With plodding predictability, we’re now supposed to believe that Donald Trump is unhappy with racist chants by his followers and true believers. And that’s after he spent the better part of the past week defending and doubling down on his use of a classic white supremacist demand that people of color should “go back” to wherever their ancestors came from.
The evidence suggests Trump’s use of the “go back” trope over the weekend was a spontaneous reaction to a race-baiting Fox News segment he was watching on TiVo. But despite the apparent impulsiveness behind it, over the next few days Trump and his team spun his behavior as a deliberate communications strategy. Aides called up reporters under the veil of anonymity to claim that this was all part of Trump’s master plan to win the 2020 election. No doubt Trump himself believes this, since Fox News keeps egging him on at every turn. Republican politicians and right-wing pundits got to work denying that Trump’s racism is racism and instead trying to frame his critics as bad-faith poseurs.
As inevitably happens when Trump goes full white nationalist, there’s a point where it becomes clear he can’t contain the backlash, so with great fanfare (and visible reluctance) he walks it back. As usual, there is absolutely no reason to believe Trump’s walk-back. Even more important, there’s no reason to think Trump’s supporters believe in the sincerity of his walk-back either.
This time, after Trump spent multiple days spreading racist lies about women of color serving in Congress — claiming both that Rep. Ilhan Omar, D.-Minn., is “proud” of al-Qaida and that she married her brother, as well as mocking Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D.-N.Y., for her hyphenated last name — the inevitable happened. The crowd at Trump’s Wednesday night rally in North Carolina started chanting “Send her back” in response to Trump’s attacks on Omar.
The reaction of the press was swift and outraged, because there’s simply no way to ignore the fascist implications of a crowd chanting racist slogans while Trump does his best Mussolini impression. So, Trump caved, under apparent pressure from some Republicans who started to panic. He told reporters on Thursday that he was “not happy” with the chants and, in a blatant lie, suggested he tried to stop the chants.
The video of this event clearly shows Trump’s reaction to the “send her back”: His usual smug expression and a lengthy, contented pause to encourage the chanting. But his lie was good enough to snag the desired headlines from the New York Times (“Trump Disavows ‘Send Her Back’ Chant as G.O.P. Frets Over Ugly Phrase”), Politico (“Trump disavows ‘send her back’ chant from his rally”) and The Hill (“Trump walks back from ‘send her back’ chants”). It’s true that the text of these articles often noted that Trump was being dishonest, but as the advisers pressuring Trump are no doubt aware, relatively few people read past the headlines, especially under the onslaught conditions of the contemporary news cycle.
It’s not surprising that so many outlets were eager to run with these headlines. As Brian Beutler of Crooked Media noted, Trump’s overt racism “can’t be contained in the framework of norms,” so there’s an eagerness among many in the media to brush it as quickly under the rug as possible.
These walk-backs or supposed disavowals — such as his half-hearted retractions after calling the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville “very fine people” or after his White House leaked a story about Trump describing several largely nonwhite nations as “shithole countries” — should never be taken seriously. Trump’s supporters certainly don’t treat them that way. On the contrary, Trump’s foot-dragging semi-retractions help feed his narrative that white conservatives are the true victims of oppression in this country, because they are being stifled by the all-mighty forces of “political correctness” from speaking their truth.
Trump’s reluctance when he does the now-standard dishonest walk-back is always clearly conveyed, such that none of his supporters mistake how little he actually means it. This latest version is no exception. By Friday morning, Trump was already back on Twitter complaining that the “Fake News Media” was “crazed” to care about the “Send her back” chants and claiming that such concern about racism only shows that the “Mainstream Media, which has lost all credibility, has either officially or unofficially become a part of the Radical Left Democrat Party.”
His crankiness about having to back away from any aspect of his gleeful racism was also evident in his tweets from Thursday morning, when he rehashed some of his greatest Latino-bashing hits, claiming that Puerto Rico had “squandered” hurricane relief aid and equating all undocumented immigrants with MS-13 gang members who kill “many people in the most brutal fashion.” (Once more, for those in the cheap seats, immigrants of all varieties commit crimes at a lower rate than native-born Americans.)
Trump’s fake walk-backs often work beautifully by exerting pressure on journalists and politicians to curtail their criticisms of Trump, while not actually harming his appeal to a base that wants him to be as racist as the comments section of Breitbart. Resisting Trump’s efforts at gaslighting and manipulating the media requires reporters and editors not to give more weight to his walk-backs than to the heavy loads of racism that get dumped before and after his reluctant efforts to pretend he didn’t mean it.
Luckily, some in the media are starting to learn this lesson, and are treating Trump’s supposed disavowal with the skepticism it deserves. CNN’s headline attributed Trump’s walk-back to “pressure from allies,” and the Washington Post basically ignored Trump’s disavowal in favor of an in-depth piece tracing how a “racist tweet” so swiftly morphed into a rally chant.
Multiple late-night TV hosts — who have spent the entirety of the Trump administration ignoring the pressure to stay out of politics — called BS on Trump’s lies Thursday night. The video of Trump at the rally, spending 13 seconds in silence — a long period, for him — while the crowd chanted, “Send her back” was used to great effect. Trevor Noah of “The Daily Show” quipped that Trump was “basking in that moment like an iguana soaking up racist sun.”
This may seem like a small thing, but it’s really not. The only way to resist Trump’s firehose of Orwellian lies is to loudly, repeatedly and publicly call them lies. As has been demonstrated shown by more timid outlets like the New York Times, it’s way too easy for journalists, pundits and politicians to shy away from loaded but accurate words like “racist” to describe not just Trump’s actions but his entire worldview. One way to stay honest is to take Trump’s purported walk-backs as seriously as his supporters do, which is to say not seriously at all.
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