News & Opinion » Urban Journal

Donald Trump, racism, and a divided nation


We are so far apart.

The United States has so many problems that require us to work together, and we are so far apart, divided increasingly by racism and xenophobia.

These are not new sins. They predate the country’s founding. But on occasion, we have seemed to try to rise above them. On occasion, we have had leaders who have pulled us forward. On occasion there’s been hope that collectively, there really did exist what Lincoln called “better angels of our nature.”

Now, though, the leader of the country is inciting different angels. He is using four young Congresswomen of color as bait, dangling them in front of his followers as surely as if he put them on hooks and bounced them over the heads of a pack of yapping, snarling dogs.

He started the attack with his “go back where you came from” tweets. A few days later, at a July 17 rally in Greenville, North Carolina, he ramped up the rhetoric, mocking the women and calling them hate-filled extremists.

The roar and the chants of the crowd in the Greenville arena are bone-chilling. “Traitor!” “Treason!” “Send her back! Send her back! Send her back!” An arena full of people, laughing, fist-pumping, cheering, “Send her back! Send her back!”


The president knows what he’s doing, of course. The day after the Greenville rally, he temporarily tried to step away from his supporters, saying – video footage to the contrary – that he had tried to stop the chants. But that didn’t last long. By the end of the week, he was praising the chanters, calling them “incredible patriots.” He continued to lie about what the four Congresswomen have said, and added, “I can tell you this: you can’t talk that way about our country, not when I’m president.”

It’s hard to imagine things getting worse, but given what we’ve experienced since January 2016, we can assume that they will. Because Donald Trump is not an aberration, any more than the white nationalist march in Charlottesville was.

And rather than objecting to Trump’s behavior, the Republican leaders in Washington have crafted a response to his critics, shifting the focus to the Congresswomen using words taken straight out of the McCarthy playbook from the 1950’s.

"We all know that AOC and this crowd are a bunch of communists,” South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham said on Fox & Friends. “They're anti-Semitic. They're anti-America."

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he agrees with Trump that the four Congresswomen want “to turn us into a socialist country” – and that it’s not just those four.

Racism, xenophobia, nativism: These will be the foundation of the Republican Party’s campaign for the presidency, the House, and the Senate. And in the roars and chants in the arena in Greenville, North Carolina, last week, we saw how many Americans will respond.

Trump’s approval rating continues to be stable, despite his behavior. Given that, the Times’ Nate Cohen suggested on Saturday, Trump could lose the popular election again in 2020 but win the Electoral College vote by an even wider margin.

One day last week, David Brooks ended a column in the Times with a quote from Langston Hughes’ “Let America Be America Again”:

“America never was America to me / And yet I swear this oath – / America will be!”

There’s a lot more hope and faith in Langston Hughes’ words than I’m feeling right now.