So far Donald Trump has not shot anyone in the middle of Fifth Avenue, so his hypothesis that he could do that without losing any supporters remains untested. But leading Republicans are worried that he hurt the party by crossing a different line: the one between "go back" and "send her back." The former is his advice for members of Congress he perceives as hating America; the latter is the chant his criticism of those alleged America haters—in particular, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who immigrated to the U.S. from Somalia as a child—elicited from the adoring crowd at his rally in North Carolina on Wednesday.
"It was quite a chant, and I felt a little bit badly about it," Trump said in response to a reporter's question yesterday. "I started speaking very quickly." Actually, Trump stood impassively at the podium for 10 seconds while the crowd chanted "send her back," making no attempt to discourage it. But after Republicans such as his daughter and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy expressed concern about the message sent by the chant, Trump retroactively revised his own response. "I was not happy with it," he said during the same Q&A. "I disagreed with it. But again, I didn't say—I didn't say that; they did. But I disagree with it."
With few exceptions, Republicans had no problem with Trump's argument that people who criticize U.S. policy (except for Trump himself) should "go back" to the countries they "came from," even if they were born in the United States, because "if you hate our Country, or if you are not happy here, you can leave!" But they began to have qualms when the self-deportation of U.S. citizens whose opinions offend Trump became mandatory. There is a distinction there, but I'm not sure it's one the GOP should rely on in trying to fend off the charge that the party has been taken over by mindless jingoism.
After excoriating Omar at the rally, Trump moved on to Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), who in January promised "we're going to impeach the motherfucker." Here Trump revealed what he really has in mind when he accuses Democratic legislators of hating America. "Tlaib also used the F-word to describe the presidency and the president," he said. "That's not nice, even for me. She was describing the president of the United States and the presidency with the big, fat, vicious—the way she said it—vicious F-word. That's not somebody that loves our country."
To love our country, in other words, you have to love Trump. And if you don't, you should get the hell out of here.
That view is not limited to Trump or the ardent fans at his rallies. "I don't think it's racist to say," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who in 2015 called Trump a "race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot," told reporters yesterday. "I don't think a Somali refugee embracing Trump would be asked to go back. If you're racist, you want everybody to go back because they are black or Muslim. That's not what this is about. What this is about to me is that these four congresswomen, in their own way, have been incredibly provocative."
Graham, a Trump critic turned sycophant, seems to be endorsing the view that Americans who fail to "embrac[e] Trump" should leave the country. But don't worry, because that applies to all Americans who don't like Trump, regardless of their color or creed. A native white Christian who criticizes the president should leave, while a black Muslim immigrant who adores him is welcome to stay.
Republicans like Graham who bend over backward to defend Trump's indefensible rhetoric may come to regret it. I say "may" because I am honestly not sure. According to the official White House transcript of Trump's remarks at his "Made in America Product Showcase" on Monday, he was greeted by applause when he said "if you hate our country, if you're not happy here, you can leave" and again when he repeated "if you're not happy, you can leave." The 2020 elections may show whether the people who applaud that profoundly un-American sentiment outnumber the people who are rightly appalled by it.