Trump's "go home" comments present Republicans with a stark choice

Members of the GOP must now must adopt or accommodate the US president's racial attitudes – or leave

In this July 15, 2019, photo, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., speaks as, from left, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., listen during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington. Long before President Donald Trump attacked the four Democratic congresswomen of color, saying they should “go back” to their home countries, they were targets of hateful rhetoric and disinformation online.(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
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Donald Trump is determined to make 2020 the "send her back" election. That ugly taunt is shaping up to be the defining slogan of his campaign.

The US president has moved dramatically to solidify his position as the champion of white Christian Americans. Moreover, he is forcing many apprehensive Republicans to go beyond coded dogwhistles and embrace his openly strident white nationalism.

Mr Trump has looking for a target to replace his 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton.

Last week, he found them in a squabble between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and four newly elected Democratic congresswomen, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley.

Ms Pelosi dismissed challenges to her authority and the Democratic Party leadership by these young left-wing lawmakers. They in turn accused her of marginalising women of colour.

Mr Trump immediately smelled blood.

Despite being no fan of Ms Pelosi, Mr Trump insisted that she is not a racist, even though the young Democrats never directly accused her of that. He even seemed to be using her as a proxy for himself.

The four women are ideal targets for his politics of rage: they are stridently left wing, young, female, non-white, and, best of all for his purposes, in the cases of Ms Omar and Ms Tlaib, Muslim.

That places them far outside the normative American identity Mr Trump believes to be under attack. They typify the diverse new society he hates and fears.

He unleashed a series of largely false Twitter attacks against them, even demanding they "go back” to “the countries” they came from, though only Ms Omar is an immigrant.

The age-old taunt of "go back” to “where you came from” is the quintessence of US intolerance.

Mr Trump’s own Equal Opportunity Employment Commission identifies this as an exemplary form of unlawful harassment based on national origin.

In the private sector, anyone saying this would be immediately sacked. It has been unacceptable for decades.

Mr Trump is determined to bitterly divide the country. His eventual opponent's best bet is uniting it

At a North Carolina rally on Thursday, the president denounced the congresswomen as "anti-American," despite his own extraordinary history of denouncing other presidents, the FBI, CIA, Congress, courts, the press and many other core national institutions – not to mention his fawning over such hostile dictators as Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un.

When he targeted Ms Omar, the crowd erupted in chants of "send her back,” echoing the campaign mantra "lock her up" which was used against Mrs Clinton. The president beamed.

Mr Trump and his base evidently believe that only they are “real Americans,” entitled to howl about everything they dislike, while people of colour are citizens only under the sufferance of white Christian Americans and cannot assert contrary views without being treasonous.

Congressional Republicans publicly defended the president but privately expressed alarm at the depth of the racism beginning to characterise his re-election campaign. They are used to Mr Trump’s antics, but were taken aback to see them taken up by large crowds and redefining the party ethos.

They convinced Mr Trump to claim he did not like the chant and that he moved quickly to stop it, although video evidence refutes that.

This limited retreat lasted less than 24 hours.

By Friday, Mr Trump was back to extolling the “tremendous patriotism” of the crowd and retweeting comments by a notorious british anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim extremist praising the chant.

This clarifies several things.

Mr Trump and the Republican Party are running the next election mainly on race, championing white Christian Americans against others.

The uneasy coexistence of the traditional, conservative Republican Party and Mr Trump's essentially white nationalist movement is over. Republicans now must adopt or accommodate his racial attitudes or, like the Palestinian-American congressman Justin Amash, leave the party on principle.

Most Republican officials want Mr Trump to run his campaign on the current strength of the US economy. But the truth is that he inherited sustained growth from Barack Obama, and it could slow, or even tank, in coming months. Besides, Mr Trump is clearly determined to double down on the racial politics that secured his 2016 victory.

This is the game he wants to play and, at this stage, the genie probably cannot be put back in the bottle. Expect to hear regular chants of “send her back” from now on.

Some Democrats, like the young congresswomen, may also welcome an identity-based fight. Unlike Ms Pelosi, who is fixated on defeating Mr Trump in 2020, Ms Ocasio-Cortez, Ms Omar, Ms Tlaib and Ms Pressley have a much longer-term agenda to push their party to the left and secure control of it. For them, 2020 is just the start.

But to defeat Mr Trump, Democrats should avoid fighting on his terms. Far better to focus on the interests of all middle and working-class voters, for example regarding healthcare and income.

Mr Trump is determined to bitterly divide the country. His eventual opponent’s best bet is uniting it with a programme to improve the lives of ordinary people and counter tribal chauvinism with genuine, inclusive patriotism.

Naturally, Mr Trump wants to run against these women as a proxy for all the social and demographic changes he and his supporters so fear. And until the Democrats have a nominee, he can pretend that he is.

Eventually he will face a real adversary who cannot be told to “go back to the country you came from”. And with the right approach, that person should be able to send him back to Manhattan.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute in Washington