Trump’s Attacks on Congresswomen Are Racist and Sexist. Ignoring That Is a Mistake We Can’t Afford

Soraya Chemaly

Donald Trump is spending his week doubling down on his racist suggestion that four Democratic lawmakers—Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan—should “go back” to 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, emigrated 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's 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 toward 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 in 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 dog whistle 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 that 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.”

During his campaign, as Trump traded in racist and xenophobic depictions of black and brown men as rapists and terrorists, he also found time to insult outspoken women, using words and images filled with contempt, resentment, and disgust. He called Rosie O’Donnell, for example, a “disgusting pig” and Stormy Daniels a “horse face.” But he didn’t invent these comparisons; this trope has been popular in extremist conservative circles for decades. During debates over reproductive rights, members of the GOP have compared women to pigs and cows. Missouri House majority leader Tim Jones once defended his proposed restrictions on women’s health, explaining that his father is a veterinarian. These word choices might be unconscious, but they are not random. Farm animals are dependent, dumb, and passive. Their reproduction and the conditions of their reproduction are controlled. They don’t disturb the natural order of things, namely, men’s domination.

Congresswomen Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, Omar, And Pressley Hold News Conference After President Trump Attacks Them On Twitter

Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images

And the same rhetoric has cropped up in debates around immigration, with Arizona state senator Russell Pearce suggesting immigrant women come to the United States to “drop a child” during “breeding season.” Rep. Mary Franson of Minnesota once shared a video about food stamp policies in which she compared recipients to “animals [who] may grow dependent and not learn to take care of themselves.” South Carolina lieutenant governor Andre Bauer’s compared welfare mothers to “stray animals” who will “breed” because they don’t know any better.

Dehumanizing language and imagery is often waved away as humor. Former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, a Republican, has said of Ocasio-Cortez that “in a healthy society, she would be a joke.” Apparently, many Trump supporters agree. Recently, ProPublica exposed a Facebook page that neatly brought all of these threads together in support of Trump’s antiwoman, anti-immigrant policies. It is a long-standing private page to which more than 9,000 border patrol agents subscribe. Among the more hateful posts ProPublica uncovered was a meme that shows Trump holding Ocasio-Cortez’s neck and forcing her face into his crotch. Another shows her performing fellatio. In both cases she’s been reduced to a crass joke, a woman whose mouth has been literally—obscenely and violently—shut.

This contempt for women primes people to tolerate and minimize violence against them. Violence against women, particularly progressive women, is spiking around the globe, and the United States is no exception to this trend. Earlier this year a man called Rashida Tlaib to threaten her and other Democratic lawmakers. “No one wants to fucking hear you or that other little whore,” he said in a voice mail left on her phone, referring to Ilhan Omar. “I’d like to take that bitch and threw her right off the Empire State Building, that fucking whore. Tell her to shut her fucking mouth.”

To Trump and his base, a “healthy society” is one in which women, particularly black and brown women, know their place. That place is not telling white men, well, much at all. Trump doesn’t revile Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, Tlaib, and Pressley because they advocate so effectively for progressive policies rejected by the right or because they “hate” America. He despises them because they are, by their very existence, challenging the deeply held idea that civic, public, and political power and leadership are, in the United States, inherently white and inherently male. Neglecting to acknowledge that this week’s attack on these women is simultaneously racist and sexist contributes to the risks that these women and others face as women in politics. And if we ignore the particular grievances that their success exposes, we do so at our own peril.

Earlier this week the women held a press conference about the comments, using plain language to explain Trump’s “xenophobic, bigoted remarks” and to urge people to “not take the bait” and allow the president to distract the nation from critical issues.

In a tweet last night Omar again responded to the invective—this time with lines from the poet Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise.”

“You may kill me with your hatefulness,” Omar wrote. “But still, like air, I’ll rise.”

Soraya Chemaly is a journalist and the author of Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger. Follow her @schemaly.

Originally Appeared on Glamour