As a secular, post-modern professor, I’m not supposed to use the word “evil.” It sounds quite melodramatic and conjures up a world framed by theological doctrine in which there is an overarching master narrative–an ultimate Truth–rather than a multitude of contending truths rooted in different political and economic histories. But pondering Donald Trump’s latest utterances, no other word accurately describes what confronts us in the United States right now. It’s not just what President Trump says and does, nor is it simply the despicable policies his administration enacts, that are evil. The wickedness of this administration lies in Trump’s ability and willingness to set the country on fire by riling up his base and commandeering the mainstream and social media day in and day out with incendiary diatribes. He is trying to position himself for victory in 2020 by turning up the heat of public anger, hatred, and despair, and he’s clever enough to pose as the victim, rather than the instigator, of this dangerous discourse.
Trump as arsonist-in-chief is now setting fire to the 2020 presidential election, a full year before the Democratic Convention has produced a nominee. He’s put his finger on the rifts and contradictions within the Democratic Party and has deftly pitted new progressive members of Congress (all women and minorities) against Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Weaponizing internal divisions among Democrats while also stirring up racist hate is a winning strategy for Trump: the mainstream media has shifted its focus from the humanitarian disaster at America’s southern border to the growing tensions between Pelosi and new progressive Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota (now popularly known as the “Squad”).
On July 14, Trump unleashed a series of tweets attacking the Squad for their comments about the horrific treatment of asylum seekers at the southern border, sending reverberations across the media and political landscape for the rest of the week:
So interesting to see “Progressive” Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all), now loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run. Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how it is done. These places need your help badly, you can’t leave fast enough. I’m sure that Nancy Pelosi would be very happy to quickly work out free travel arrangements!
In just 121 words, Trump deftly exacerbated a rift in the Democratic Party, alerted his White supremacist supporters to launch into attack mode, and painted four elected members of Congress as dangerous subversives deserving of expulsion from the United States. Although Trump’s tweet storms have sadly become a daily feature of life in America, this set of tweets had a particularly ominous and ugly undertone, reminiscent of the right-wing motto of the late 1960s: “America: Love it or Leave It.” By positioning himself as the embodiment of everything truly American, and saying that the four representatives came from “broken and crime-infested places” outside of America, Trump has taken a decisive step towards legitimating fascist discourse.
This tweet storm was even uglier than Trump’s castigation two years ago of African and Arab states as “shit-hole” countries, and suggests that, in Trump’s mind, America is white, Christian, Republican, and capitalist; and everything dangerous and damnable is the exact opposite. Race-baiting and stirring the embers of a potential civil war are now officially the foundations of Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign, and the dearth of push-back from Republican politicians sends the unequivocal message that public discourse will sink even farther into the sewer as the presidential race gears up. The only word for this is evil.
Sadly, the Democratic establishment on Capitol Hill went into reactive, rather than proactive, mode in response to Trump. Eager to paper over the party’s growing fault lines, Pelosi presented a resolution on the floor of the House condemning Trump’s racist tweets. But according to House rules, representatives are not allowed to engage in personal attacks, and describing Trump as “racist” went against decorum and tradition. Semantics took center stage as Republican members of the House called out Pelosi for casting personal aspersions on the President. Georgia Republican Rep. Doug Collins made a rare procedural motion to “take down” Pelosi’s comments. After an hour of wrangling over whether Pelosi’s characterization of Trump as “racist” should be struck from the record, Democratic Rep. Emmanuel Cleaver II of Missouri, who had been presiding over the session, announced that he was abandoning the chair and walked out, disgusted by the posturing and fighting, particularly that of the Republicans.
By the end of the uncharacteristically chaotic session, the House had voted 240-187 in favor of the measure’s strong condemnation of “President Donald Trump’s racist comments that have legitimized and increased fear and hatred of new Americans and people of color by saying that our fellow Americans who are immigrants, and those who may look to the President like immigrants, should ‘go back’ to other countries.” Only three Republican members of the House and one Independent joined the Democratic House members in supporting the resolution, which has no legal force whatsoever.
What Trump said in his July 14 tweet storm was not just racist, but categorically false. Three of the four progressive representatives are native-born U.S. citizens, and one (Ilhan Omar) is a naturalized U.S. citizen. By singling out four women representatives, all of whom are non-white, and two of whom are Muslim, as “un-American,” Trump knew that the ugliest of his supporters would take it from there and do his campaign dirty work for him. His tweets set the stage for what followed on Wednesday night at a Trump rally in North Carolina. After making even more false and incendiary comments accusing Omar of anti-Semitism and support for Al-Qaida, the audience cheered Trump on by chanting “Send her back!” in a frenzy, calling for Rep. Omar to be deported like an illegal immigrant.
By week’s end, it was clear that Rep. Omar was now the key focus of Trump’s insults and accusations. Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina chimed in during a television interview, his face contorting in rage as he described the Squad as communists and called out Omar in particular for being “anti-Israel.” So, a new element of fascistic and nativist discourse appeared: Real Americans don’t dare criticize Israel. This is clearly a signal to Trump’s base of white Evangelical Christian Zionist supporters, many of whom overlap with the white supremacists who turned out in Charlottesville, Virginia nearly two years ago. Trump never condemned the violent words and actions of those Americans, and certainly does not question their American identity.
Trump’s America is a White and Christian America that bows down before gun manufacturers, corporate greed, the fossil fuel industry, and the pro-Israel lobby. At present, the traditional Democratic establishment seems unwilling to upset these very constituencies, and might actually run the risk of seeing one of their own attacked or even killed by Trump’s “true Americans.” It’s going to be a dangerous time to be Muslim, non-White, or progressive in the United States as long as the Republican party refuses to reign in the mad tweeter and arsonist-in-chief.
(Read the Arabic version of this column here.)