On Tuesday, July 16, 2019, the United States House of Representatives voted along party lines to condemn President Donald Trump for his racist tweets that urged four members of Congress—Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan—to go back to where they came from.
This historic vote is a turning point (there have been only four similar congressional votes outside of impeachment) but one that, for the moment, offers little vindication for Democrats. The United States has entered a dangerous new period of instability conjured up by the president and his far-right wing enablers. The pernicious narratives that Trump constructs when a black, brown, or beige person is so bold as to exercise his or her First Amendment rights provides the fuel for campaign rallies like the one Trump held in Greenville, North Carolina, the day after the vote.
The problem with all the “incendiary rhetoric” coming from the White House that Senator Mitch McConnell, bless his heart, belatedly wants to tamp down is that it is designed to wind up Trump supporters to new heights of fury against progressive Democrats. Absent that, Trump and his handlers have apparently concluded, his base won’t turn out in sufficient numbers to get him re-elected. And if that rhetoric sparks outbreaks of violence, well, that might get even more of his supporters to the polls.
Nearly three years ago, I wrote that Trump’s election could stoke civil unrest. With Charlottesville in the rear-view mirror, what seemed ominous then, seems more unnerving in this centennial of the Red Summer of 1919. On July 19, 1919, a race riot erupted in Washington, D.C., that lasted four days. Shortly afterward, in Chicago, an even deadlier riot took place, unleashing the one of the country’s worst periods of racial violence. All told, dozens of riots occurred across the country that year—acts of violence perpetrated by white mobs against African Americans that included lynchings and men burned alive at the stake. Hundreds were killed or wounded.
It’s not difficult to see how the Radio Rwanda that the White House has become could itself be the catalyst for mayhem. In Greenville, the president described Democrats as “violent” and “vicious” and had a crowd of 8,000 chanting “send her back” as he directly attacked Omar, the Minneapolis congresswoman who came to America as a child when her family was forced to flee war-torn Somalia. “This is how history’s worst episodes begin,” Representative Justin Amash, a Michigan independent who recently left the Republican Party, tweeted Thursday. “We must not allow this man to take us to such a place.”
America’s vaunted exceptionalism—the idea that this country has a special destiny that is unique among the nations of the world, frays at the edges when it comes to matters of race, religion, and national origin. Trump has transformed the characteristics that should be sources of strength in a diverse country into a foundation for attacks. The strategy that Trump has wielded since his rise to power is the ancient weapon of divide and conquer, a tool that is easier to tote from white-power rally to white-power rally than a health care program with actual components other than its gonna be great.
Just seven months away from the first votes of 2020, the White House and a merry band of white nationalists are hell-bent on stirring up aggrieved whites who do not want to concede or even consider that their president has failed to provide them with new health care coverage of any type or retrieve long gone jobs from distant lands—and that somehow, Democrats and four members of Congress are to blame for his failures. Over the coming months, the crowds who will come to Trump’s rallies will celebrate him for allowing them to luxuriate in one of the most valuable commodities that they possess: their whiteness.
During the news conference that the four women held Monday to respond to Trump’s attacks, Pressley, who represents the Bay State’s Seventh Congressional District that includes most of Boston, labeled his tweets a “distraction” and urged Americans not to take the race bait and to focus instead on health care, housing, and gun violence. But it is the racial superiority feel-good sentiment and the anger Trump stokes at the “others” that allows his supporters to ignore the fact that white and male powerbrokers are the people who continue to strip away their economic benefits, decent-paying jobs, and human dignity.
Pressley surely understands that the emotions Trump stirs up are not going away. What she and her colleagues do know is that if Democrats want to win next year, they are going to have to abandon crabs-in-a barrel politics and speak plainly to the issues that matter most to Americans. Only that may persuade them that the racial chaos of a Trumpian dystopia is not the answer to what ails this country.