s just embarrassing that we have someone representing our country that’s just foul,” said Mullen, who came to the United States from the Philippines a couple decades ago, when she was 5. “We have a loose cannon for a president.”
Mariah Gladstone, 25, a member of the Blackfeet Nation who lives in Kalispell, Mont., saw video clips of the audience chanting during Trump’s rally. To her, the event displayed a familiar strain of racism.
“Obviously, the major factor is race, and it is particularly notable that white Americans are never told to go back where they came from,” said Gladstone, who owns a business that educates people about indigenous American cuisine. “It is the overwhelming notion that people of color should go back to where they came from.”
In Baton Rouge, Tammy Harrison said Trump’s comments were being exaggerated by the media. The 60-year-old Republican said she agreed with the president’s comments.
“I just think if you don’t want to follow the policies of the United States, you are free to go wherever you want,” said Harrison, who is white.
In Harrison’s view, Trump’s remarks targeting the four congresswomen were about ideology, not race.
“I know they are ladies of color, but there are extremists in the Democratic Party no matter what color they are,” she said.
Mary Thomas, who works at a restaurant near Wayne State University in Detroit, says the country’s racial climate is the worst she’s seen in her 60 years — a period that includes Detroit’s 1967 race riots when the National Guard was deployed.
Thomas, who is black, blames Trump.
“I think he’s racist,” she said. “I really think he is.”
In Colorado, Diana Higuera said the chants that emanated from the North Carolina rally reminded her of the fraught political situations in country she left to come to the United States.
“The situation in my country right now is not in good shape, and now I’m not so sure how safe this country is becoming,” said Higuera, 47, who came to the United States in 2005 from Venezuela to study for a master’s degree in international communications at the University of Denver. “As a foreigner, now I don’t feel safe — even though I’m naturalized — I still have an accent, and I speak Spanish to my kids.”
With more than a year until the next presidential election, many people aren’t following the daily drama rippling from Beltway politics.
News of the uproar over the “Send her back!” chants drew blank stares and quizzical looks from people sitting in the shade in downtown Lancaster, Pa. Among the 20 or so people queried, none had heard about the chants, and only some were aware of the skirmish between Trump and the four female members of Congress.
Alex Garcia, 48, of Lancaster, arrived in the United States illegally from Mexico in 1989. Starting as a dishwasher in New York City, Garcia now a legal resident, owns Señor Hoagies in Lancaster, a restaurant that sells Mexican food and sandwiches. He shook his head when told about the latest controversy, but said the president’s rhetoric doesn’t bother him.
During his 30 years in the United States, he said no one has told him to go back to Mexico.
“People helped me,” he said. “This country opened the door to me.”
In Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood, Marie Sanon-Jules, 48, said that while Trump’s comments were “disrespectful,” she expects him to win reelection. Sanon-Jules, born in Haiti and now an American citizen, said Trump’s words disparage the country’s history as a refuge for immigrants.
“If everybody had to go back to their country, Americans would be the first ones to go back where they’re from,” she said. “You’re not better than me. I’m not better than you. President Trump, you have to change your way.”
Trump distanced himself from the crowd at his rally after several Republican lawmakers told Vice President Pence they were uncomfortable with the “Send her back!” language. But even as he backpedaled, Trump also stood up for his chanting supporters on Thursday.
“Well, these are people that love our country,” Trump said when reporters asked him what he would tell the people who had participated in the chants calling for Omar to be deported. “I want them to keep loving our country.”
He then continued attacking the four lawmakers.
“They have such hatred,” he said. “They should love our country.”
Bryan Lanza, an adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign and transition, said he “hated the chants” but did not view them — or the president — as racist.
“I’ve been yelled those comments in the school yards of L.A. and heard the same thing in the street of Bolivia,” said Lanza, who is Hispanic. “It’s never a pleasant experience, but I never viewed it as racial.”
Conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt said in a tweet that the chant was “nativist” and also dangerous politically, as crucial states such as Pennsylvania and Michigan have hundreds of thousands of residents who, like Omar, are naturalized U.S. citizens.
“It is a very risky strategy,” said Chase Untermeyer, who served as an adviser to President George H.W. Bush. “It may make loyalists’ hearts beat faster and minds get more convinced, but it doesn’t do a thing to expand the potential voter base.”
Robert Hall, 33, who designs Blackfeet language curriculum for schools on the nation’s reservation in northwestern Montana, said he was entirely unsurprised by way the crowd responded at the rally.
“We know it’s racism,” Hall said. “To me it’s baffling. I don’t understand why racist people don’t just look us in the eye and say, ‘Yes, I’m racist.’ Liberate yourselves, then we can have an honest conversation.”
Trevor Bach in Detroit; Anna Clark in St. Joseph, Mich.; Deirdra Funcheon in Miami; Kathleen McLaughlin in Polson, Mont.; Jennifer Oldham in Denver; Gheni Platenburg in Baton Rouge; Sheila Regan in Minneapolis; Lana Straub in Stanton, Tex.; Karen Weintraub in Boston; and Amy Worden in Lancaster, Pa., contributed to this report.