I’m terrible at guessing ages, but if I had to guess I’d say she was about 12 or 13. She was wearing a bright summery top and a red “Make America Great Again” cap that looks to be a half-size too big, almost over her youthful eyes and blond bangs. If you watched her for a couple of minutes, you’d see she was possibly chewing gum and occasionally conversing with a dark-haired woman next to her —maybe her mom? — while marveling at where she was: Standing on stage just behind the president of the United States, amid the throng of 8,000 people inside a Greenville, N.C., arena.
I noticed her the first time I watched the now-viral video of Donald Trump denouncing what he claims are the unAmerican views of four nonwhite congresswomen, including Rep. Ilhan Omar, who became an American citizen after fleeing the turmoil in her native Somalia at age 10. She was in the eye of the storm as the mob inside Greenville’s Williams Arena — taking a cue from their leader and his hate speech on Twitter several days earlier — erupted into anti-Omar chants of “Send her back! Send her back!”
What struck me is that — while Trump preened for a full 13 seconds, Mussolini-style, for the chanting hoard — this young girl did not join in ... at first. But as she looks around the big basketball arena, the delirium of the angry grown-ups is contagious. By the end of the 13 seconds, the girl is starting to mouth the words herself. “Send her back! Send her back!”
It is a truly and uniquely horrifying moment. In front of national TV cameras, with the 45th president of the United States as maestro, we are witnessing the exact moment that the raging rabble of a Donald Trump rally has taught a child how to hate. It is a moment that every American should ponder as we ask ourselves, as a nation, what the hell are we doing?
From the moment it happened Wednesday night, those 13 seconds over eastern North Carolina have rocked America and our political debate. It made clear that Trump intends — over the next 16 sure-to-be-horrific months — to run in 2020 on over-caffeinated racism and stoked-up division that will make 2016 seem like a Sunday school picnic, and that there are millions of people out there, chanting like satanic zombies, ready to answer his call.
A dangerous new narrative has taken root in the past week. When by evil genius or dumb luck, Trump managed to change the conversation away from his sex-pervert friends (yes, there’s more than one) or the inhumanity of his gulag of border detention camps — with a calculated assault on the four congresswomen known as “The Squad.”
His attacks on Reps. Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — all, obviously, American citizens and three of them born on U.S. soil — by saying they should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came” marked the arrival of a dangerous new concoction, a blend of authoritarianism and McCarthyism. It made clear that his campaign strategy will be to gin up racial resentment among less-educated white voters in the Rust Belt.
Just this week, the New York Times speculated that just such a campaign could give Trump an Electoral College victory in 2020 with as little as 43 percent of the national popular vote. The article didn’t speculate whether the growing rage of the other 57 percent — over both Trump’s hate campaign and such a warped election outcome — could trigger another civil war in this country.
Thursday night was a moment for much-needed clarity for America, on two critical points. First of all, after four years of constant back-and-forth on the topic, it’s become obvious that the White House is in the hands of a racist mass movement that has embraced a form of straight-up fascism. Yes, “fascism” is one of the most-loaded words in the dictionary, and — like the use of “concentration camps” to describe what’s happening at the border — its use can be a kind of double-edged sword. This is America in the 21st century and making direct comparisons to 1930s Europe isn’t always helpful; Hitler and Mussolini didn’t have TV reality shows or the internet and I think one 2016 commenter may have nailed it when he described Trump’s nightmare invention as “celebrity fascism.”
But we’re making a big mistake if we can look at the president’s clearly racist rhetoric, his ability to lie repeatedly to the public, his constant demonizing of The Other, which began with words and has devolved into inhumane “human dog pounds,” his corruption, and his lack of respect for 243 years of democratic norms, and continue to pretend that fascism has not arrived in America.
Yale University professor Jason Stanley — whose Jewish father fled Hitler’s Germany in 1939 and whose mother survived the Holocaust, and who has authored How Fascism Works — wrote in Newsweek that ritualistic chants like “Send her back!” are the very essence of totalitarian governments and that what he saw in Greenville was “the face of evil.” He added: “As I’ve said, it takes a lot to shock me. This chant, however, directly invokes an ideology that I know well, one that connects citizenship to a mythical ethnic or national essence, and demands unquestioning fealty to its leader and symbols. It’s called fascism.”
And so the bigger point raised by Wednesday’s American hatefest is the question of what are we going to do about American fascism? The signs right now are not good. The leaders of the Democrats in Congress — the ones with the most leverage to actually do something — are not only running out the clock on impeaching this unfit president but putting a lot of their eggs, at least this week, in one basket: Wednesday’s long-delayed testimony from special counsel Robert Mueller.
But the Mueller gambit could backfire, and in fact it probably will. It feels like Mueller Moment has already passed — that’s a combination of Mueller’s milquetoast-y handling of damning evidence, AG William Barr’s obfuscations, and the Democrats’ fumbled response — and I suspect his by-the-book testimony will show that the time to act would have been when transgressions like the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting first made a splash (but when obstructionist GOPers ran the House).
America’s weak body politic is absorbing Trump-Russia and other presidential wrongdoing that same way that it once absorbed the Access Hollywood tape, when Trump’s own words about sexual assault didn’t derail his election. The ability of Team Trump to steamroll congressional subpoenas and basic requests for information are making the Democrats look weak, because arguably they are. It hardly helps that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi seems stuck in the 1990s, seemingly unable to grasp the severe threat to American democracy on inglorious display in North Carolina last week.
Yet many everyday people I know — and, no doubt, millions of Americans — do get it. The question now is whether the American people can somehow take the lead — to make it clear that a racist president leading the United States into fascism is unacceptable, not just in November 2020 but right now. I’m looking at places like Hong Kong and especially that one slice of America called Puerto Rico that are showing us a way forward, that people in the streets can make a difference.
But America isn’t a compact island like those places and even protest — which is badly needed — probably won’t be enough. Ask yourself: What have you done today to make sure that America doesn’t have a racist president (with 43 percent of the vote) through 2025?
Neither America nor its people are destined to be a nation of hate. I was also struck by something else that happened Wednesday night — right here in Philadelphia, only an hour or two after that young girl learned to mimic the so-called adults chanting “Send her back!” You probably saw the viral video — two little boys running for a foul ball in the mostly empty (thanks to a lengthy rain delay) stands at Citizens Bank Park.
His competitive juices flowing, 9-year-old Jayden Ham from Easton, Pa., beat another kid, 11-year-old Frankie McLaughlin, from Northeast Philadelphia, to the bouncing hardball — but then he remembered he’d already grabbed one in the empty section, moments earlier. So Jayden impulsively gave the ball to Frankie, a complete stranger. As they went back to their seats, the two boys impulsively bro-hugged.
It was incredibly touching, but also a reminder that while love is baked inside all of us, hate is taught —the way that a young girl was taught Wednesday not only by the vile grown-ups who stood around her but by the man who wants to ride their loathing to a second term as her president. The children are watching, and the America they inherit depends on what we show them right now. The choice has never been so stark, and the need for us to stop equivocating and start doing the right thing has never been more urgent.