Illustration by Kezia Frederick
“Go back home.”
Likely every person of colour growing up in a Western country has heard this phrase at some point in their lives. Why do people say this? Probably some white people’s projected insecurities about their positions in the world. Or, if they are Donald Trump, it might be part of a wider strategy of political discourse.
When Trump sensationally told four US congresswomen to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came” on Monday, he sparked a major public uproar as well as a (historically rare) House of Representatives vote that condemned the comments as racist. This seems positive, but another reading of this story paints Trump, once again, as a master of public discourse. Several days after his comments, crowds of Trump supporters are chanting to send congresswoman Ilhan Omar “back”. The news cycle is also still dominated by the story and its fallout that followed. Today, a quick search of “Donald Trump” in Google News turns out headlines from The Guardian, CNN, the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Associated Press focusing on his comments.
Since Donald Trump landed on our radars as a politician, he has mesmerised us with his words. They aren’t profound words, or even mildly insightful ones, they are just shocking. And yet they bewitch us. Two years into his presidency, we hang onto his every word — with journalists generating hundreds of articles like this one for every thoughtless sentence he utters. Vox has described Trump’s genius in this regard as “shifting the Overton window”; through his use of sensational and shocking language, and his proclivity for making claims that range from dubious to purely nonsensical, he has changed what is considered common and acceptable in mainstream political discourse. This strategy is clever because in order to even dispute what Trump says, commentators are forced to acknowledge nonsense claims as worthy of response (therefore placing these claims on equal rhetorical footing as whatever rebuttal might be mounted against it).
With his words, Trump has also successfully drowned out is the very issue that inspired his comments in the first place; Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib’s passionate testimony against his border policies following their visits to migrant detention centers on July 12. The congresswomen themselves asked the government and the public not to focus on Trump’s comments, but rather the policies that they tried to bring under scrutiny in their testimonies. “This is simply a disruption and a distraction from the callous chaos and corrupt culture of this administration, all the way down,” Ayanna Pressley said.
In her testimony, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez told the story of a woman in a detention center being told to drink toilet water when her sink faucet was broken. She was moved to tears as she detailed the abuses endured by migrant women and children — children punished for losing a lice comb, women with canker sores in their mouths from subsisting on diets devoid of nutrition. She summarised the situation succinctly: “The U.S. is running concentration camps on our southern border”. In fact, she stated that migrants were being sent to the very same internment camps in which Japanese people were infamously held in California, Washington, and Oregon. She expressed fear that we might be “losing to an authoritarian and fascist presidency”.
Trump tweeted that he didn’t have a racist bone in his body, and thus this point somehow became up for discussion. Is Trump racist? Well, yes. We know he is from the way he has historically treated people of colour, and from the fact that his policies dehumanise them and place a low premium on their lives. But unfortunately, we’ve descended so far down the rabbit hole of the Trump administration that it no longer even matters whether or not Trump is racist.
If the testimony the four congresswomen delivered under voluntary oath is to be believed (along with the testimony and evidence of countless others over the last few years), then the Trump administration is maintaining concentration camps in the United States. We do not have moral legroom in our conversations at the moment to devote time to Trump’s innermost thoughts, feelings, or personality. This is not to say that words don’t matter; for example we can see from the way Trump’s attitudes towards women and people of colour are mirrored in the the jokes made in Facebook group chats of Border Patrol agents.
Although not legally binding, the House of Representatives’ vote is valuable in a sense, because it is a show of solidarity. It might be more valuable still if it results in an impeachment (a formal charge of misconduct against Trump). But why did this comment spur such a heartfelt political response from Democrats, while under normal circumstances, establishment Democrats dismiss and belittle the urgent calls for reform by the congresswomen in question?
It often seems that establishment Democrats see themselves as the ideal foil to Trump not through any drastic differences in policies or positions, but simply because they are able to speak with more restraint. Democrat John Lewis, in response to Trump’s comments, stated that “at the highest level of government, there’s no room for racism”. But, of course, the U.S. border policies are fundamentally racist and they emerged from the highest levels of government (equally, there is room at the highest levels of government for sexism, classism, gun violence, and imperialism). What Lewis means is there is “no room” for speaking in openly racist terms.
Whether this House of Representatives’ vote miraculously results in an impeachment or not, a dramatic shift in political gaze towards racist and inhumane U.S. policies is needed. Without this shift, any establishment Democrats replacing Donald Trump will be of little use to people like the ones that these congresswomen have tried to bring into the public consciousness.