Trump, Omar and democracy: ‘This is a struggle about the identity of the United States’

Posted at 10:08 PM, Jul 18, 2019
and last updated 2019-07-19 00:08:07-04

A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.

Peter Beinart on “CNN Tonight” on Thursday: “This is a struggle about the identity of the United States.”

“So apparently,” David Brooks writes in Friday’s NYT, “Donald Trump wants to make this an election about what it means to be American. He’s got his vision of what it means to be American, and he’s challenging the rest of us to come up with a better one.” This is the big story, but it’s incredibly hard to tell in day-of news stories and 90-second-long TV packages…

“Tell them to leave”

On Thursday Trump tried to convince everyone that he didn’t like it when his fans chanted “send her back” against Rep. Ilhan Omar.

Did anyone believe him? Anyone?

This is one of those times when there are multiple ways to dispute the president’s claim…

1: TV news anchors played the tape from Wednesday’s rally to show just how long he soaked up the chants. (Thirteen seconds.) So did late-night comics. NBC’s Seth Meyers called Trump’s disavowal “an obvious lie.”

2: Friday’s front page of the NYT shows what Trump tweeted when he arrived back in DC after the rally. “What a crowd, and what great people,” he wrote. “The enthusiasm blows away our rivals on the Radical Left.”

3: I think there’s another moment from the rally, twelve minutes after the chant, that speaks volumes. “If they don’t like it, let them leave. Let them leave,” he told the crowd. “They are always telling us how to run it, how to do this. You know what? If they don’t love it, TELL THEM to leave it.” He heard the crowd say “send her back,” and then he endorsed the chant…

4: The bottom line, as written by WaPo’s Ashley Parker: “Trump may have aimed for deniability — but his supporters seemed to know what he meant…”

Sean Hannity’s spin

He actually said this on Thursday night: “I don’t think they were saying ‘send her back” as much as they’re saying, ‘these views are repugnant.'”

2020 frame is not ‘racists vs. socialists,’ but ‘democracy vs. anti-democracy’

CNN’s Eve Bower writes: In his newsletter “The Editorial Board” on Thursday, John Stoehr responded to Lisa Mascaro’s analysis in the AP of an emerging editorial frame for the 2020 campaign. Stoehr wrote that Trump’s tweets imagine an “in-group” status for Trump and his supporters, and an “out-group” status for the four congresswomen Trump depicts as being “foreign” and having “vicious” motives in their policymaking and speech. But “when you believe the out-group always has malign intent, no disagreement can be tolerated. If there is no disagreement, it’s a democracy in name only. So if you chant send her back!, you aren’t just being horribly racist. You’re saying democracy is dead to you,” Stoehr wrote.

For these reasons, one colleague told me, it is not enough for journalists to “fact-check” Trump’s tweets by noting that all four of the congresswomen are citizens, and three were born in this country. What does that have to do with this situation? As journalists who fear that norms of free speech are being eroded, shouldn’t we be the most eager to say there is no reason people who criticize a policy, a president, or an entire country, should be made to feel unwelcome in a democracy? So why does Trump want to imply otherwise?

“This is not about Omar anymore”

“Democrats now hold the House, and they are not holding Trump back,” Adam Serwer writes in his latest must-read for The Atlantic.

He says Ilhan Omar “must be defended,” regardless of any of her views, “because the nature of the president’s attack on her is a threat to all Americans — black or white, Jew or Gentile — whose citizenship, whose belonging, might similarly be questioned. This is not about Omar anymore, or the other women of color who have been told by this president to ‘go back’ to their supposed countries of origin. It is about defending the idea that America should be a country for all its people. If multiracial democracy cannot be defended in America, it will not be defended elsewhere. What Americans do now, in the face of this, will define us forever.”

Omar’s message

Here’s what she told her constituents on Thursday night: “I know there are a lot of people that are trying to distract us now, but I want you all to know that we are not going to lie down…”

“How do you write about a week like this in America?”

That’s what Susan Glasser asks in her latest column for The New Yorker. “Half of the country is appalled but not really sure how to combat him; the other half is cheering, or at least averting its gaze,” she writes… “This is what a political civil war looks like, with words, for now, as weapons…”

Read more of Thursday’s “Reliable Sources” newsletter… And subscribe here to receive future editions in your inbox…

Notes and quotes

— Peter Nicholas: “Talking with the rallygoers, I couldn’t find one who faulted Trump for demonizing the freshman representatives…”

— Michael Kruse, who was also there, said “the speech was a sine wave of energy peaks and troughs…”

— SE Cupp: “‘Send her back’ will be the Trump era’s defining slogan…”

— Jelani Cobb tweeted from down under: “It’s really striking how many people in Sydney have asked me about 45’s latest bigotry spree. Driver at the airport asked me ‘Why did he attack the Squad?’ As bad as he looks domestically this is a reminder that the entire world is an audience for this abject racist stupidity…”