President Donald Trump took his roadshow of transgression to Greenville, N.C., on Wednesday night, and got some of his biggest cheers from those at his rally for his continuing attacks on four Democratic members of Congress known as The Squad.
The loudest affirmation came for his attack on Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, with some in the crowd chanting, “Send her back. Send her back." It was an echo of “Lock her up," the chant Trump and his surrogates directed against Hillary Clinton at rallies during the 2016 presidential race.
President Trump responded to the “send her back" chant with a Benito Mussolini-like profile pose as he took in the fervor of his followers with first a stern frown and then a little smile to himself like someone taking a moment to feel the warm morning sun on his face. He was in his element, a circle of anger and hate, and he was enjoying his control of the emotions in the room.
This was not a man toning down his rhetoric in the face of fierce blowback the previous four days to tweets widely considered racist. In those tweets over the weekend Trump told the four women of color to “go back” to where they came from.
All are American citizens. Three of the four — Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan — were born in the United States. Omar is a naturalized citizen who was born in Somalia. The House condemned the content of those tweets as “racist comments that have legitimized fear and hatred of new Americans and people of color.”
But Trump did not show any sense onstage Wednesday night of caring one whit about such condemnation, which was just as widespread throughout the media except for right-wing outlets like Fox News and Breitbart.
Watching him drinking in the chants and applause Wednesday night, I thought he not only knows how well transgression works for him, he enjoys it. He enjoys being bad as he wants to be and all the attention it gets him. If you are a certain kind of narcissist, there is a weird pleasure in being condemned by your enemies — it shows you can command their attention and evoke a strong response. You matter.
That’s the larger concern I have from President Trump’s rally performance and the way his weekend tweets have so dominated American life this week. He continues to control the national agenda by driving the press like a juiced-up pinball from one topic to another with transgressive tweets and ugly interview statements. And it is impossible for citizens to focus our attention in a sensible, sustained way on any one topic as we bounce from outrage to outrage.
And it is not just the press and public, Congress, too. And nothing, absolutely nothing — not health care, infrastructure or the budget to name a few crucial matters — gets the kind of thought and debate it deserves as Trump pulls the levers and sets the lights flashing and bells clanging.
Nothing gets done. We just remain in this fevered, angry state of tribal love or hate. I know it has been going on for 2½ years. But I don’t think we can continue in this jacked-up, jangled state forever. Something has to give.
Only Fox News carried the first hour of Mr. Trump’s rally. But by the start of the second hour, CNN’s Anderson Cooper was all over the attacks on The Squad with video and a report from Greenville that focused on what was said against the four. Trump’s transgressive, defiant, ugly behavior was rewarded with full coverage.
This is not a criticism of Mr. Cooper’s show. How can you not cover what President Trump said and how the crowd reacted? But that is the conundrum we in the press have been unable to solve: How do you cover someone with such power who says and does such horrible things? You can’t totally ignore him. But if you cover him in a traditional legacy sense of journalism, he gets all the airtime he could want. Being bad works.
Mr. Trump’s remarks were clearly scripted to some extent; this was not an improvised attack. It was clear to me that for the moment at least he thinks he might have found some Democratic figures whom he can get his followers to hate as much as they did Hillary Clinton in 2016.
The “send her back” chants were one part of that. The other involved him claiming that Ms. Omar called Americans like him and his audience “garbage.” In case the crowd didn’t get the point of his claim, he asked his followers whether they remembered Ms. Clinton’s misguided reference to “deplorables” during the 2016 campaign.
“We can either continue to enable this president and report on the bile of garbage that comes out of his mouth. Or we can hold him accountable for his crimes,” is what Ms. Omar actually said in a news conference Tuesday. "It is time for us to stop allowing this president to make a mockery out of our Constitution. It is time for us to impeach this president.”
President Trump is looking for new objects of hate to use as targets for the racism, sexism and misogyny in which he clearly traffics at these rallies and in his presidency. And members of The Squad were getting a tryout in the role in North Carolina on Wednesday.
And Fox News hosts Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity were cutting into the live feed to play big-tent, media echo chamber, applauding President Trump and fueling more enmity toward the four congresswomen.