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Trump has turned the racial dog whistle into a steam whistle

President Donald Trump spoke at rally in Greenville, N.C.Gerry Broome/AP/Associated Press

‘SEND HER BACK, send her back.”

These incendiary words, at a Trump rally on Wednesday night in North Carolina, are still reverberating. They come only days after the president told four Democratic congresswomen of color, including Somali-American representative Ilhan Omar, to “go back” to the countries from which they originally came.

This moment of unambiguous bigotry, emanating straight from the president and echoed by his most fervent supporters, is not your garden-variety Trumpian outrage. It is a turning point in American politics: when the racial dog whistle becomes a racial steam whistle.

For more than five decades, ever since the civil rights era, white politicians — mainly, though not always, Republicans — have played on racial fears. But they did so subtly, developing language that nodded toward racial bigotry while eschewing the sort of naked racism that turned off moderates.


They talked about “states’ rights” or the desire for a “color-blind society.” They spoke of “economic anxiety.” When Republicans railed against “big government” and welfare or labeled Democrats as “tax-and-spend liberals,” there was an insidious, but deniable, subtext: “taxing the middle class to spend money on government programs for poor black Americans.” Racial animus and white fears about integration had become euphemized.

The “send it back” chant ends this charade. It’s the logical culmination of four years of Trump’s racist appeals and the unwillingness of congressional Republicans to speak out against them. Indeed, once again, few Republicans were willing to unambiguously condemn the president’s words as racist.

Some complained that Trump’s words were politically unwise. “That does not need to be our campaign call,” said Representative Mark Walker of North Carolina, who previously had taken to Twitter to express similar concern (tossing in a dig at Omar’s “great disdain for both America & Israel”).


For Walker and other Republicans, the attacks on a dark-skinned, Muslim member of Congress are problematic because the president — and his supporters — have said the quiet part out loud.

“Send her back” turns what was once subtext into text. It makes explicit the GOP’s disdain for non-white Americans. It demonstrates that opposition to Omar’s words is, at its core, opposition to her very presence in the country. And Trump’s demands that congresswomen of color profess their love for America — or leave the country — make clear that one’s status as an American is dependent on one’s skin color. The modern Republican Party, it’s now clear, is defined by a platform of racism and white identity.

And the 2020 election has become a referendum on whether America will be a country that privileges the rights, and caters to the cultural fears, of whites, or is a diverse, multicultural nation that treats all its citizens equally.

Of course, some version of this question has hung over American politics since the 1960s, when the Republican Party began defining itself as a political party devoted to the interests of white America, and the Democratic Party adopted the mantle of the melting pot.

Now we don’t need to pretend anymore that politics is about something fundamentally different.

While polling shows that Trump’s racist views are opposed by a majority of Americans, among base Republican voters his bigotry is a feature, not a bug. It’s what motivated his supporters in 2016, and it may do so again in crucial battleground states in 2020. It’s part of the reason why many Democrats don’t want to talk about race, because as much as they may believe they are on the right side of the issue, they know that bigotry resonates among all too many white voters.


To acknowledge as much is to concede that America is a far more intolerant country than any of us want to recognize. And that’s a painful realization for many. But Democrats will not get the luxury of fighting the next election on the terrain of their choosing. Race, culture, and white identity are the issues on which Trump and the GOP want to engage — and Democrats must be willing to have that fight.

Race is the greatest fault line in American politics. It’s been true for more than 50 years, and as vile and vicious as the “send it back” chants were, at least we can say they’ve clarified what’s at stake in 2020.

Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.