The Phantom Miscalculation

Sometimes, when he’s feeling playful, or when he’s not angry, or when he’s not defiant and defensive and overcompensating by acting out, Donald Trump signs his tweets – “Your favorite President” or “Best President Ever” – but this is rare. He practices his scowl in the mirror – he’s not playful – and he’s always angry – because he seems to think he should be angry, as every real American should. That’s his thing. And of course he’s defiant. That defines him too. So he doesn’t often sign those tweets. And he may not get this “president” thing. He makes boneheaded mistakes now and then. And then he has to say he didn’t make any mistakes. But everyone saw him make those mistakes. Then he has to say that people didn’t really see what they actually saw. And that’s not very presidential. He argues over perception versus reality – what just happened, or didn’t happen, and how one knows anything – questions of epistemology – when he should be running the country.

He’s being defiant and defensive and overcompensating by acting out when he should be running the country, but there’s not much anyone can do about it. The only thing to do is clean up the mess, and the New York Times explains the latest clean-up:

Nervous Republicans, from senior members of Congress to his own daughter Ivanka, urged President Trump on Thursday to repudiate the “send her back” chant directed at a Somali-born congresswoman during his speech the night before at a rally in North Carolina, amid widespread fears that the rally had veered into territory that could hurt their party in 2020.

In response, Mr. Trump disavowed the behavior of his own supporters in comments to reporters at the White House and claimed that he had tried to contain it, an assertion clearly contradicted by video of the event.

Once again this was a phantom Trump miscalculation, because it never happened:

Mr. Trump said he was “not happy” with the chant directed at Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, a freshman Democrat who is Muslim. At the rally Wednesday evening, he had been in the middle of denouncing her as an anti-American leftist who has spoken in “vicious, anti-Semitic screeds” when the chant was taken up by the crowd.

Pressed on why he did not stop it, Mr. Trump said, “I think I did – I started speaking very quickly.”

In fact, as the crowd roared “send her back,” Mr. Trump paused and looked around silently for more than ten seconds as the scene unfolded in front of him, doing nothing to halt the chorus.

The video evidence was damning but he has another way out of this:

“I didn’t say that,” he added. “They did.”

At least that was true. He had been saying words almost exactly like that for days, but he wasn’t chanting those specific words in that specific order. So he was in the clear, and even his own people weren’t buying that:

Mr. Trump’s cleanup attempt reflected the misgivings of political allies who have warned him privately that however much his hard-core supporters in the arena might have enjoyed the moment, the president was playing with political fire, according to people briefed on the conversations.

Among them were House Republican leaders who pleaded with Vice President Mike Pence to distance the party from the message embraced by the crowd in Greenville, N.C. Mr. Pence conveyed that directly to Mr. Trump, according to people familiar with the exchange.

Trump wasn’t in the clear, and neither were the Republicans:

“That does not need to be our campaign call, like we did the ‘lock her up’ last time,” said Representative Mark Walker, Republican of North Carolina, a top official in the party’s messaging arm, referring to the chant that routinely broke out whenever Mr. Trump mentioned Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign. Midway through that race, Mr. Trump told reporters he did not approve of that chant, but he never intervened.

There’s a story there – he didn’t feel that strongly about Hillary’s “crimes” but he had advisers. He gave in, but he has advisers now too:

Mr. Walker, who attended the rally on Wednesday night, later posted on Twitter that he had “struggled” with the chant. “We cannot be defined by this,” he said.

And he had been warned about this sort of thing:

Mr. Trump’s freewheeling campaign rallies – at which he aims for maximum entertainment value by testing boundaries and breaking taboos, all while his supporters egg him on with cheers and chants – encourage that kind of language. The feedback loop is so familiar by now that Mr. Trump’s staff explicitly warned him before the rally that the crowd would follow his lead as he spoke about Ms. Omar and to be careful not to let things spin out of control.

But it was more than that:

Even before Wednesday’s rally, his aides and advisers had spent days trying to manage the fallout from the president’s tweets on Sunday calling on the four Democratic congresswomen who he said “originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe” to “go back” and “help fix” them.

All of them are American citizens, and all but Ms. Omar, a Somali refugee, were born in the United States.

Many of Mr. Trump’s advisers immediately recognized that the tweets had crossed a new line, and they expected him to walk them back at the beginning of the week. But he did the opposite, renewing his call for the women to leave the United States.

The charge that his tweets were racist “doesn’t concern me,” the president said, “because many people agree with me.”

Many of Trump’s advisers then immediately recognized there was no way to fix this:

After the rally, Mr. Trump made no mention of any concern. “Just returned to the White House from the Great State of North Carolina. What a crowd, and what great people,” he tweeted.

Congressional Republicans, who offered only muted protest over the president’s initial remarks about the congresswomen, recognized that the spectacle in Greenville demanded a more vocal response. Some suggested that the episode, with its intimations of political persecution and even physical force, had violated sacred democratic norms.

“Those chants have no place in our party or our country,” Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the Republican leader, told reporters.

Even as they denounced the crowd’s chant, Republican leaders declined to criticize Mr. Trump personally.

Trump had given them political cover. Trump hadn’t said those specific words in that specific order – that was the crowd, not him – nothing to see here, folks, move along. But there are consequences:

Ms. Omar responded on Thursday by calling Mr. Trump a “fascist,” but said there was nothing new about his behavior or the response of his supporters. She cited his years of false claims that Barack Obama was not born in the United States.

Later, in Minneapolis for a town hall-style meeting, Ms. Omar said to the crowd: “A lot of people are trying to distract us now. But I want you all to know that we are not going to back down.”

House Democratic leaders said they were working to develop higher-level security protocols for Ms. Omar and her three colleagues, especially given an onslaught of threatening material on social media, where white nationalists have praised the president’s statements.

There were death threats, lots of them, and Omar twisted the knife on that, saying she knew she was supposed to be scared for her life, but this was bigger than that:

“What I am scared for is the safety of people who share my identity,” said Ms. Omar, who has stood out in Congress with colorful head coverings. “When you have a president who clearly thinks someone like me should go back, the message that he is sending is not for me, it is for every single person who shares my identity.”

She did make Trump look bad with that, but the Washington Post moved beyond Washington:

The new rallying cry of Trump’s supporters unleashed emotional responses from people across the country, with some outraged by and others supportive of the president’s latest polarizing act.

“I think he’s tearing the world apart with what he says and how he says it,” Lu Norman, 88, said while visiting the library in the rural west Texas town of Stanton. “I don’t think he’s presidential.”

Also at the library Wednesday, Lori Valles said the president was being “petty” and turning “people against each other.”

Trump “needs to be impeached,” the 42-year-old certified nurse’s aide said.

Meanwhile, back east:

Dan Wendel, a Boston contractor, had a different view about Trump’s attacks on Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and three other congresswomen.

“You really want to know? I love it!” he said Wednesday outside a building he was working on in Southie, a gentrifying working-class neighborhood of Boston.

Wendel said Trump was right to call out Democratic lawmakers for “bad-mouthing America.”

Of course he’s a Southie – a working class Irish Catholic redneck from South Boston – site of the riots against forced bussing in the seventies – against integration, actually – against black people, actually – riots as bad or worse than anything in the South a decade earlier. And a minor point – Jackie Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers organization for the 1946 season and in 1959 the Boston Red Sox became the very last major league team to integrate – with just one black player, Pumpsie Green, who wasn’t very good – which made their point. Southies from Southie like Trump.

But historians don’t do baseball:

Trump has long rejected the traditional presidential role of a unifying figure for America’s broad and diverse population, and his decision to spread such inflammatory rhetoric was bound to escalate beyond his control, said Russell Riley, a presidential historian at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.

“You can’t strike a match near gasoline and not expect something to happen, and when you’re trafficking in highly charged racial language – which he was doing, regardless of his denials – then you’re playing with incendiaries,” he said. “You simply cannot disavow the explosion after you have struck the match.”

Others get it:

A ten-minute drive from Southie, in the racially mixed neighborhood of Dorchester, Trish Mullen said she has never felt as unsafe as she does with Trump as president.

“It’s just embarrassing that we have someone representing our country that’s just foul,” said Mullen, who came to the United States from the Philippines a couple decades ago, when she was 5. “We have a loose cannon for a president.”

And meanwhile, out west:

In Colorado, Diana Higuera said the chants that emanated from the North Carolina rally reminded her of the fraught political situations in country she left to come to the United States.

“The situation in my country right now is not in good shape, and now I’m not so sure how safe this country is becoming,” said Higuera, 47, who came to the United States in 2005 from Venezuela to study for a master’s degree in international communications at the University of Denver. “As a foreigner, now I don’t feel safe – even though I’m naturalized – I still have an accent, and I speak Spanish to my kids.”

Trump may be turning the United States into Venezuela, but meanwhile, in Pennsylvania:

Alex Garcia, 48, of Lancaster, arrived in the United States illegally from Mexico in 1989. Starting as a dishwasher in New York City, Garcia now a legal resident, owns Señor Hoagies in Lancaster, a restaurant that sells Mexican food and sandwiches. He shook his head when told about the latest controversy, but said the president’s rhetoric doesn’t bother him.

During his 30 years in the United States, he said no one has told him to go back to Mexico.

“People helped me,” he said. “This country opened the door to me.”

Trump cannot change that, perhaps, but political analysts see something worse that threats and chaos and fear, because they see a political miscalculation:

Conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt said in a tweet that the chant was “nativist” and also dangerous politically, as crucial states such as Pennsylvania and Michigan have hundreds of thousands of residents who, like Omar, are naturalized U.S. citizens.

“It is a very risky strategy,” said Chase Untermeyer, who served as an adviser to President George H. W. Bush. “It may make loyalists’ hearts beat faster and minds get more convinced, but it doesn’t do a thing to expand the potential voter base.”

In short, this is no way to win an election, but those who were here first may see all of this more clearly than everyone else:

Robert Hall, 33, who designs Blackfeet language curriculum for schools on the nation’s reservation in northwestern Montana, said he was entirely unsurprised by way the crowd responded at the rally.

“We know it is racism,” Hall said. “To me it’s baffling. I don’t understand why racist people don’t just look us in the eye and say, ‘Yes, I’m racist.’ Liberate yourselves. Then we can have an honest conversation.”

It’s not that easy, as Brian Beutler explains here:

Let’s start at the beginning, before what happened gets lost in a farrago of lies and revisionism. Because it didn’t start with some bad apples chanting “send her back!” and they didn’t chant “send her back!” out of patriotic fervor… Several days ago, the president of the United States, directed a racist attack at four congresswomen – all Americans by definition, but none of them white – because he had just watched a segment about them on Fox News. He told them to go back where they came from.

This attack was unprompted – not that a racist outburst would be a forgivable response to anything, but it was a response to nothing. The four congresswomen weren’t feuding with Donald Trump. They were at odds with members of their own party. The Fox segment was about Democratic infighting. Trump simply saw some black and brown members of Congress challenging their leaders, and he tweeted the first smears about them that came to mind. Lo and behold, what occurred to him was foul bigotry.

There was, then, no strategy, and this certainly wasn’t presidential, and then it became pure improvisation:

When Trump realized his comments had ignited swift and overwhelming outrage – enough to threaten meaningful defections among his Republican allies on Capitol Hill – he invented a cover story, grabbed a shield, and picked a scapegoat.

Trump dishonestly reimagined his own tweets (which neither he nor Twitter has deleted) as a call for all of his critics to get with the program or self-deport – still an unacceptable sentiment from a U.S. president, but one that clears the lowest bar of being race neutral. He used Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) – one of the women he’d attacked, and the only one who’s a naturalized citizen – as an avatar for those critics, and lied about her nonexistent “history of launching vicious anti-Semitic screeds.” This was the prompt for his rally-goers to chant “send her back” in North Carolina Wednesday night – a chant they reserved for Omar alone, not for Nancy Pelosi or Bernie Sanders or any of the president’s other white critics.

And that led to this:

Republican officialdom now exists to lie about the value system Trump and his feral supporters proudly espouse – that non-white citizens who don’t wear MAGA hats should be defamed and deported  – and if you challenge the lie, these Republicans will exploit the suffering of Jews (who overwhelmingly reject Republican politics) to stifle dissent. This is the 2020 campaign they intend to inflict on us.

And of course Beutler says this is nonsense:

Suffice it to say, Republicans’ interest in the well-being of Jews is tissue thin. It wasn’t Ilhan Omar who praised “very fine people” among a horde of neo-Nazis who chanted “Jews will not replace us” and murdered a woman two years ago. So the lie is sustained with the bad-faith exploitation of a religious minority hostile to their politics, and it’s all in service of obscuring the racism of their leader.

That’s all that’s going on here but for this:

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) got something of a hero’s welcome the moment she arrived back to her hometown of Minneapolis, Minnesota on Thursday evening.

When Omar stepped out of the airport doors, she was greeted with signs and a cheering crowd welcoming her return.

“Welcome home, Ilhan! Welcome home, Ilhan!” the crowd chanted.

She wasn’t damaged:

The chants seemed to be a show of support in response to President Donald Trump’s rally, during which not only did Trump repeatedly attacked Omar but also his supporters chanted “send her home.” Trump did nothing to quell the racist chanting, only speaking after the chants had died down a full ten seconds later (Trump later claimed he “was not happy” with the chanting).

The day after the rally, Omar told reporters, “I believe he is fascist.”

“I want to remind people that this is what this President and his supporters have done to our country that is supposed to be a country where we allow democratic debate and dissent to take place,” she said.

So she wins this round, and Slate’s William Saletan offers this overview:

One of the basic rules of politics is to define issues in a way that maximizes the number of voters on your side and minimizes the number of voters on the other side. That’s why prudent Republicans frame the immigration debate around lawbreaking. They praise legal immigration, and they claim to care about all Americans who could lose their jobs to border jumpers. The issue isn’t about ethnicity, they argue. It isn’t even about whether you were born here. It’s about respecting the law and getting in line. That’s a message most Americans can support.

But then they have their president who just doesn’t get it:

President Donald Trump has wrecked that message. This week, he told four Democratic congresswomen to “go back” to the countries from which their families emigrated. Three of the four lawmakers – Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan – were born here. By targeting them, Trump has sent a warning to every American whose ancestors came to this country: You, too, can be told to go home.

What? Trump may not understand his job:

Opposing immigrants based on their race, ethnicity, or nationality is far more incendiary than opposing immigrants who break the law. It’s also politically dangerous. It risks antagonizing not only the many Americans whose families came from Africa, the Middle East, or Latin America, but also millions of other voters who don’t feel comfortable with overt prejudice. Still, Republicans might get away with it – and profit from the votes of xenophobes and bigots – as long as they don’t take the next step. The next step is using ethnicity to target not just immigrants, but natural-born American citizens.

Yes, Trump doesn’t get it:

Trump has crossed that line many times. In 2015, he impugned the patriotism of Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, for having married an immigrant from Mexico. Bush’s wife, Columba, has been an American citizen for nearly 40 years. That didn’t stop Trump from suggesting, based on Columba Bush’s ancestry, that Jeb Bush couldn’t be trusted to secure America’s borders. First Trump retweeted an allegation that Jeb Bush “has to like the Mexican illegals because of his wife.” Then, on CNN, Trump repeated that allegation: “If my wife were from Mexico, I think I would have a soft spot for people from Mexico.”

Trump also challenged the faith and loyalty of Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, an American citizen whose father had immigrated legally from Cuba. During the 2016 presidential race, Trump persistently warned evangelicals not to trust Cruz because, as Trump put it, “not a lot of evangelicals come out of Cuba.” In addition, Trump disputed Cruz’s eligibility for the presidency on the grounds that Cruz “was born in Canada.” Cruz was automatically American and eligible to serve because his mother was a U.S. citizen. But to Trump, that didn’t matter.

And of course there’s the biggie:

For years, Trump directed and publicized an investigation of President Barack Obama, insinuating that Obama was a Muslim “born in Kenya” and not, as all records showed, a Christian born to an American mother and a Kenyan father in the United States. Trump didn’t just question whether Obama “was born in this country.” He hired investigators to scour records from Obama’s birth and childhood, and he claimed on TV that the investigators “cannot believe what they’re finding.” After Obama released his birth certificate, Trump tweeted, “An ‘extremely credible source’ has called my office and told me that Barack Obama’s birth certificate is a fraud.” Later, in a tweet that foreshadowed his plea for Russian intervention in the 2016 election, Trump urged “hackers” to pursue the question of Obama’s birthplace.

And there was this:

In addition to his investigation of Obama, his defense of ethnic profiling, and his attempt to repeal birthright citizenship, Trump has advocated overt discrimination against public officials. In 2016, he denounced Gonzalo Curiel, a federal judge who was born in Indiana to legal immigrants from Mexico. Based on Curiel’s ancestry—and the fact that Trump was advocating a crackdown on Mexican immigration—Trump demanded that the judge “recuse himself” from presiding over a fraud lawsuit against Trump University. Trump summarized his argument this way: “We’re building a wall. He’s a Mexican.” In another interview, Trump argued that Curiel’s “Mexican heritage” presented “an inherent conflict of interest.”

Saletan has much more but it comes down to this:

Trump’s history of attacks on Americans of African, Middle Eastern, and Latin American ancestry – impugning their loyalty, investigating their births, threatening their citizenship, proposing to punish them collectively – isn’t about respecting immigration laws. It isn’t even about immigration. It’s about dividing natural-born Americans by race, ethnicity, and religion. His denunciation of members of Congress based on where their families “originally came from” signals an acceleration of that assault. It might galvanize Trump’s white supporters.

 On the other hand, it might alarm and galvanize many of us, white or nonwhite, whose parents or grandparents came from other countries.

We might decide that a racist president is a threat to us all.

That’s possible. This guy doesn’t understand the job.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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