After Donald Trump targeted four US congresswomen with blatantly racist language, co-editor of The Good Immigrant USA Chimene Suleyman insists we can’t be silent any longer.
Things are bad. Things are really bad.
If you saw the footage of crowds in North Carolina shouting “send her back”, prompted by Donald Trump using the same language when tweeting that four Democratic congresswomen should “go back” to other countries, and it didn’t send chills down your spine, then you should brush up on your history.
This is a world leader using the language of fascism without serious repercussion. It is nothing new for the president and his supporters, who have taken the conventions of white supremacy in their stride. What are we doing about it? Or, rather, what aren’t we doing about it? We have reached this point through complacency, disregard, and laziness. It’s time to stand up and fight back.
Trump and his most vocal supporters have often behaved like the members of an old-fashioned gentlemen’s club. They are rigid in their thinking and narcissistic in their actions. When they screw up, they shrug their shoulders imperially, knowing the old power structures will keep them safe. As well as the immovable, unchangeable rules about who gets to be a member.
Like anything prehistoric, these exclusion policies tend to apply mostly to women and people of colour. You are doubly damned if you happen to be both. Because the objective of these brotherhoods, these groups of white men, was never centred around the bond that comes with inclusion, rather the superiority from selecting who stays on the outside.
Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – otherwise known as The Squad, a joking and affectionate nickname that has stuck – are perhaps our most current and public examples of how it looks to be positioned as the outsider.
The four Democratic congresswomen in question have become frequent easy targets for Trump, as they vocally stand for and personify everything he despises. In a video that went viral in February, Ocasio-Cortez broke down how corrupt finance laws are, which makes it easy for congressional candidates to take advantage. Pressley has been taking on the government and banks to ensure working-class Americans can clear their paychecks faster. On Twitter, the women even share information for migrants who may be subjected to immigration raids.
Trump has a narrative: a story he tells of violent black and Hispanic criminals, of thieving immigrants and uneducated people of colour. The Squad has become the middle finger up to the propaganda.
Above anything else they are young, multiracial, working-class women who epitomise the very progression Trump and conservatives like him are so fearful of. Theirs is not an empty rhetoric of sensationalism, name-calling and antagonism. Instead, they have committed themselves to standing up for the marginalised communities the president has been assaulting, before turning his attention to them.
Each woman, all from humble and challenging backgrounds, has made history. Pressley is the first black congresswoman to represent Massachusetts. Tlaib is the first Palestinian American, and Omar is the first Somali American member of congress. Omar and Tlaib are the first Muslim women in such positions. Ocasio-Cortez is the youngest woman ever elected.
Between them they have lived through wars, poverty and sexual assault, and have come to understand the importance of striving for fairness. They represent the average person for whom they serve. As people who have worked and worried about bills and their communities, they actually have more in common with the majority of Trump’s supporters than the President himself. They are proving that privilege is not the only road to power. Nor is being a man. Or white.
Stuck in the past
Omar is perhaps the most attacked of the four: as a black woman, an immigrant, and a Muslim – a hijabwearing one, no less – she represents many of the categories Trump and his advocates have contempt for. She unwittingly embodies the arguments about American national identity. What she considers it means to be American, and her own definition of belonging, matters very little to those whose criteria relies on birthplace and skintone alone.
Omar is a problem for Trump. Her predicament is that she does not fit his narrative on why refugees, Muslims or immigrants should be dismissed by American society.
Instead, successful, lawabiding and patriotic – to the point that she has made it her life’s work to serve the progress of the US – Omar disproves the lie Trump has told Americans about people like her. Omar is not a terrorist or a terrorist sympathiser. Omar is not useless or lazy. She fails to satisfy the image the president has spent years warning against.
Now, it turns out, none of that mattered anyway. Trump has let us know. An immigrant can do everything their new country demands of them but, in Trump’s America, being “the good immigrant” was never really the golden-ticket to acceptance.
For Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib and Pressley, as women of colour, even their American birthplaces are of no importance. For Trump’s supporters, “going back” is simply going to a place away from white people.
Back in 1790, the Naturalization Act decreed that citizenship was permitted only to “free white persons of good character”. Native Americans were excluded, as were indentured servants, slaves and free black people. Trump seems to draw inspiration from the distant past: even before he formally entered politics, we watched his relentless harassment of Barack Obama, asking the then-president to defend his own American citizenship.
Trump’s rhetoric has always been about the past. His slogan Make America Great Again thrives among certain audiences because of one word: again.
Again is the time of (not so) long ago. Again is forbidden abortions, it is where gay marriages were not permitted and husbands could rape their wives. Again is when white supremacy reigned without exception. It is no surprise then, that the language that sticks best with the president’s supporters conjures these loathsome times.
People of colour and immigrants have been cautioning of growing public discrimination against them for some time. The response was one of disregard.
We were told not to worry because times had changed. Katie Hopkins, who described migrants as cockroaches (as the Nazis had done), was just a Twitter troll. Attacks on mosques were isolated. UKIP was just a party the drunk guy in the pub supported. Marginalised people were oversensitive snowflakes. We were paranoid and had a victim complex.
It was this very dismissiveness that allowed Boris Johnson – a man who referred to black people as having “watermelon smiles” and being “piccaninnies” – to become prime minister last week. We can only imagine what the future of Britain looks like, when it was Johnson who brought us the highly xenophobic Leave campaign.
The rise of fascism
Of course, “Go back to where you came from” has been the guffaw of simple-minded jingoists everywhere. In Britain – so long as you weren’t the one subjected to it – many believed it had been left behind in the 1970s.
In more recent years we were told it was only said by those on the fringes of society, at poorly attended EDL marches, or by the uncle no one wants to sit next to at family meals.
But this kind of rhetoric is neither dated, offhand or limited to a few. The thoughtless parroting of slogans has always been one of the most effective tools in furthering fascism. Its message is a clear one, as much about fixed ideologies as it is about exclusion. If you don’t like it, tough.
When you are at the receiving end of these words, you understand it to be a threat.
Whether you disappear of your own accord, or theirs, you will go. A week after Trump’s tweet, the now-sacked police officer Charlie Rispoli wrote on Facebook about Ocasio-Cortez: “This vile idiot needs a round.”
Rispoli’s comment is all the more disturbing as the US deals with the unlawful shootings of people of colour by the police. Ocasio-Cortez linked the comment with Trump’s tweet, saying, “This is Trump’s goal when he uses targeted language and threatens elected officials who don’t agree with his political agenda. It’s authoritarian behaviour. The president is sowing violence. He’s creating an environment where people can get hurt and he claims plausible deniability.”
She’s right. These are not throwaway words bundled in healthy patriotism – they are war cries. And history is our evidence. “What’s your ethnicity?” Kellyanne Conway, an adviser to Trump, asked a Jewish reporter this month. The answer to that question has always mattered to bigots.
The reply to “What’s your ethnicity?” in 1939 was enough to turn 900 Jewish refugees away from America, where they were returned to die in Nazi Germany’s concentration camps. “Send her back!” the crowds chanted about Omar, a refugee who escaped war. So what if you die? Just go back.
“Send them back” was an attitude that weighed heavily in Brexit’s Leave campaign. The now infamous Breaking Point poster portrayed a long line of refugees descending on Britain’s borders, mimicking Nazi propaganda.
Encouraging society to fear people of colour and immigrants has not been born from a place of misunderstanding, nor is it clumsy and thoughtless. Instead, the scaremongering is a considered and precisely implicated strategy with a tried-and-tested template. It is, in fact, a recruiting technique.
For many years in a village in West Yorkshire, Thomas Mair collected Nazi memorabilia, consumed with the belief that the white race was being threatened with extinction.
Just hours after the Breaking Point poster was unveiled, Mair murdered MP Jo Cox – a woman who proudly stood for the rights of migrants. A week later Nigel Farage referred to the EU referendum as victorious “without a single bullet being fired”. The message was clear: even allies of the immigrant, refugee or person of colour would not be considered a part of their society.
The same kind of language was used in America. Activist Heather Heyer was murdered in 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia, while peacefully protesting against white supremacy. Trump said that there had been “very fine people on both sides”, seeming to suggest there was no moral difference between alt-right marchers with swastikas and semi-automatic rifles, and those who stood against them.
Whatever you may think of Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, Pressley and Omar, the attack on them is as much ideological as it is personal. Every chant of “Send her back” is intended for every non-white person across America. It is a poison that will spread. When will the chants be aimed at LGBTQ+ people? At women? At anyone who doesn’t agree with the ideas of those who sit in power?
These are no longer warning signs. We had those long before Brexit and long, long before Trump. History has warned us, repeatedly.
It is not possible to claim to be against prejudice, then remain quiet. Staying quiet is how fascism gains traction. Staying quiet is how fascism has already risen.
Men like Trump and Johnson are not solely responsible; it’s a chicken-and-egg situation: are their supporters learning from them, or are they giving their supporters what they already wanted?
As people of colour and immigrants, many of us have talked loudly for many years that this is where we were headed. It is finally time to listen and react. Now is the time to stand and to stand together to renounce this racist rhetoric. Before it’s too late.