Donald Trump’s attack on four American Congresswomen of colour, Ilhan Omar; Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib has appalled people around the world.
“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,” he wrote.
Trump is a Republican, but even many of his own party colleagues have condemned his remarks. The British Conservative Party is the Republicans’ sister party. But Britain’s own Home Secretary Sajid Javid has been forced to reflect publicly on the number of times he has been told to go home: “I’m from an immigrant family, I know what it’s like to be told to go back to where I came from.”
And the whole horrible episode has climaxed with a huge crowd at a Trump rally chanting “Send her back! Send her back!”, in reference to congresswoman Ilhan Omar.
There seems to be something about a strong, black woman in politics that racists find triggering.
The first thing to reflect on is how far downhill American rhetoric on race has descended under the impact of Trump’s white nationalism. In the 2008 American presidential election, which was obviously very racially charged, there was a big Republican rally where a supporter told the Republican presidential candidate John McCain that she was “scared” of an Obama presidency. McCain replied promptly: “I have to tell you that Obama is a decent person and a person you do not have to be scared of as President of the United States”.
Even more strikingly at the same rally in response to another supporter who said she couldn’t trust Obama because he was an Arab, McCain shook his head firmly and said: “No ma’am. He is a decent family man and a citizen who I just happen have strong disagreements with on fundamental issues.”
McCain firmly pushing back on his own supporters’ racism is a world away from the current Republican President deliberately whipping up that very racism.
But we should not look at these recent events as evidence of some special Trump barbarism. Since her election to the Italian Chamber of Deputies in 2013, Cecile Kyenge, an Italian of African descent, constantly faced racist abuse. When she became Italy’s minister for integration, as the country’s first black minister, it got worse.
A fellow Italian MEP, Mario Borghezio, called her appointment “a shitty choice” by a “bongo-bongo” government. A former vice-president of the Italian Senate, Roberto Calderoli, said in a public meeting: “When I see pictures of Kyenge I can’t help but think of the features of an orangutan.”
Everyone in every mainstream political party in this country, has a responsibility to make sure we don’t go down that dangerous road.
There seems to be something about a strong, black woman in politics that racists find triggering. I had some experience of this in the 2017 election. Even the Conservative party, itself by singling me out in posters, Facebook advertisements and speeches made me wonder what dog-whistle politics they were actually playing.
So Trump’s white nationalist politics are not an aberration. His top supporter and advisor, Steve Bannon, is advising a number of right-wing European parties, including the French Front National and the soon-to-be British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The fear must be that, here, in Britain, images of Trump supporters chanting “Send her home” will give renewed legitimacy to all the Powellite and National Front rhetoric of the 1970s about repatriation.
American writer Adam Serwer has said: “The president’s belief is that American citizenship is conditional for people of colour, who should be grateful we are even allowed to be here.” This is a view that will resonate with many on the right of politics in this country. The same American writer also said:“If multiracial democracy cannot be defended in America, it will not be defended elsewhere.” This is what is so alarming about Trump’s chanting supporters. And it is a call to arms for progressives here in Britain.
We must resist white nationalism even when it is dressed up as a phoney workerism. There were a number of perfectly intellectually defensible, Tony Benn-era arguments for coming out of the EU. But underlying some Leave sentiment was a Little Englander nationalism, which should be rejected.
Trump shows us that we are only ever a small step away from being a country happy to elect their first black president, to crowds baying to send an American Congresswoman “back” because she happens to be black.
Everyone in every mainstream political party in this country, has a responsibility to make sure we don’t go down that road.
Diane Abbott is shadow home secretary.