We’ll never know who started the chant. 

Perhaps it was the guy in the red MAGA helmet, or the woman in the pink “Trump Girl” t-shirt with high-heel shoes emblazoned with the American flag.

Maybe it was the man who, in between mouthfuls of peanut M&Ms, had told me he’d been there since 7:30 this morning browsing Trump gear in the parking lot, or one of the women who said they follow the president from state to state like groupies chasing a rock star, or just a teenager with iPhone aloft, looking to strike viral gold. 

Whoever it was, he or she sparked what felt like a defining political moment. One voice became two, became four, became a dozen, became hundreds, became thousands, until it became a roar that reverberated throughout East Carolina University’s Williams Arena Wednesday night.  

“Send her back! Send her back! Send her back!” 

The president smirked. He licked his lips and placed his hands on the podium, soaking it in. 

This would have been shocking a generation ago, a decade ago, even five years ago, anytime in the pre-Trump modern political era: the president’s supporters, almost all white, demanding the removal of a U.S. citizen and member of Congress—not coincidentally, a woman of color—because she dared to criticize the president, and the president smirking approvingly. 

“Send her back! Send her back! Send her back!” 

Trump tried to wash his hands of it this morning, saying he wasn’t happy about the chant to remove U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar and that he tried to shut it down (he didn’t), but the Rubicon had been crossed. Besides, this was his doing: On Sunday, Trump had unleashed a Twitter tirade against The Squad, four progressive freshmen Democrats—like Omar, all women of color—culminating in his suggestion that they “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”

With the exception of Omar, a Somali refugee who became a naturalized citizen as a teenager (and has been one longer than Trump’s current wife), the other three Squad members—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts—were born in the U.S., so it’s unclear where they’re supposed to go back to.  

This, Trump later insisted, was not racist. In fact, he added, he wasn’t bothered by accusations of racism because “many people agree with me.”

At least some of those people were in Greenville last night, egged on by the president’s accusations that Omar minimized the 9/11 attacks (nope), has a long history of anti-semitic screeds (not really, though she has arguably invoked anti-semitic tropes), and maybe—just maybe—married her brother (a fun right-wing conspiracy theory, the kind Trump loves to indulge). 

“Send her back! Send her back! Send her back!” 

This will be the thing about last night that everyone remembers. But by the time it happened, a little after eight o’clock, I was already exhausted, also numb to it. I’d been in Greenville for four hours, having managed to bypass the parking-lot festivities that one reporter compared to “a Grateful Dead show, but for a racist president,” then listening to a way-too-long barrage of eighties-era classic rock (plus, oddly, Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On”) from the loudspeakers, then listening to the Republican lesser lights—state House Majority Leader John Bell, state Representative Brent Murphy, Trump daughter-in-law Lara Trump, finally Vice President Mike Pence—praise Trump and condemn socialism. 

Mention Trump? Cheer. Socialism? Boo. Freedom? Cheer. The “radical left”? Boo. Rinse, repeat.

The media? A loud boo, followed by a chant of “CNN sucks.” 

Hearing that while cordoned in the press pen isn’t the most reassuring feeling in the world. 

And yet, it seems, they’re the ones who feel threatened. A man in a red MAGA helmet named Christopher Walker approached me after I snapped his photo and handed me his business card. He told me he wanted the helmet to look like something the SWAT team would wear; it ended up having more of a World War II vibe. 

The only way he could make the money work, he continued, was to have them made in China. But he had them made to prove a point: The president’s supporters feel like they need protection. Walker admitted he’s never been attacked. 

Finally, just before 7:25, Trump took the stage to Lee Greenwood’s insipid “God Bless the USA” and proceeded to ramble, incongruously and yet seamlessly, for the next hour and a half. Most of it was a word salad of his greatest hits—attacking Democrats, socialism, Antifa, fake news, “Pocahantas” and “Boot-edge-edge,” the “bullshit” Mueller investigation; praising himself, the economy, himself, the crowd, himself again.

He lied, as he so often does at these rallies, about so many things: about Republicans protecting people with preexisting conditions even as his administration is suing to overturn a law that does just that; about NATO spending; about polls showing him winning debates against Hillary Clinton; about migrants thanking border agents for the conditions in the administration’s concentration camps. He absorbed the room’s energy and thrived on its devotion to his every utterance. (I seem to recall a term for that.)

Then he got to Omar. 

“Representative Ilhan Omar, of a really great state I almost won for the first time in decades and decades, Minnesota, great state,” Trump began. A protester behind him did something I didn’t quite catch. A half-dozen guards hurled themselves at him, almost tearing down the “Keep American Great!” banner hanging from the stands as they dragged him away. 

Trump continued: “He goes home now to Mommy and he gets reprimanded and that’s the end.” And then Trump, who said there were very fine people among the neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville, accused Omar of being an antisemite who was proud of Al Qaeda, and the crowd started to chant.

“Send her back! Send her back! Send her back!” 

It was all very strange, surreal, scary even—difficult to grasp in real-time the gravity of what had happened, the implicit violence in the word “send,” the explicit hatred of a frothing mob in thrall to a demagogue. How long until a member of Trump’s fan club tries to take matters into his own hands? 

Trump kept going—and going, and going—but the rest of the night was a blur. About thirty minutes before the end, people started filing about and the screams became less deafening. Everyone was tired, except for Trump himself, who remained loud and breathless, repeating himself: Winning. Economy. Greatness. America. 

And then, with something like a declaration of victory, the night drew to close. 

“How do you give up MAGA?” Trump asked. “Make America Great Again, but we’ve done that. Can you imagine if Keep America Great didn’t work? I had the greatest phrase probably in the history of politics. Look at her beautiful hat. Looks very good on you. But look at this. Look at those beautiful hats.”

Later, Omar—fully understanding the target the president had just placed on her back—responded on Twitter with a tweet quoting Maya Angelou:

“You may shoot me with your word,

You may cut me with your eyes,

You may kill me with your hatefulness,

But still, like air, I’ll rise.”

Contact staff writer Leigh Tauss at ltauss@indyweek.com. 

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One reply on ““Send Her Back. Send Her Back. Send Her Back.””

  1. Trump is NOT a Racist…
    His family says he is not a Racist…
    His Vice President and other political sycophants say he is not a Racist…
    He says he is not a Racist…. Not Racist at all…..
    So There.
    (Bear in mind that the fact that Trump is a habitual liar and his sycophants all lie to protect him)

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