The racist rant President Trump launched on Twitter on Sunday was an outrage, even by his standards. Once again, he has tarnished the presidency. Worse still, the reckless way he chose to attack his political adversaries — unnamed in the tweet, but understood to be four Democratic women of color in Congress — risks long-term damage to the country.
In the tweet, Trump said the congresswomen, understood to include Dorchester Representative Ayanna Pressley, were “viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run” and that they “can’t leave fast enough” to go back to their home countries. Never mind that all are US citizens and three of them, including Pressley, were born in the United States; the president was tapping into an age-old racist trope, portraying racial minorities as outsiders.
It’s hardly out of character. Trump’s personal bigotry stretches back decades, from the time he was discriminating against black tenants in New York City, and it has served him well as a political strategy. His making disgusting statements delights his political base — and helps create media firestorms that distract from his failures and broken promises. Almost all the glimmers of resistance to this shameful political strategy within his party have died out; just a handful of elected Republicans distanced themselves from Trump’s tweet. Now there will be polls, and TV pundits debating the electoral significance. Democrats say the House will hold a vote on whether to condemn his remarks.
But look beyond Washington — and beyond the short term. The way the president has legitimized racism has emboldened others. Twitter and Facebook boil with ugly rhetoric. Reports of hate crimes have gone up. Millions of Americans have convinced themselves that the caging of Central American children is nothing to worry about. Meanwhile, millions of nonwhite Americans experience a heightened sense of threat. The central promise of modern America, that anyone can be an American, has suddenly been called into question — by the president, no less.
Once unleashed, these xenophobic demons will be hard to push back to the political fringes. It’s not that racism didn’t exist in America before Trump. Some recent past presidents espoused racist views in private (Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon), or used coded language to appeal to whites (Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton). But the fact that politicians felt the need to resort to dog-whistle rhetoric was telling: Explicit racism was off-limits, even though it meant giving up a few potential votes.
That restraint is gone now. Here’s how former senator John McCain described Trump’s campaign strategy in 2016: “What he did was he fired up the crazies.” To judge by Trump’s tweets — and his actions — he’s determined to keep firing them up to win reelection.
Someday, hopefully soon, a more responsible leader will have to douse that fire. For now, Americans — including GOP members of the House and Senate — need to take sides. The president has crossed a terrible line, and made a bald assertion about who counts as a real American — and to whom this country belongs. It’s a travesty. And if America is to hold to its ideals, Americans need to speak up for them now.