This past Sunday, U.S. President Donald Trump posted a number of tweets that sent shock waves through Congress and across the internet.
“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,” the president tweeted.
While Trump didn’t name the congresswomen to whom he was referring, it was widely suspected the comments were referencing four newly elected Democratic congresswomen known as “The Squad”: Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley and Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who are among his strongest critics.
Trump’s tweets were strongly condemned, both by Democrats and beyond U.S. politics.
WATCH: Trump renews attack on 4 Democratic congresswomen
“I know racism when I see it,” said Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, whose skull was fractured at a civil rights march in Selma, Ala., in 1965. “At the highest level of government, there’s no room for racism.”
Several days after the backlash began, former first lady Michelle Obama made an indirect reference to the incident in a tweet.
“What truly makes our country great is its diversity. I’ve seen that beauty in so many ways over the years. Whether we are born here or seek refuge here, there’s a place for us all. We must remember it’s not my America or your America. It’s our America,” the tweet read.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Trump wanted to make America “white again.”
Most Democratic presidential candidates also called out Trump’s statements.
“Let’s call the president’s racist attack exactly what it is: un-American,” Sen. Kamala Harris said.
For the most part, Trump’s party has stood by him. Just four Republicans chose to formally condemn the comments in a House vote this week.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Trump wasn’t racist but also called on leaders “from the president to the Speaker to the freshman members of the House” to attack ideas, not the people who espouse them.
Trump himself has refused to back down, saying he doesn’t “have a racist bone” in his body. He has accused the four lawmakers of spewing hatred about America.
However, Donna Givens, an African-American neighbourhood organizer who leads the Eastside Community Network in Detroit, said Trump’s tweets were deeply hurtful.
“It immediately reminded me of being a child and being told to ‘go back to Africa, (n-word)’ — that got said to me repeatedly,” she said. “My grandmother used to tell me to tell them to ‘go back to their caves in Europe.'”
In light of the inflammatory rhetoric, “I don’t think that we can pretend like the American workplace is a safe place for immigrants, for people of colour or for women,” Givens said. “The president has a bully pulpit. And the president sets the tone. And so there are people who feel justified in their hatreds now.”
While Trump initially said he disagreed with a crowd that chanted “send her back” in reference to Omar at a rally on Wednesday, he has since walked back these claims and has labelled the participants “incredible patriots.”
Here’s a line-by-line breakdown of the racist undertones in the U.S. president’s tweets.
“So interesting to see, ‘Progressive’ Democrat Congresswomen…”
Even the first six words of the president’s tweet are problematic, explained University of New Hampshire professor Seth Abramson.
Abramson notes that Trump puts the word “progressive” in quotation marks and chooses the word Democrat in favour of Democratic.
“He’s calling them what he does rather than what they are because No. 1, he never uses the phrase ‘Democratic Party.’ He says ‘Democrat Party,’ which, as you may know, is a slur against the Democratic Party to suggest that it’s not democratic but rather that it is either socialistic or communist,” explained Abramson.
By capitalizing and putting the word “progressive” in quotes, Abramson says Trump is suggesting the congresswomen are not actually progressive but rather socialist or communist. This sentiment was reiterated by South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who later appeared on Fox News and described the women as communist.
“…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)…”
Culture critic and McMaster University professor Henry Giroux said he interprets this line to mean Trump is implying countries whose populations are primarily people of colour are corrupt and crime-ridden.
“It’s a blatantly racist stereotype,” he said.
In addition, Abramson notes, the statement about the congresswomen is incorrect.
WATCH: Trump denies tweets against four Democrats were racist
“Ayanna Pressley is from the United States. She’s African-American so there’s no country she comes from, let alone one with a complete and totally catastrophic government,” he explained.
He went on to say that one of Ocasio-Cortez’s parents is from Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory for which Donald Trump is the head of state.
“Many of the powers of the Puerto Rican government come from the U.S. government, and again, the head of state is Donald Trump so that’s an outrageous statement to make about Puerto Rico,” Abramson said.
Each member of The Squad is an American citizen, with only Omar having been born outside the United States.
“…now, loudly telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government should be run.”
Abramson says these statements indicate Trump does not consider Omar, Pressley, Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib to be part of the United States or members of its government.
“He’s putting these four women outside the category of people of the United States and he’s putting these four women, who all are in the U.S. government, outside the phrase ‘our government,’ so not only are these Congresswomen not part of our government, they’re not part of the United States,” he said.
“Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested [sic] places from which they came, then come back and show us how it is done.”
“The long-standing phrase that has been used against successive waves of immigrants from all over the world in the United States for the last hundred years is ‘go back,’ ‘go back to where you came from.’ He is using an ever-so-slightly modified version,” Abramson said.
“That is shocking.”
WATCH: The U.S. House of Representatives has approved a resolution condemning President Donald Trump’s racist tweets about four Democratic congresswomen.
“This is a dehumanizing, racist commentary that seems to suggest that these people don’t belong in the country … And the reason they don’t belong in the country, according to Trump, is because they’re women of colour, because they’re not white,” he explained.
Sidrah Maysoon Chan, a senior co-ordinator at the Ocasi Policy Group, added that telling someone to go back to their country is a phrase grounded in America’s colonial roots.
“Telling someone to go back to their country is a racist slogan that is rooted in white supremacy. It’s based on the colonial idea that Canada and America inherently belong to white people and white people alone,” she said.
She went on to explain that these words are so dangerous because they “usually don’t come alone.”
“By telling someone they don’t belong, that they are not accepted here, it puts a target on them: it sets the stage for violence and abuse of that person in a mob mentality,” Chan said.
“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!”
Giroux notes the reference to Pelosi exudes a toxic, hyper-masculine tone. He adds that in telling these women “you can’t leave fast enough,” Trump may be inferring “please leave the country, you don’t belong here.“
Chan added that comments such as these are based on the founding concepts of white supremacy.
“The idea that white settlers inherently ‘owned’ this land is what was used to justify atrocities such as the residential school system in Canada, among so many other harms done to Indigenous peoples here,” she explained.
“The phrase ‘go back to where you come from’ is rooted in white supremacy. It’s a tool used to claim this land as belonging to white people only.”
WATCH: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez responds to Donald Trump’s attacks — ‘We don’t leave the things that we love’
What does this mean for national discourse?
Following the backlash from Trump’s tweets, crowds at one of his campaign rallies held later in the week began chanting the phrase “send her back” in reference to Omar, which Trump initially said he disagreed with before calling the chanters “incredible patriots.”
Giroux and Abramson agree the language used in the chant is dangerous because it dehumanizes and legitimizes the “othering” of marginalized communities in the United States.
“It enables others to basically legitimize it when they use it themselves,” Giroux said.
Both Kathy Hogarth, associate professor of social work at the University of Waterloo, and Giroux stated it’s necessary to respond to racist language in public forums in order to combat it.
“Until we are willing to call out racism (it is important to name it), to hold those in public office accountable for racist actions, we will continue to devolve as a democratic society,” Hogarth said in a statement.
—With files from the Canadian Press and the Associated Press