“Send her back … Send her back,” a crowd in North Carolina chanted to the speaker’s complacent silence. The screams were directed at Ilhan Omar, a Muslim American congresswoman born in Somalia. Two days earlier, the speaker, no other than the president of the United States, launched a barrage of tweets described as racist by Congress. That’s just the beginning. Behind politically correct differences, such as socialism or opinions about Israel, the racial debate has again infiltrated the presidential election of our northern neighbor.
Donald Trump has normalized certain words and archetypes that seem to have reached the limit of what a head of state can legally and ethically afford. However, his followers, not few in number, go much further in terms of a growing intolerance for non-white America, non-Anglo-Saxon people, non-Protestants and non-immigrant Europe prior to World War II. His hard-core voter base is returning to the narrative and rhetoric of the heartbreaking debates before the Civil Rights Act that President Lyndon Johnson was forced to make public in the 1970s.
When an American tells another American to “go back to his own country,” a very clear racial or religious connotation is involved. When the head of state tells an elected congresswoman to “go back to her own country,” the United States reverses half a century of history and recalls the darkest pages of that history: that of Alexander Hamilton, who as a Founding Father, never allowed his slaves to be free; that of Abraham Lincoln, who, in the second half of the 19th century, had to face war, carnage, division and even death to defend the flag of nonslavery; that of the silent march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, or the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. It makes one think of this colossal country that, seen up close, is fractured and divided into millions of different colors.
“Send her back.” Send “it” back. It is the clear position of the American right regarding the position of its country in the world: No more concessions to developing nations, no more refugees, no more tolerance for illegal immigration, there is no longer room for anyone else. They do not have to coexist with religions with which they have been at war and that they crudely and simplistically identify with terrorism; no more multicultural and multiethnic United States. Their position is that the Midwest and the deep South prevail (the immense territory between both coasts and the deep South of Tennessee, Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia and Missouri). Make America great again.
It is disheartening that Trump attacks four congresswomen, women of a color and religion different from his own, and makes them second class citizens. They cannot “go back” to their countries. Africa or Latin America are nothing more than the land of their grandparents, not a homeland to which they can return.
Would Trump’s followers be able to say “Send her back” to a Caucasian immigrant or one from a Nordic country? Is it the color of the skin and not the measure of the character, to paraphrase Martin Luther King? Isn’t this the weakness in question?
The truth is that, to the detriment of democracy and the weakening of civil rights, the debate in the 21st century is openly racial and polarizing. Dramatically, it is also effective in strengthening the voter base of the Republican Party in advance of the 2020 presidential election.
This president’s position, unprecedented in contemporary history, encapsulates the new immigration policy and the treatment of Mexico. It is consistent with the more controversial Trump episodes concerning the delicate issue of race: his attack on football players who knelt during the national anthem, and the defense of the white supremacist groups who attacked civilians in Charlottesville.
The issue is not only racism on a pedestal, communication, and power, but the amazing ability to amalgamate support from a point of view that, until very recently, had been disparaged as ethically reprehensible.
Today we choose between extremes: look away from irrational behavior, or have fear and distrust in an open world without clear borders.
The construction of walls followed the dismantling of borders. The advancement of minorities and the temporary ostracism of racism in politics are followed by a longing for segregation and the redefinition of roles and castes based on the color of skin, on religion and on the place where one was born.
Incredible as it may seem, the most powerful country, and one of the strongest democracies in the world, is demonstrating that three centuries were insufficient to banish the streak that has always divided it, which only laws could keep at bay: the underground racism that brought it to the Civil War, which mobilized the nation in the 1970s, and which, paradoxically, may guarantee the conditions under which Trump is reelected.