The Tweets of Wrath

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President Trump wields Twitter like a battle-axe. On this, his supporters and detractors agree. He uses it to chop down his political opponents, circumvent the mainstream media, and rally his supporters. He is far from alone in this practice. But no Twitter user in America has proven themselves so able—and so willing—to explode the national conversation, time and time again, with one or two 140-character tweets. Every time he does, we learn something new—not so much about the president, but about ourselves.

Recently, President Trump used Twitter to weigh in on a controversy unfolding within the Democratic Party between Speaker Nancy Pelosi and four freshman congresswomen (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Ayana Pressley, collectively known as “The Squad.”) After Ocasio-Cortez expressed displeasure at Pelosi’s “persistent singling out…of newly elected women of color,” referring to Pelosi’s disparagement of The Squad for having publicly criticized Democratic colleagues on Twitter, allies of Speaker Pelosi publicly condemned The Squad for divisiveness and impracticality.

Into the fray rode President Trump, offering a rare defense of Pelosi. “I’ll tell you something about Nancy Pelosi…she’s not a racist,” Trump said, putting Pelosi in the awkward position of receiving aid from her enemy against her allies. Most Democrats, suffice it to say, were not impressed.

But shortly thereafter Trump took to Twitter to launch a larger broadside against The Squad (though he mentioned none of them by name), focusing on their supposed countries of origin and saying that they should go back to the “broken and crime infested places from which they came.” He tweeted this despite the fact that three of the four were born in the United States (Congresswoman Ilhan Omar of Minnesota emigrated from Somalia.)

Thus an inner-party brushfire became a bipartisan firestorm. Pressley, Tlaib, Omar and Ocasio-Cortez launched Twitter comebacks of their own, decrying Trump’s “corruption” and his “racism,” renewing calls for his impeachment.

But the back-and-forth did not flame out here. Congressional Democrats, putting aside their prior squabbles, passed a resolution in the House condemning what Speaker Pelosi herself described as the president’s racist tweets. A day later, President Trump held a campaign rally in Greenville, North Carolina, where he condemned the congressional resolution.

He then took particular aim at Ilhan Omar, accusing her of “minimizing the September 11th attacks,” of sympathizing with terrorists, of being anti-Semitic, and of looking “down with contempt” at hardworking Americans. As he did, chants of “send her back!”—meaning back to Somalia, her country of birth but not of citizenship—rose from the crowd in a jeering chorus. Those words have now echoed across the media sphere, eliciting ever-fiercer accusations of Republican racism and xenophobia, and tearing a fresh wound into the fabric of our political society.

With Republicans already on the defensive over Trump’s original tweets, the president sought to distance himself from the chants at his rally, saying that he was “not happy” with the phrase. But while many Republicans have expressed distaste for the chanting in Greenville as well as the President’s tweets, many have nevertheless defended those Republicans who declined to vote in support of the resolution condemning those tweets. This is shocking to many Democrats, who feel that President Trump and some of his supporters crossed a line which no decent American should cross, an act which all decent Americans should condemn.

But a recent USA Today/Ipsos poll shows that only 25% of Republicans who were aware of the controversy thought that the tweets were racist to begin with. Overall, 41% of the American people would not go as far as to say that the president’s tweets were racist. Even among the many Republicans who are appalled with the president’s tweets and the chants at his rally, there remains a conviction that these transgressions pale in comparison to the hypocrisy and cynicism surrounding racial politics on the left. As is often the case in politics, the crimes of one’s enemies provide cover for us to minimize the sins of our own.

All Americans should be concerned with, and should oppose, the poisons of racism, anti-Semitism, and prejudice in our society. We should also be concerned with the dearth of empathy in our civic culture and the health of our political conversation, and many of us are. For those who would seek to heal a divided nation, what is there to be learned from these recent events? What wisdom can we apply to the task of creating understanding?

The divide within the Democratic Party, highlighted by Speaker Pelosi’s conflict with The Squad, revealed a cracking fault-line among Democrats. It is between people, on the one hand, who feel that there is a tacit willingness on the part of established older white liberals to dismiss the contributions of people of color in the younger generation, and people, on the other hand, who feel that certain progressives have become disrespectful and quick to use racial grievance to gain cynical advantage in what should be civil conversations.

President Trump’s entrance into the situation revealed a much wider gulf between people who see Trump’s words, and the chants of his supporters, as a clear declaration of the racism and xenophobia of the president and conservative America, and Americans who feel that, whether right or wrong, the President’s words were meant in response to the race-baiting prejudice of anti-American congresswomen who have been enabled in their prejudice by the double standards of a Democratic Party leadership that is too cowardly and opportunistic to stand for what is right.

Even among these Republicans and conservative Americans, however, there exists a divide between those who hold these critical views of the Democratic Party, its leaders and followers, while being opposed to the expressions of hostility they see levied against their political opponents by President Trump, and those on the right who feel that these statements are justified.

If we are to restore the bonds of civic trust in our society in such a way that allows us to restore integrity to government and to vanquish the shadows of prejudice, we need to understand the stories our fellow Americans are imbibing that lead us to see the same events as differently as we do. Though the maelstrom of Twitter is hardly conducive to this, we need to have conversations that start with an understanding of the different contexts from which we are speaking, so that we may reveal ourselves to each other to be more than merely the politicized stereotypes our political leanings may suggest. This needs to happen both within and between our parties.

Because the starting assumptions that we increasingly make about each other, certainly between parties and often between differing factions of our own party, usually imply that the other person is hostile to our interests or our identity, we feel justified in being hostile to the other side in similar terms. But when we demonstrate an understanding of the context in which others beliefs are formed, it gives us greater power to speak to one another in ways that allow our minds to be opened to self-reflection.

I am of the opinion that political figures are motivated by their interests and the pressures of office to manipulate the emotions of the American people not only to gain influence, but also to deflect scrutiny. I am also of the opinion that some politicians are far worse about this than others. But our leaders didn’t concoct this from nowhere—they are always responding to emotions and opinions that the American people already feel.

As we seek to engage each other with more empathy from across these political lines, we ought to begin to demand the same from our leaders. It would be good, for instance, for Nancy Pelosi to acknowledge the feeling that many people of color have—not only within congress but across American life—that their voices are not heard enough or regarded with equal respect. It would be good for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to acknowledge, if she hasn’t, that we live in a time where many reasonable people feel that that they are unfairly accused of racial prejudice where no such prejudice exists. This would not mean an admission that Cortez’s concerns are overblown. But it would suggest that Cortez and The Squad were not deaf to the sensitivities of those whose point of view is different, and that they were not seeking to be judgmental or insulting.

Similarly, it would be wise for Speaker Pelosi to acknowledge the views of Republicans who feel that there has been a double-standard in the way the Democratic-led House has conducted these resolutions condemning racism, even if she were to ultimately reject the idea that a double standard exists. (Conservatives like Ben Shapiro are quick to note, for example, that while Republicans initiated a resolution specifically condemning racist remarks from congressman Steve King, House Democrats declined to specifically name or chastise Ilhan Omar in a similar resolution for remarks of her own that were widely seen to be anti-Semitic). It might show, at least to conservative Americans broadly if not to GOP leaders, that Democratic leadership is more interested in fair and reasoned discussion than it is in wielding moral judgment merely as a politically-expedient tool.

As for President Trump, it would be right for the president to acknowledge that his opponents are Americans, even as he might see fit to challenge their politics. It would be right for the president to stand up for his opponent’s right to be critical of this country, and eschew indulging calls to deport them for such behavior. For criticism, too, is part of the liberty that comes with being an American. It would be right for the president to acknowledge that reasonable Americans would be offended and worried about the tribal howls that follow in the wake of his bromides, from Twitter to the campaign stage, and to confront his opponents not on the basis of their identities or personalities but their ideas.

The tweets of wrath are breaking the bonds of this nation. It is up to the American people to see beyond the narrow narratives and partisan prejudices that separate us in our political discourse. It is up to the American people to set a higher standard, and demand that our leaders follow.

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9 thoughts on “The Tweets of Wrath”

  1. I agree that politicians across the board should not justify their vitriol based on the transgressions of the other side. That’s a very sound Braver Angels principle that we adhere to when engaging in conversation across lines of difference, and it would be nice if our public servants did the same, as mean-spirited, disrespectful discourse of any kind is corrosive. At the same time, from my perspective, not all transgressions have an equally harmful impact on American society. For the POTUS to rile up his base to call for the deportation of a non-white, Muslim citizen creates a danger for Omar that is of a different nature and degree than Omar’s critique of the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians.

    Omar used language that some Jews (myself not included) believed played on anti-semitic tropes. In political culture, perception is reality to a large degree so I take that criticism of Omar seriously even if I don’t believe it was her intent–politicians must be careful not to inadvertently perpetuate anti-semitic or racist stereotypes. That said, I see a huge difference between one member of Congress’s stance on Israel and the President calling for non-white members of Congress to leave, something that American Conservative editor Rod Dreher has gone so far as to describe as “summoning demons” that are reminiscent of historical antecedents to genocide. (When a Florida rally goer in May shouted “shoot ’em” as a solution for stopping migrants from crossing the border, I too sensed the presence of demons, not angels). If Trump’s tweets and rally chants don’t cross a red line in the sand, I don’t know what would.

  2. Speaking as a person from a generally libertarian / conservative background, I will admit to some sensitivity around the issue of being deemed “racist” and I can tell you that my concern resonates with many people of similar circumstance. All through the eight years of the Obama administration many of us showed respect for the President and the office while having sincere and principled differences of opinion on economic policy and foreign relations. However, when expressing those concerns to the other side of the aisle the all too immediate response, rather than a thoughtful and careful analysis of the comparative economic models, was to simply call out “racist”. This occurred even with people I considered good friends of many decades acquaintance. My belief is that that this response has become an easy reflexive shorthand for anyone who doesn’t agree with liberal dogma and, worse yet, is not simply a matter of casual name-calling but they have come to believe that when that word is spoken that is also true. This is why only 25% of Republicans thought the initial tweets were racist at all and that also would explain the outrage on the left when Trump was not repudiated. I concur wholeheartedly with recommendations in this article that both sides would be better to ratchet back the rhetoric. Republicans would do well to consider that it’s possible for people to be opposition in policy, and yet be loyal opposition committed to the nation. Democrats would do well to consider that the ready epithet of “racist” hurled at the first sign of this agreement deepens resistance and lengthens the divide. My own practice has been to listen to opposing viewpoints thoroughly and calmly and then, in response, start off by repeating carefully and articulately the exact point of view presented to me so that I can demonstrate understanding while taking time to agree with any points of commonality. I can then present alternate points of view, occasionally in hopes of changing hearts and minds but more often simply to show that there is more than one attitude and proposed solution to any particular problem. My success in using this technique has been modest.

    1. David, I hear you saying that you you’ve been accused of racism many times when you were expressing disagreement with Obama for reasons that had nothing to do with race. I’ve heard enough people say this that I believe there’s truth in it and that, sometimes, racism is presumed and/or used as a shortcut to discount rather than explore opposing viewpoints. At the same time, I’m aware that white Americans and even most Americans of color have some degree of unconscious bias that plays out in ways we may not even be aware of and that has a hugely negative impact on people of color. I think it’s crucial that, if someone thinks that another person’s behavior or words reflect racial bias, that they bring it up but not by simply labeling it as racist which can be inaccurate or, even if true, can make the other person go on the defensive.

      If we as a society could have more open and non-accusatory, non-shaming conversations about race, I think it could be healing and unifying. There are programs that take this approach of learning about our own unconscious bias and realizing that unlearning it is a process and everyone’s somewhere in that process, no judgment or superiority toward those we deem as being “behind us” in the process and no shaming of people who disagree that a particular belief is racist.

  3. I was dismayed at how much of our national discourse in response to these tweets was fixated on “racist or not racist”? Does anyone question that the tweets were xenophobic (do people actually know what that means anymore)? Isn’t that bad enough? Or just that the things said were straight up mean and disrespectful? Again, why isn’t that reason enough to object? Is the bar really so low now that we cannot expect better than such an attack on members of Congress from the President of the United States?
    More helpful conversations seemed to come from individuals recounting their own experiences of being told to “go back to where they came from,” and how that message feels. Most “white” Americans have never experienced that, and it was a great opportunity to learn why it is so hurtful.
    Your points in this column made more sense to me after I read your earlier column on racism. But I still struggle with the concept of “race-baiting,” which you seem to be defining as “quick to use racial grievance to gain cynical advantage.” I know people believe this happens. But given the deep and complicated history of race in our country, and systemic and institutionalized practices of racism, this perception feels more like denial and unwillingness to confront the harmful impact of ideas and words rather than genuine concern about cynicism or hypocrisy. But I very much liked your point in the earlier column that when the response to honest inquiry and a desire to learn is judgment and condemnation for ever having thought differently, it can definitely feel like you are being baited into a trap.

    If the goal is to have more civil conversations, with more empathy and respect, what if we just agreed that the following are never helpful:
    1) describing a fellow American citizen as “unAmerican or anti-American” because they criticize this country and want to change it;
    2) telling someone to “go back where you came from” or “love it or leave it,” because loving a place can sometimes means criticizing it and pointing out what you think are faults. Your thinking our country should change and can be better, even if I think the changes you want to make are harmful and destructive, does not mean you “hate America;” and
    3) describing people’s countries of origin as “broken, inept, corrupt, crime-infested, catastrophes,” whether they are persons of color or not, is really not a whole lot different than saying “shithole countries.” It is mean and disrespectful, and pretty much textbook xenophobia.

  4. I want to add to my previous comment something else that seems important in evaluating the seriousness of the attacks against The Squad as “un-American” and, as Lindsay Graham, said, “Communist”: When Hitler began denouncing Jews, his anti-semitism was relatively muted and couched in terms of Jews being “un-German” and “Bolsheviks.” Aware that being too explicitly anti-semitic could backfire, Hitler rose to power on the promise of protecting the “real Germans” from Jewish intellectuals, financiers and radicals. Only deep into the Nazi terror did the anti-semitic propaganda become more explicitly dehumanizing and virulent, with Jews called “sub-human” and portrayed as vermin. (You can read a little about the evolution of Nazi anti-semitic propaganda here:

    For me, the incredibly worrying takeaway is seeing Trump villify leftist women of color in terms eerily similar to the early Nazi era perhaps b/c, like Hitler, he knows that if he’s too explicit in his racism, it could backfire. And at the same time, his administration is treating immigrants at the border like sub-humans, under terrible conditions and with little to no due process. I have no way of knowing what Trump’s end game is and whether it’s anything remotely as horrific as Hitler’s, but I think it’s important to see where this kind of dehumanizing rhetoric can lead. I think this is what Rod Dreher had in mind when he worried aloud that Trump is “summoning demons.”

  5. I’d be curious to get some insight from John and other conservatives as to why only 25% of Republicans say that they believe Trump’s tweet was racist. To what degree is that b/c they define racism in a certain way and the tweet doesn’t fit and, if so, what’s their definition of racism? Are some of them thinking that it’s xenophobic or nativist but not racist? To what degree do they think it might be racist but don’t want to admit it b/c they don’t like the way the Left harps on racism (as John discusses)? To what degree are they denying the racism b/c they feel loyal to Trump and don’t want to hurt his reelection prospects?

    1. Justin Naylor

      I can only speak for myself, Erica, but I think xenophobic would be a better description than racist. And I say this as someone who is horrified by Trump but often find myself defending him when his vices rank somewhere in the level of 5 (on a scale from 1 to 10) but the media portrays them as 10. Racism, thank God, has largely disappeared from American society if we define racism as the belief in the inherent inferiority of a particular race. What we do have is varying degrees of prejudice, which I think is important to distinguish from true racism. Someone perceptively pointed out that if Omar supported Trump, he’d love her! A racist wouldn’t. What Trump was really criticizing was less their race and more their criticism of him and America. As a believer in dissent, I’m horrified in Trump’s criticism of dissent. But to me that is very different from racism.

      1. Justin, it sounds like you’re saying that you have two problems with the tweet — one is that it suppresses dissent by conditioning citizenship on political loyalty and the other is that it’s xenophobic. What I see in Trump is someone who is intolerant of dissent and uses many varieties of insults against his critics–fake news, unAmerican, fat, unattractive, loser, bimbo, etc. Many of his critics are white men and, for them, he uses generic insults like “loser” or “crazy.” For women, he sometimes chooses insults that I would call sexist (fat, bimbo) b/c they reduce the woman to her appearance and sexuality. When the critic is a person of color, he sometimes chooses insults that pertain to their race, ethnicity or nationality. So with women and POC, I see him being two things at the same time, intolerant of dissent AND sexist or racist.

        I agree with you that xenophobia and racism are not always one and the same. If a white American is xenophobic of white Europeans, that’s not racist. What I see in Trump is xenophobia that, w/out any exception I’m aware of, is focused on people from non-white parts of the world. When I look at who his xenophobia is focused on and also look at other things he’s said about black people and about Obama, my conclusion is that Trump’s xenophobia is inseparable from his racism. His obsession with Obama’s birthplace, to me, reflects this fusing of xenophobia and racism in his mind. If there were a white Democratic candidate with a foreign-born parent, I would be very surprised if Trump challenged that candidate’s birthplace. Likewise, I don’t see him telling Bernie Sanders or any other left-wing politicians to go back where they came from, though they all (unless they’re Native American) have foreign ancestry.

        There’s one more thing that strikes me as very dangerous about the way in which Trump is criticizing The Squad. Calling people unAmerican b/c they have different political opinions is, as you said, “horrifying.” The combination of calling someone unAmerican at the same that he’s “othering” them as having descended from non-white countries is, I believe, far more dangerous b/c it casts these “others” as enemies of the American people. This is the kind of propaganda that has, historically, laid the groundwork for genocide–get the public to see a marginalized group as the enemy, and then get them to agree that they must be gotten rid of.

        As you say, if Omar supported Trump, he would not call for her to leave. If she were useful to him, that would override his racism. I believe that POC have a right to be treated with respect and full equality whether they’re useful to a white person or not.

        Thanks for engaging, Justin, I always enjoy hearing your thoughts.

    2. Michael Fosberg

      Let’s do the math: If DT received 8% of the Black vote in 2016 (Romney got a dismal 6%) and what some consider a staggering 29% of the Hispanic vote, that would mean that 92% of Black voters and 71% of Hispanic voters found the Democratic platform more appealing. Then let’s think about what that actual number of people of color who identify as Republican might be. Now let’s take a look at the 25% of Republicans who found the tweets racist. Study after study has shown that Black people overwhelmingly feel racism is still a big problem in America versus a much much smaller percentage of Whites. Since a majority of the Republican party is White, it makes sense – based on these studies – that a small percentage would find the tweets racist. The R word is to Whites what the N word is to Blacks in that they are both radioactive. You call a White person racist and they will not only deny it (“I’m the least racist person in the world!” quote someone.), but they will throw it back in your face. No White person wants to be called a racist, nor would they ever claim to be one. The conversation about race, racism and identity is one that will never have consensus. We all approach it from a different lens and experience.

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