Since I’ve been tough on President Trump’s attacks on the Democratic freshmen, and since the media outrage has been deafening, and since all House Democrats (and four Republicans) voted for a resolution condemning his tweets, I’ll begin by giving the floor to the president’s supporters.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said yesterday he does not believe the Trump attacks are racist. “I believe this is about ideology. … This is all about politics,” he said.
Newt Gingrich said Trump believes “the more he can get the country to look at the so-called squad, the more he can get them to realize how radical they are, and how fundamentally anti-American their views are; in the long run, the better off he is.”
Maryland GOP congressman Andy Harris said the tweets are “obviously not racist,” but “when anyone disagrees with someone now, the default is you call them a racist and this is no exception.”
He said Trump “could’ve meant go back to the district that they came from or the neighborhood they came from,” though the president has specifically talked about Ilhan Omar and Somalia.
Fox News’ Jesse Watters said while his mother views the tweets as racist, “Mom’s not going to scare me off. These were not racist. This was about patriotism. When did ‘Love it or leave it?’ become racist? Not only leave it, hey, come back and help us fix our problems.”
And the president himself tweeted yesterday that “I don’t have a Racist bone in my body!”, adding: “The Democrat Congresswomen have been spewing some of the most vile, hateful, and disgusting things ever said by a politician in the House or Senate, & yet they get a free pass and a big embrace from the Democrat Party. … Why isn’t the House voting to rebuke the filthy and hate laced things they have said?”
What the Republican Party now wants—or is forced to want, since most members believe it’s political suicide to take on Trump—is to blur the debate.
In this view, it’s not about Trump saying the women should “go back” to where they came from before returning, it’s about the left-wing extremism of AOC, Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib.
This, I believe, was Trump’s strategy all along, to create enough of a firestorm that they become the face of the Democratic Party and his own initial attacks become beside the point.
That’s what Lindsey Graham did in mildly suggesting that his golfing buddy “aim higher” while trashing the freshmen: “We all know that AOC and this crowd are a bunch of communists. They hate Israel, they hate our own country.”
(His former House colleague Joe Scarborough accused him of “McCarthyism.”)
A relative handful of Republicans, meanwhile, spoke out against the president’s attacks on the four women:
Mitt Romney: “Destructive, demeaning and disunifying.” Lisa Murkowski: “There is no excuse for the president’s spiteful comments–they were absolutely unacceptable and this needs to stop.” Tim Scott, the only black Republican in the Senate, chided Trump for “unacceptable personal attacks and racially charged language.”
There are big challenges here for the media as well. I said yesterday on “America’s Newsroom” that news outlets should be cautious about branding Trump’s attacks as racist, as if it were an undisputed fact. CNN, CBS, ABC and, after an internal debate, the Washington Post are among those who have done so in straight news stories and segments.
My view is that readers and viewers are smart, especially when the president uses language that closely mirrors the historic “go back to Africa” taunts against blacks.
Cover the story aggressively, lay things out, and they can make up their own minds. Don’t act like the opposition party.
A larger question is whether the media are playing into the president’s hands. A New York Times editorial accused Trump of the politics of distraction:
“His comments elicited precisely the sort of media coverage and public outcry that he thrives on. So he did what he usually does: He went a step further…
“Mr. Trump’s aim of stoking an endless culture war puts his political critics in a bind. They can take his bait and fight back, participating in the divisive distraction he’s designed to energize his supporters, or they can ignore his outbursts and risk normalizing his terrible behavior.”
The fact is that a president can command media attention any time he wants, and that was true in the pre-Twitter age as well. And when a president makes divisive accusations of this magnitude, and the other party explodes in outrage, which is a very big story that can’t be minimized or ignored.
To do otherwise is to try to stage-manage the news for political reasons. And besides, it never works.