Tracing the roots of Trump's racist rhetoric

President Donald Trump arrives to speaks at a campaign rally at Williams Arena in Greenville, N.C
Carolyn Kaster/AP/Shutterstock

One of the more banal traits of racism is that it's never original — it's years and years of repackaged language, as harmful as it is lazy and ineloquent. The idea of "sending back" the people this country's government hasn't wanted is a sentiment that has been reiterated repeatedly since the early years of the United States. Whether it has manifested in the form of "the Great Emancipator" Abraham Lincoln wanting to send formerly enslaved black people back to Africa, or white people asking black people some iteration of "why don't you go back to Africa?"

On Wednesday night, before a crowd of thousands of people in North Carolina, President Trump went on a vitriolic attack against Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar. It's not the first time he's attacked Omar, but this time, his hateful speech promoted thousands of people to respond, chanting "send her back! send her back!"

Even after a relentless week of racism by the president, the video clip of the moment of the Trump supporters is hard to watch. It feels like he's reached new levels of abjectly racist behavior. Except, he hasn't.

Since Donald Trump has been old enough to spend his father's money, he's been a racist. There's ample evidence of that. It is something that he's done in both political and personal ways. When he started campaigning for president, he honed his years of experience with hate into campaign slogans and rally cries.

And instead of America rejecting a candidate who tapped into the most vile veins of hatred in this country, Trump was embraced by a party that has quietly and not so quietly courted his voters for decades. The Republican party has hemmed and hawed over certain statements that Trump has made in four years since he's become the face of the GOP, but they've never turned on him.

On Thursday morning, in the wake of the President's attacks against Omar, this happened again. Members of the GOP delivered tacit tweets of reproach. One Congressman, Rep. Mark Walker, managed to somehow insult Omar while thinly rebuking Trump's behavior the night before.

Other, more prominent Republicans, didn't even pretend to be offended by Trump's comments. Sen. Lindsey Graham, who is still trying to push for more war in Afghanistan, asserted that Trump was justified in his "problem" with Omar because she "shows sympathy for those who tried to join ISIS to kill Americans."

Even Trump's own disavowal of his follower's chants rang inauthentic, and by Friday, his apology had been wiped away by tweets where he referred to Omar as "Foul Mouthed Omar" and accused her of hating the United States. "I will win in #2020 because they can't stand her and her hatred of our country," Trump wrote about Omar.

It's not lost on anyone that Trump is using another tired racist trope here: Omar is Muslim, and Trump is using a common refrain used by Islamophobes who want to convey that Muslims hate the West and hate freedom. It is language that has long been used in popular culture, and by the U.S. government to justify drone strikes and invasions in Middle Eastern countries.

It would be easy, and perhaps comforting, to blame Trump and Trump alone for the racism we're witnessing right now. But if we did that, we'd be denying so many other racists their place in our history.

Look through public records from any period of the U.S., and you'll find traces of this sentiment, whether through interpersonal interactions recorded in newspapers or through policies written into U.S. law.

There's the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prevented Chinese laborers from entering the United States, and President Woodrow Wilson's segregation of white and black employees in federal agencies in 1913. There's Jim Crow era lawmakers. There's the turning back of Jewish refugees in the 1930s, the deportations in the years of Clinton, Bush, and Obama. Even when a president himself has not been racist, the country's treatment of black and brown people always has been.

"Send her back" is the culmination of years and years of racial violence, of segregation, of deportation, and of hatred. Trump can certainly be described as the physical manifestation of this country's most disgusting histories — but he can't be held separate from them, and neither can his followers.

The racism towards Ilhan Omar, from Trump, from his party, and from his supporters is built on centuries of American hatred. And for the president, it is not just an expression of how he feels about Omar. Trump knows he will find support with this rhetoric ahead of the 2020 elections and he is using racist attacks to bolster his base. The tweets, the chants, and the jeering are calculated and strategic. The tweets, the chants, and the jeering are calculated and strategic.