Every morning before 7am I have a set routine. I push my headphones in ready for Fran Kelly while I start trawling through various news apps on my phone.
The drill has a certain comfort to it. As an online news editor you become inured to news about the worst of humanity. Over the months, I’ve trained my eyes to filter out stories that are beyond Crikey‘s remit, at least until later in the day. Still, it was an eye-peeling, gut-twisting moment when I saw this headline on the ABC homepage on Monday morning.
Trump had tweeted about four unnamed but identifiable congresswomen. He said they:
… 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.
Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how … it is done. 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!
Of course nobody by now could claim to be surprised that Trump holds such, well, Hanson-like views. From his early claims that Obama was secretly foreign born, to the Muslim travel ban to a description of white nationalist rioters as “some very fine people“, there’s no doubt Trump has slid well past dog-whistling into active rallying.
As Charles M. Blow wrote for The New York Times:
White people and whiteness are the center of the Trump presidency. His primary concern is to defend, protect and promote it. All that threatens it must be attacked and assaulted. Trump is bringing the force of the American presidency to the rescue of white supremacy.
Many are calling this a “new low” for the president which is debatable. When does rhetoric fall off a scale of normality? But what is true (and often repeated) is Trump’s ability to reign in the manner of a schoolyard bully. Everyone from Bernie Sanders to a former US envoy to Ireland have labelled him as such. It’s what gives him CGI-level visibility. It’s what made my eyes peel and my gut slither on the bus to work.
So what do you do about a schoolyard taunt? Especially one as unspeakably stupid and evil as “go back to where you came from”. The truth about some bullies is that they respond to shame. Some bullies including Trump can respect the chaos of the playground where a well-timed quip can play in the favour of the victim. Nancy Pelosi for example seems to have some power over the president, in part due to her ongoing gender-based comments.
This power of the quip was not something I consciously had when comments like “you flew here, I grew here” were bandied about in my suburban primary school in the early-mid 1990s. In fact, I only recently had this crystallised by talking to a father of two nine-year-old twins. One he said, had mastered the loud and witty barb. She was flourishing, the class captain. The other was shy, tongue-tied in the fact of humiliation.
Which brings us to the taunt itself. How do you encapsulate the enormity, invisibility and power of racism in a quick retort? The obvious option is truth. But it rarely works. To cry “you’re a racist” has never really been understood in the West. It doesn’t feel true for most people, especially white people, to be labelled as such even though it is patently obvious we are all products of racist world we live.
Worse, it doesn’t shut down debate the way a proper schoolyard comeback does; it creates more. There are other options for sure: but personal attacks aren’t as dignified and appeals to empathy rarely actually work.
The truth is Trump can turn us all into children in his playground and nobody is going to get the duty teacher. There’s nothing we can really say back. The game is rigged.
In the case of this particular news cycle, Democratic rep Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her three allies have implicitly understood that. They are focusing on policy, taking the high road.
“Do not take the bait,” said one, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota. “This is simply a disruption and a distraction from the callous, chaotic and corrupt culture of this administration.”
But others are asking for more on their behalf, especially from Republicans who have condoned and explained away Trump’s behaviour. Republican Senator Mitt Romney could only go so far as to call the comments “disunifying” and “destructive”.
There are calls too for the media to name this for what it is. Far too many outlets have danced around the epithet “racist” for too long. In reporting Trump’s tweets The New York Times went with “well-worn racist trope“. NBC tried “denounced as racist” Axios softened the blow with “nativist“. What the hell does nativist even mean? Imagine if the news reporting used words people actually understood. Words that stuck.
They might not mean much to the bully, but at least everyone else wouldn’t be off the hook.