Donald Trump is spending his week doubling down on his racist suggestion that four Democratic lawmakers—Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan—should “go back” where “they came” from. Last night, he presided over a crowd in North Carolina that at one point chanted “Send her back!” in reference to Omar. At times, when Trump mentioned the women, people in his audience shouted “Treason!” and “Traitors!”
It’s utterly irrelevant to Trump and his supporters that three of four of the women were born in the United States and that the fourth, Omar, immigrated from Somalia as a child and has spent more than half her life as a citizen. In focusing attention on these particular women, Trump activates the well-documented passions and fears of his supporters, people demonstrably threatened by the browning of America. But, he also activates the disgust and repugnance that too many people feel about women claiming power and authority, particularly the power and authority to decide what America is and should be. It would be a foolish and dangerous mistake, particularly as we move towards a presidential election in which more women than ever are candidates, to ignore the confluence of these prejudices.
Trump’s “go back” dictate makes an assumption about who “real Americans” are, and research shows he’s not alone in his warped thinking. For most of our history, the notions of “citizenship” and “manhood” have been as inextricably linked in most people’s minds as “American” and “white” are. Only in our recent past have minorities and women been extended rights, like the freedom to vote, to run for office, to bear arms, to serve in juries, and to work, as elite white man have since independence. Studies show even now, in the words of one social science researcher, that “to be American is implicitly synonymous with being White.” In the same vein, many people’s explicit, and implicit, belief systems continue to support the notion that men are “natural” leaders, but that women are not; that men serve in public capacities, and women private ones. Trump appeals to the specific combination of these beliefs to undermine women as not only incapable of self-governance, but as unfit to govern others. That’s the hateful core of this latest diatribe; people like them aren’t suited to tell people like us what to do.
Trump’s casual “go back” is a dogwhistle to racists and xenophobes but it also reinforces age-old biases against the rise of a “feminized elite.” Women who are educated and progressive, the old chestnut goes, are dangerous to men and to the nation. This tired equation allows Trump’s most extreme supporters to rationalize threats against women as legitimate act of patriotism and renders violence against them a form of twisted self-defense. Trump’s campaign rallies were frenzied carnivals of this misogynistic idea, with thousands of mostly white Americans chanting “lock her up” and parading around effigies of a caged Hillary Clinton. It’s how a West Virginia Republican lawmaker tweeted, “she should be ’hung’,” and another proclaimed, “Hillary Clinton should be put in the firing line and shot for treason.” One of Trump’s supporters was particularly clear when he explained, during the 2016 race that “Hillary needs to be taken out“ and that he was prepared to do it himself. “[I[f I have to be a patriot, I will,“ he said. The same ideas were more subtly conveyed when, earlier this year, a video was aired during a Memorial Day Fresno-Grizzlies game in which Ocasio-Cortez was depicted as an “enemy of freedom“ alongside Kim Jong Un and Fidel Castro.
But Trump isn’t just content to question women’s patriotism. He also impugns their expertise and knowledge. The charge that people of color and women “don’t understand” the complicated affairs that animate our national discourse is a popular right-wing talking point drawn from racist and sexist science. It suggests that people of color and women lack the intellectual capabilities and emotional wherewithal to lead. Of course, that means that women of color who work in the public sphere are special targets of these attacks. A Media Matters supercut of Fox News’s coverage of AOC, for example, demonstrates the network’s near-obsession with portraying her—a woman with a degree in economics and the recipient of a fellowship awarded to high academic achievers—as “ignorant,” “idiotic,” and someone who “doesn’t know what she is talking about.” She is, the hosts emphasize, a “pompous little twit,” who “makes no sense.” In a similar vein, Trump has referred to black athletes, politicians, and media representatives as “low IQ individual[s]” and “dumb.”