Trump's tweets were ignorant, bigoted, mean-spirited and un-American. But were they racist?

Last Updated by Kevin Woster on
Dusty Johnson says most South Dakotans aren't impressed by The Squad

It’s pretty hard to argue that President Donald Trump was trying to make America great by tweeting that four women of color in the U.S. House of Representatives should stop complaining or “go back” to the “crime-infested places from which they came.”

U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson admitted as much when I asked him about the tweet.

“I believe the president is trying to make America better,” Johnson said. “These comments are not helpful to that end.”

Johnson says the president's Twitter comments about Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts were “clearly inappropriate.” The comments also have caused “real discomfort” among both Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. House, Johnson said.

But he also said it is difficult to decide how often to jump into the public dialogue on inappropriate comments by Donald Trump. Where would it start? Where would it end? How often would it be?

“I can spend two hours every day responding to what the president says and how he says it,” Johnson says. “I’m a guy who’s more focused on our work in running the country.”

Johnson didn’t go looking for a chance to engage on the latest Trump fuss.  He responded because I sent him a text on Monday asking for a phone interview.

Monday is typically a travel day for congressional members returning to D.C. from their home districts. Don’t get me started on that whole practice of members of Congress not living in or near D.C., a relatively recent phenomenon that I think is kind of stupid.

Another time, another column. 

Reaching out with the question about Trump

When I reached Johnson, he had already responded to a question about Trump’s comments from radio newsman Jerry Oster of WNAX in Yankton.

Oster asked if they were racist. And as he would with me, Johnson avoided a direct answer on that with Oster, saying instead that the president’s comments were “inappropriate” and “not helpful.”

I understand what many, especially those on the left side of the political aisle, would have expected my role and Oster’s role to be at that point: persist in asking Johnson if the president’s comments were racist.

And persist. And persist. Yes or no. Let me ask again: Yes or no.

I can’t speak for Oster on this, but here’s my problem with that approach: I wasn’t sure myself when I spoke with Johnson that Trump’s comments were racist. I’m still not.

I’m supposed to be sure, I guess.  There seems to be lots of certainty around. CNN seemed certain all day Monday as their lead-ins to accounts of and discussions on the comments called “racist” as it if had been decided. I assume that was repeated on MSNBC. It was on NPR. I’m not sure about the networks. But I’d expect most of the newspapers were a bit more cautious.

And maybe Trump’s comments were racist. Or maybe they were insensitive and mean and rude and anti-immigrant and completely un-American, which is quite a bit of bad without the racism. He has proven capable of all of that, and instances of racism, too.

But I found myself asking: Were these “go back” comments really racism or were they simply variations of the long-standing “love-it-or-leave-it” catchphrase? I first recall hearing that in common usage in the late 1960s and early 1970s against war protesters. And it had nothing to do with race.

Against the Vietnam War? Go live somewhere else. Critical of America? Love it or leave it. Don’t like Nixon? Move to North Vietnam.

Most often in those years, it was conservative white people chanting or holding “love it or leave it” signs in response to liberal white people who were marching or rallying in protest against the war.

 Going all country about love for country

Merle Haggard and Ernest Tubbs both sang “America: Love it or Leave it.” Obviously, they were not targeting people of color or even refugees with those songs, although I’m sure people of color were included if they protested against American policy at the time or criticized the nation in other ways.

Old folks like me might remember the so-called Hard Hat Riot in New York City in May of 1970. It came a few days after 13 students were shot — four of them fatally — during a protest at Kent State University in Ohio.

The Hard Hat Riot began with a rally by college and high-school students outraged by the shooting at Kent State and also by the ongoing Vietnam War and military incursions into Cambodia. The construction-worker counter-protesters were there to show support for the Nixon Administration — and, they would have argued, for America itself.

“America: Love it or Leave it!” signs were common among the hard hats. So too were clenched fists.

So that’s my earliest frame of reference for the whole notion that those who criticize America should perhaps leave America. Obviously, nobody in the Trump camp applied that logic to their presidential candidate during a campaign in which he tore down America and its leaders, passed and present, like no other presidential candidate I can recall.

In recent years, “love it or leave it” has often been accompanied by “go home,” or “go back where you came from.” Long ago, such aspersions were cast at Irish immigrants and Italian immigrants. More recently they have targeted people of color.

And it’s reasonable to be suspicious of Trump since he has made so many other harsh and, sometimes, clearly racist comments about people of color. Saying a judge can’t be fair because he’s of Mexican descent is clearly racist. Imposing a travel ban against nations populated by people of color probably is, too, although it could be argued that is more religious bigotry than racial bias.

Is it racist to tell someone to “go home, ”meaning to another country, if that country is predominantly populated by people of color? Well, maybe. In Trump’s case, given his history, probably. Am I sure? No.

I’d guess Dusty Johnson isn’t sure, either. So I understand how he would be hesitant to call out Trump specifically on an allegation of racism when he’s not sure that’s what it is. It would bring down a firestorm of criticism from Johnson’s own party, and probably hurt Johnson’s chances to work with the administration, to say nothing of his reelection chances.

How much time does he spend answering for Trump?

And then the next time Trump says something similar (probably tomorrow, maybe later today), is Johnson supposed to label it racism again? The charge is serious and incendiary, and as full of politics as it is of emotion and painful historical significance. It’s a weapon and condemnation more than a description. I understand why someone, especially a Republican office holder in the age of Trump, would be hesitant to use it, especially if he’s not sure it’s true.

What I don’t understand is how people — white men, particularly, can determine with certainty that what Trump said was not racist, and that Trump himself is not racist. At the very least, that’s an unsettled debate, with significant evidence on the “yes he is” side.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said this week that Trump isn’t a racist, even as he urged everybody to tone down the rhetoric. This is the same guy who once put governing the nation second to assuring failure for President Barack Obama’s policies.

And Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of the 23rd congressional district in California said emphatically that Trump’s comments were not racist.

You have to wonder whether a powerful white Republican male has the standing to decide whether the comments of another powerful white Republican male against four Democratic women of color were or were not racist. 

Actually, no, you don’t have to wonder. He doesn’t have that standing. The best he can and should express is uncertainty about whether the president is racist and whether his comments were racist, and concern that the president continues to make such comments.

I’m a white male without power but with a Republican voter registration, for now. When I first read about this particular string of offensive comments by the president, I was not outraged or particularly surprised. His constant barrage of inappropriateness tends to numb my senses.

Trump said what this morning? Yuk. So what else is new?

And much of the hyperventilating reaction to the comments by others has done little to inspire me to reach a conclusion. The reactions are almost as predictable and tedious as Trump’s comments, and some of them are almost as hateful.

But you have to stop and listen when people of color talk

Most meaningful are the logically expressed, personally informed perspectives I read and watched and listened to from people of color — men and women who have heard the “go back to where you came from” call from whites. There’s no doubt in the minds of those targeted by such hate that these were racist dog whistles, not simply offensive ones. And most of those previously targeted people believe the president’s comments were racist.

Those perspectives matter. They matter a lot. And they should be considered by white guys like me, and especially by white guys like Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell. It’s easy for white guys to decide something isn’t racist. But how could we know for sure, never having been the target of racism by a powerful majority of a different race?

Imagine how awful that feels. Imagine how scary it must be. That’s all white guys like us can do. Imagine.

Along with rejecting that allegation that Trump’s comments were racist, McCarthy also denied the idea that Trump’s comments made the Republican Party look bad, noting that it is the “party of Lincoln.”

In that, McCarthy is either delusional of dishonest. Of course the comments make the party look bad. Donald Trump traffics in bad looks. If you run with him, he’ll get some on you. The Party of Lincoln? Still? I wonder.

Johnson said it would be “a bridge too far” for him to say anything in defense of the president’s comments on the four minority women. Indeed, a rickety bridge too far.

The president’s comments implied that at least he assumed the four women had other countries to “go back,” to other than this one. But of course all four are citizens. Three of the four were born here. One, Omar, was born in Somalia and came to the United States as a refugee when she was 12.

All were elected to represent their congressional districts here in the United States of America. They are frequent and often-harsh critics of the president. Sometimes they criticize in a way that I find objectionable — Tlaib calling the president a “motherf…..“ being a prime example.

Getting to know three of the four Squad members

Like the four congresswomen, Johnson is a freshman in the House. And through House functions, especially those for freshman, he has met Omar, Tlaib and Pressley, but not Ocasio-Cortez. He said the four women, who are known as The Squad in the House, “hung together a fair amount” during those freshman events.

When asked if people in South Dakota comment to him about The Squad, Johnson said such comments from constituents were infrequent and typically not positive.

"I don't hear many people in South Dakota speak highly of them," he said.

Not surprised there, in a red state where almost two-thirds of participating voters in 2016 picked Trump.

Johnson was cautious about criticizing the four congresswomen in The Squad personally. But he did say they seem to have a style that is more aimed at conflict than cooperation.

“It’s not just that they have a liberal world view,” he said. “But I also think their tone and tactics in advancing that world view are pretty far out from what we are accustomed to here in South Dakota.”

What are we accustomed to here in South Dakota? 

“Most people in South Dakota, and most candidates in South Dakota, are more often than not bridge builders,” Johnson said. “And that’s not what the far left in the U.S. House today seems interested in.”

On that point, of course, I had to suggest that President Trump’s tone and tactics in advancing his world view were often pretty far out from ours here in South Dakota, too.

Who is less of a bridge builder and more of a bridge destroyer than Donald Trump?

Again, Johnson was careful in his response.

“I do think that they, like the president, enjoy a good fight, and that is a great way to grab attention,” he said of The Squad. “It’s also one of the reasons the far left of the House has not been and is not being very successful. I don’t think they participate in a way that’s conducive to good government.”

Finding bipartisan cooperation in a House divided

When I asked if Johnson finds and cooperates with Democratic House members who are working in ways that are conductive to good government, he said: “Absolutely. Every week we’re doing that.”

He named Colin Petersen, a farmer from the 7th Congressional District of Minnesota who has been in the U.S. House for almost 30 years. Peterson is also chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, on which Johnson serves.

Peterson was one of the founders of the Blue Dog Coalition of moderate-to-conservative Democrats. Former U.S. Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin of South Dakota was a member of that coalition before losing to Republican Kristi Noem in 2010. 

OK, OK, but Peterson is kind of a gimme for cross-over work with Republicans, being about half Republican himself. Johnson also says, however, that it’s easy to work with Angie Craig of the 2nd Congressional District of Minnesota. And Craig is a different kind of Democrat than Peterson.

A 47-year-old J-school graduate who worked as a reporter for Gannett’s Memphis paper, Craig serves on the Agriculture Committee with Peterson and Johnson. She is also is part of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the New Democratic Coalition and co-chair of the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus. She and her wife, Cheryl Greene, have four children.

“Her politics are different than mine,” Johnson says. “But she is policy focused. She is wired to try to find common ground.”

Johnson worked with Peterson and Craig on convincing the Trump Administration to roll back — from Nov. 1 to Sept. 1 —  the date that farmers who are prevented by weather conditions from planting regular crops and plant cover crops instead may begin grazing those fields.

Johnson said the legislation he and Craig had put together inspired the administration to act.

“Angie Craig and I got dozens of sponsors and support from 19 national ag organizations. Then the administration announced they would do the roll-back administratively, even though they had been telling us they didn’t have the authority,” Johnson said.

Along with grazing, weapons systems and tribal education

Johnson said he found support across the aisle to add a streamlining component on the way weapons are acquired under the National Defense Authorization Act. And through similar bipartisan cooperation, Johnson also got a hearing before the House Natural Resources Committee Tuesday on his bill to close a loophole in the law so that educators at certain tribal schools can get less-expensive health-insurance coverage. Approval of that bill would help the educators and leave more money available for education at the local tribal schools.

A liberal friend of mine had asked me before my interview with Johnson to ask him what he thought of Congresswoman Sharice Davids, a first-term Democrat from the 3rd District of Kansas. Johnson said Davids — an enrolled member of the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin — is another example of a  progressive woman of color who is looking for solutions rather than conflict.

Davids, a lawyer who worked for several years on the Pine Ridge Reservation, co-chairs the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus with Angie Craig. She is one of the first two Native American women elected to Congress. The other is freshman Congresswoman Deb Haaland of New Mexico, a Laguna Pueblo.

Davids was the focus recently of a strange social-media insinuation by Saikat Chakrabarti, chief of staff for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Chakrabarti was unhappy with Davids' votes on legislation related to the southern border, which he said served to "enable a racist system.” He clarified that he wasn't saying she was racist, which seemed to make it worse.

Here's the whole tweet:

"I don't think people have to be personally racist to enable a racist system. And the same could be said of the Southern Democrats. I don't believe Sharice is a racist person, but her votes are showing her to enable a racist system."

Which proves that Donald Trump isn't the only person who does dumb things on Twitter.

Chakrabarti tried to reduce the damage by explaining that he was responding to someone's tweet and a previous mention of Davids. He also said his combustible comment was taken out of context. But none of that helped much .

The House Democrats quickly defended Davids on the caucus Twitter feed. And former Missouri Sen. Clair McCaskill slammed Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff for his criticism of Davids.

Johnson said he was glad Davids got support from her party against an insinuation that was ridiculous.

“I think that’s worth calling out,” he said. “Some people are so ready to label other people racist, even including a Native American woman who has been fighting for civil rights for some time.”

Then, on a less-serious note, Johnson added: “Also, she’s an MMA fighter so you have to be careful.”

Davids competed in mixed martial arts for a number of years as an amateur, and even went professional for a time.

Johnson said he also has a good relationship with Deb Haaland and has gotten particularly close to Congresswoman Xochitl Torres Small, a Democrat representing New Mexico’s  2nd District. 

“She and I don’t vote together a lot,” Johnson said of Torres Small. “But she’s one of my best friends in the freshman class. There are lots of women of color in the 116th Congress who are wired to work together rather than fight. I wish we heard more about them than AOC’s squad.”

None of which means what Trump said about the women of The Squad was any less offensive, Johnson said.

“I don’t want to leave you with the impression that just because I have frustration with the far left of the House that I’m in any way trying to cover up the president’s comment,” he said. “He shouldn’t have said what he said.”

I wonder how many times Johnson will say that — or think it — during the remainder of this congressional term.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of SDPB, Friends of South Dakota Public Broadcasting, or the State of South Dakota.