DETROIT, MI — Michigan congresswoman Rashida Tlaib said President Donald Trump is inciting white supremacist violence by claiming she hates America.
In a series of unfounded attacks this year, Trump described Tlaib, D-Detroit, as “violent” and “vicious,” accused her of hating the United States, “all Jews” and Israel, and urged her to leave the country. Tlaib, the first Palestinian-American woman in Congress, said Trump’s racist “hate agenda” is motivating his supporters to take action, drawing a direct line between the president’s tweets and recent acts of violence against minorities.
“The President of the United States’ words and actions have consequences,” Tlaib said in a statement to MLive. “He is clearly inspiring white supremacy and violence.”
Trump frequently frames political rivals as dangerous enemies of America without evidence, causing some to worry supporters will deduce the president’s smears justify abuse of his opponents. Tlaib, a Muslim born in Detroit, has faced threats since taking office that single out her religious beliefs.
Tlaib was launched into the national spotlight — and Trump’s Twitter mentions — by pledging to “impeach the Mother****er” shortly after taking office, kicking off a rivalry that intensified this summer. Constituents in Tlaib’s district are upset the president is accusing their congresswoman of being un-American.
Tlaib represents Michigan’s 13 congressional district, which includes portions of Detroit and its western suburbs in Wayne County, including Ecorse, Garden City, Inkster and Romulus.
American-born Muslim Kara Abdurrahim is unnerved and profusely angry about Trump’s escalating attacks.
“You got people who think that it’s OK, not just racial profiling, but it’s OK to walk up to somebody of a different race and start saying their hate rhetoric, you know, spewing that,” Abdurrahim said while walking to work in Detroit. “He’s stoking racial and religious tension.”
Tlaib is expected to take part in a town hall Thursday evening with Democrats in Michigan’s congressional delegation, state officials, minority rights organizations and non-profits to address a “rise of divisive rhetoric, attacks and hatred.” The event is set to being 7 p.m. on the campus of the University of Michigan-Dearborn.
After Trump’s most recent attacks, Joel Panozzo put up “Defend Rashida” posters outside his Detroit home and Ann Arbor business.
“As I’ve seen more things come out in the media, it’s clear that she is potentially somebody who could be subjected to violence or at least horrible things said and done to her on social media, or in the news or what have you,” Panozzo said.
Trump re-defines sounding presidential
Trump’s latest attacks on Tlaib claimed she hates America and Jews. The Michigan Republican Party, which declined to comment on this story, also accused Tlaib of saying the slaughter of Jews in the Holocaust gave her “a calming feeling.”
Tlaib said her words, taken from a Yahoo News podcast, were “blatantly misconstrued.” Tlaib, whose grandmother lives on the West Bank, said she had a “calming feeling” knowing that her ancestors had lost their land and their livelihoods in the creation of “a safe haven for Jews” after World War II.
Trump is a “demagogue of the spectacle,” said Jennifer Mercieca, an associate professor of communication at Texas A&M University. Mercieca writes extensively on Trump’s rhetoric, its place in the history of American politics and impact on democracy.
Though Trump’s statements about Tlaib lack evidence, Mercieca said that has little bearing on whether his supporters believe it.
Tlaib was a relatively unknown congresswoman before she began fighting with Trump. Mercieca said her low-profile made it easy for Trump to control her image on the national stage.
“For people who aren’t politically engaged, even in (Tlaib’s) district, it can have a big impact,” Mercieca said of Trump’s comments. “That kind of framing can really change depending on how confident people are in their understanding. Trump does everything he can do to undermine his opposition.”
Divisive rhetoric on race has been central to Trump’s political brand since announcing his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 2015. Trump started his campaign by saying Mexican immigrants bring drugs and crime. He said some are rapists and “some, I assume, are good people.”
It was a theme Trump continued throughout his campaign and into his presidency. While in the White House, he abandoned the carefully-crafted messages of past presidents to directly address Americans on Twitter, often lambasting his opponents in a storm of unfettered tweets at odd hours.
The president rose to power by appealing to the public’s frustrations and distrust of politicians, Mercieca said, often attacking a person’s character, appearance or personality instead of their political position. In office, Trump uses “war rhetoric” to whip up his supporters against enemies he says are out to destroy America, she said.
“Trump wants his followers to be ready for battle,” Mercieca said.
The president’s harsh language is often couched with vague statements that make it hard to pin down his intent, Mercieca said. Trump is a master at saying two things at once, she said, conveying his message while retaining plausible deniability.
Trump faced criticism for condemning violence “on both sides” of clashes between white nationalists and counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Va. Trump later clarified there were “very fine people” protesting the removal of a Confederate monument.
In May, Trump asked how immigrants could be stopped from crossing the border without proper documentation. Someone in the crowd answered “shoot them.” Trump smiled and responded, “That’s only in the Panhandle you can get away with that stuff.”
Last month, the president suggested Tlaib and three other minority congresswomen should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how it is done.” Tlaib was born in Detroit.
Those remarks prompted supporters at a July rally in North Carolina to chant, “send her back.” Trump did nothing to stop the chant but disavowed it when questioned by reporters the next day. He later said those chanting were “incredible patriots.”
Republican supporters see the president’s aggressive tone as straight talk from the lone politician unafraid to speak honestly.
Garden City resident Al Buckner, 65, said the president’s directness and honesty is one of the top reasons he supports him.
Buckner lives in the only part of Tlaib’s district Trump won in 2016 and proudly displays a “Make America Great Again” flag in his front window. He said Trump is right about Tlaib being out to destroy the country, but couldn’t give any examples of how Tlaib hates America.
“She’s poison, she’s bad,” Buckner said of Tlaib. “She is a bad apple.”
Israel incident reignites rivalry
Shortly after being sworn in, Tlaib pledged to “impeach the motherf***er.” Trump described her comments as “disgraceful,” and Tlaib came under swift criticism from Republicans and some Democrats for lacking civility.
Republican political consultant and Marketing Resource Group President Tom Shields said Tlaib “fired the first shot” in the war of words with Trump.
“She set the tone on this,” Shields said. “Because of that, (Trump) can probably get away with most anything when he talks about her.”
Shortly after taking office, Tlaib and U.S. Rep. Illhan Omar, D-Minn., faced bipartisan scrutiny for their vocal support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which strives to put economic pressure on Israel but is often condemned as inherently anti-Semitic.
Tlaib and Omar are among a group of young, progressive congresswomen of color — including U.S. Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass. Trump is trying to frame the group as the new faces of the Democratic Party.
The fight reached a new level when Trump supported Israel’s decision to block Tlaib and Omar from entering the country on a planned visit. Israel eventually allowed Tlaib to visit her 90-year-old grandmother, but she declined because the Israeli government required her to stay quiet about her criticism of the country.
Trump is painting Democrats as anti-Semitic while appealing to Jewish voters, despite decades of their strong allegiance to the Democratic Party. In presidential elections dating back to 1968, 71% of Jewish voters chose Democratic candidates, according to the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise.
Members of Detroit’s Jewish community invited Tlaib to observe a Shabbat service organized by Jewish Voice for Peace, a nonpartisan organization seeking to end the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem. Tlaib participated in the religious service and thanked them for the hospitality.
Beth Miller, government affairs manager for the group’s political advocacy arm, said Trump’s attacks use “Jews as a shield” for his own “racist actions.” Pro-Israel groups also criticized the initial decision to ban Tlaib and Omar form entering Israel.
“Congresswoman Tlaib has only ever been speaking about Palestinian human rights,” Miller said. “What we’ve seen from the president is a conflation between Israel and Jewish people, when in fact those things are quite separate. Critiquing the Israeli government for its policies is not the same as anti-Semitism.”
At a news conference, Tlaib broke down in tears when discussing why she turned down the last-minute offer to visit. The president later said the display was insincere.Trump referenced Tlaib by name on Twitter eight times this year, but his most popular tweet said Tlaib’s grandmother is fortunate to not have to see her.
Words become action
The president’s public statements are soaked in emotion, said Matt Grossmann, director of Michigan State University’s Institute for Public Policy and Social Research. Grossman said Trump seems to employ outrage, fear, aggression and sometimes rhetorical threats to rile up his supporters against specific members of Congress.
Grossman cited research from Tufts University showing exposure to Trump’s statements made people more more likely to write offensive things, not only about the groups targeted by Trump, but other identity groups as well. Researchers concluded people who hear prejudiced remarks adjust their expectations about what is acceptable in public.
“Even just hearing that discourse can change people’s lines about what’s acceptable,” Grossman said. “There is evidence that it has a direct affect on people’s willingness to say things that were previously considered socially unacceptable, in particular about gender and race.”
Tlaib already faced threats for being a Muslim woman. She became choked up while reading violent threats made against her and other freshman House members during a House Oversight Committee hearing in June.
One letter celebrated violence against Muslims, including the New Zealand mosque shooting that killed 50 people.
The same month, a Florida car mechanic pleaded guilty to threatening Tlaib and other Democratic politicians through racist phone messages left at their offices. The man began his expletive-laced message to Tlaib with, “Hey Taliban,” according to court documents.
He later said “you’re lucky they’re just threats. Cuz the day when the bell tolls …. and this country comes to a war, there will be no more threats. Your life will be on the f****** line.”
“We get so many of (these threats), and I keep asking, ‘What happens?’ ‘What happens to these individuals?’” Tlaib said at the June House hearing. “I’m really sincere. I’m a mother. I want to go home to my two boys.”
Academics like Mercieca are trying to get to the bottom of what Trump’s rhetoric could lead to. At the very least, Mercieca said Trump undermines democracy by casting legitimate political opposition as unpatriotic.
“You can’t predict precisely who will be affected by this kind of rhetoric, but you can say statistically there’s a probability somebody will hear that and it will resonate with them in such a way they will decide to act,” Mercieca said.
Last year, a Florida man sent 16 bombs to Democratic politicians and media outlets, though none of the bombs exploded or injured anyone. His lawyers said the man was inspired by Trump’s attacks on political opponents, according to the Associated Press, in part due to the man’s own cognitive limitations and mental illness.
On Aug. 3, a man walked into a Walmart in El Paso, Texas and began shooting. Minutes before he would go on to kill 21 people, the man allegedly uploaded a manifesto online explaining his attack was a response to an immigrant “invasion” of Texas.
He echoed terminology used by Trump, who also warned of an immigrant “invasion,” though the shooter took care to explain his political views were shaped before the 2016 election.
Trump condemned racism and white supremacy in the wake of the shooting and denounced the shooter’s manifesto as being “consumed by racist hate.”
Polling from the Pew Research Center shows the public has a negative view of racial progress, with 56% saying Trump is worsening race relations. Most Americans (65%) believe it’s more common for people to express racist or racially insensitive views since Trump’s election.
Minority Americans were more likely to believe Trump is harming race relations, though only 20% of Republicans agreed.
Mercieca said it’s difficult to determine whether Trump is directly responsible for these incidents. However, she said Trump is an “outrage machine” keeping his audience ready to fight back against his political enemies.
“He’s willing to say anything, and that’s why people are afraid of him,” Mercieca said.
Implications for 2020
State Democratic Party Chairwoman Lavora Barnes said Republicans will have to distance themselves from Trump to appeal to the statewide electorate. Barnes said Trump’s “racism” and divisiveness make his reelection untenable, but the party won’t solely focus on the president’s character.
As Michigan Republicans prepare for a competitive U.S. Senate race and seek to strengthen its majority in the state Legislature, it’s yet to be seen whether Trump’s inclusion on the ticket will harm GOP candidates. Republican women “bolted” from the party during Michigan’s 2018 elections, Shields said, partly due to Trump’s rhetoric.
Shields said while support remains strong for the president on the right, his language “infuriates” the left and could turn off independents. He advises candidates not to attach themselves to any other candidate they can’t control, and that includes Trump.
“Most pundits thought (Trump) said the things he needed to say to win in 2016 but would become more presidential and less bombastic, but he hasn’t changed at all,” Shields said. “He’s on the offensive all the time and (Republicans) just sort of accept that’s just the way he is. Even those who don’t like it but like his policies are staying in support of him because of that.”
Tlaib said she has no plans to change either. She said the attacks from Trump strengthen her resolve to oppose the president.
“My residents elected me to take on the biggest bully in the country right now and don’t expect me to serve them from a place of fear,” Tlaib said. “It is obvious that the President is afraid of me and many of my other colleagues because we speak the truth and won’t back down no matter how much he tries to silence us.”
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