I thought it was refreshing when President Trump defended Nancy Pelosi against insinuations of racism, even though he was doing it to criticize the four freshmen congresswomen who have been feuding with her.
He should have stopped there.
I saw his tweets slamming the four “women of color,” as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez calls them, about an hour before “Media Buzz” went on the air.
I said there would be a media explosion over his language, and that began almost instantly—as Trump knew would be the case.
I cannot defend the Trump attacks, not least because three of the four lawmakers—except Ilhan Omar, a Somali-born refugee who is a naturalized American citizen—were born in this country.
The president’s tweet was not a dog whistle, it was audible to everyone: “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how it is done.” He said they “can’t leave fast enough.”
I am not a fan of Omar, who even many Democrats have assailed for her anti-Semitic comments. But she is a duly elected member of Congress. And in a country where blacks have heard “go back to Africa” taunts for many decades, this struck a very raw nerve.
Similarly, I am not anti-Trump (or pro-Trump, for that matter).
The president usually has a finely tuned ear for what he can get away with. He edges over the line in ways that enable him to dominate the news on his terms, but leaves him with some rhetorical wiggle room.
That wasn’t the case here, which is why most Republicans are remaining silent. Even loyalist Lindsey Graham, while calling the AOC group “a bunch of communists,” told Fox News that Trump should “knock it down a notch.”
Trump denied yesterday that the attacks were racist, saying he didn’t mention any names but that people who “hate our country” should leave.
But he directly called out Omar by name as someone “who’s never happy,” who “hates Israel,” who “hates Jews” and likes al-Qaeda.
I think we should be careful about conflating criticism of our country with being unpatriotic.
That’s a charge that was hurled at those who opposed the Vietnam War, the Iraq invasion, some security measures after 9/11.
Democracy is strong enough to tolerate dissent.
Mara Liasson observed on my show that the warring Democrats had formed “a circular firing squad,” but the Trump tweets now make it about him and unify the opposition party.
Indeed, the Dems are all on message. AOC, who sometimes goes too far herself (border facilities as “concentration camps”), accused Trump of using the “hallmark language of white supremacists” and “leading the GOP into outright racism.” Omar said Trump is “stoking white nationalism because you are angry that people like us are serving in Congress and fighting against your hate-filled agenda.”
Kamala Harris called the tweets “absolutely racist and un-American.”
A New York Times news analysis said Trump “plays with fire like no other president in a century. While others who occupied the White House at times skirted close to or even over the line, finding ways to appeal to the resentments of white Americans with subtle and not-so-subtle appeals, none of them in modern times fanned the flames as overtly, relentlessly and even eagerly as Mr. Trump.”
The president, the Times noted, sometimes says: “I am the least racist person you have ever met.”
“But he does not go out of his way to avoid looking like he is, and his string of Twitter posts on Sunday left his own advisers unable or unwilling to defend him.”
CNN offered no such qualifiers, accusing the president of a “racist attacks” in its on-screen headlines.
Trump's rhetoric opened the door for the press to examine his past embrace of the birther movement, his denigration of s-hole countries, his "good people on both sides" comments after Charlottesville.
The Times piece by Peter Baker noted that other presidents have played racial politics: Richard Nixon’s southern strategy, Ronald Reagan’s welfare queens, George H. W. Bush’s use of Willie Horton, Bill Clinton’s Sister Souljah moment.
But they did it more subtly and indirectly.
So I come back to my original question: Why did Trump knowingly fan these flames?
He would love to run against a Democratic Party that is symbolized by AOC, Omar, Pressley and Tlaib. He wants the Democrats to rally around the four liberal lawmakers. He believes that a love-it-or-leave-it debate over this squad will be so intense that the fact that he started it will eventually become a minor element.
Whether he’s right or wrong, Trump will pay a price.