The deeper meaning and history behind Trump's racist lie that The Squad 'hates America'
“How did we get here?" is the essential question right now in American politics. How did we go from a society that elected Barack Obama twice to one that, popular vote loss aside, elected Donald Trump? Why have white anxiety, fear, and anger aimed at non-whites and about demographic change become far more strongly correlated with support for the Republican Party in recent decades, and in particular between 2008 and 2016? And since that time, how have we become, according to a new poll from CBS News/YouGov, a country where a strong majority of Republicans believe that Democrats try to “put the interests of racial minorities over whites,” while an even stronger majority of Democrats believe Trump and his party aim to do the opposite, to put white interests above those of non-whites?
The simplest answer is: President Trump. He not only has heightened racial division, but also connected it to partisanship by making it central to his politics. Trump labeled Mexican immigrants “murderers,” “rapists,” and “drug dealers”; also said there were “very fine people” among a bunch of neo-Nazis; and most recently told four congresswomen of color (aka The Squad) that they should “go back” to the countries they came from (all but one were born here) because, he claims, they “hate our country,” and, even worse, are not even “capable of loving our Country.”
Trump’s baldly racist sentiments and policies have clearly played a major role in convincing Democrats that his party favors whites. As for the belief expressed by Republicans in the CBS poll, Trump has also has an impact, as he has repeatedly accused Democrats of favoring Americans of color.
Let’s look at just a few examples. During the 2016 campaign, Trump often pitted racial groups against each other in a zero-sum game. He repeated on multiple occasions the falsehood that “illegal immigrants are treated better in America than many of our vets,” and likewise charged that Obama and Hillary Clinton showed more concern for the former than the latter. Trump also falsely stated that “illegal immigrant households receive far more in welfare benefits,” and declared that “immigrants are taking our manufacturing jobs. They’re taking our money. They’re killing us.” Such statements—which are clearly meant to evoke images of non-white immigrants—appear to have had an electoral impact, as the data shows that, in both the 2016 Republican primary and general election, “racialized perceptions of economic deservingness were ... strongly related to support for Donald Trump.”
However, Trump is far from the first Republican to adopt this tactic. Others—namely the right-wing media—have been spewing this kind of bile for many years. Leading the way has been the person who has maintained the largest audience of any radio host for going on three decades: Rush Limbaugh.
In researching my new book, I examined eight years of Limbaugh show transcripts and documented how Limbaugh painted Obama and his party as favoring minorities over whites, echoing the beliefs exhibited in the CBS poll. More broadly, while Obama was president Limbaugh constantly, almost daily, talked about him using a technique that scholars call “racial priming”—in other words, he race-baited.
Limbaugh aimed to convince his audience that Obama was some kind of anti-white, anti-American, radical, Marxist black nationalist, and possibly a secret Muslim to boot. This was neither a bug nor a supporting element of his presentation, but instead stood as a central feature deployed strategically in order to accomplish a very specific task. Limbaugh’s efforts helped lay the groundwork for the election in 2016 of a man who essentially adopted his view of the Obama presidency.
The reach of Limbaugh’s message, both during the Obama presidency and for the three decades prior, has made him the single most potent media voice worsening the tribalization of our politics. He has done this by strengthening the connection between white racial resentment and support for Republican candidates and causes. He was alt-right before the term even existed.
Racial fear stands at the core of Limbaugh’s telling of the story of the Obama administration—and white conservatives have been listening. According to Brown University political scientist Michael Tesler, “even after controlling for economic conservatism, moral traditionalism, religious beliefs and activity, and military support, racial attitudes became significantly stronger predictors of white partisanship in the Age of Obama ... the effect of racial attitudes on party identification increased relative to nonracial predispositions.” In sum, Tesler found that the data “suggest that Democrats and Republicans had increasingly separate realities about race in the Age of Obama—a logical upshot of the spillover of racialization into mass politics.”
Presaging Trump’s slandering of The Squad, Limbaugh over and over again falsely charged Obama with hating America—and the whites whom Limbaugh feels truly represent our country. What was the basis of this charge? Obama had the temerity to cite real problems we face and propose practical solutions.
In summary, Limbaugh branded President Obama as anti-American, by claiming that he hated America largely because of its racism; “not American,” by questioning his American birthplace (something Trump did even more vociferiously); and anti-white, by accusing him of wanting to redistribute resources from whites to minorities, most specifically to African Americans, in order to right historical wrongs. According to Limbaugh, Obama was essentially Santa Claus for (only) black people because he gave them welfare and free Obamaphones. Finally, the host scared whites by stoking fears that they would face race-based retributive violence since a black man was president.
It is worth noting that Trump has also criticized America—he referred to “American carnage” in our streets, rejected American exceptionalism (something Limbaugh falsely claimed Obama did many times), called America a “laughingstock,” and defended Putin’s murders by saying: “What, you think our country is so innocent?”
Yet Limbaugh never denounced Trump as an America-hater. The host did, however, say that Obama was “our first anti-American president,” that he “hates America,” “doesn’t like much of what’s American,” sees “this country as a great Satan,” and believes “by virtue of its character, America was evil.” And that’s just from one particularly bile-filled 11-week stretch in 2010.
In order to further establish Obama’s supposed anti-Americanism, Limbaugh said that the president rejected the original principles of our country, as well as the Constitution itself, and the [white] men who crafted it. “Obama talks about ‘remaking’ America [which] means destroying these traditions, institutions that have defined America and its greatness since the founding,” the host stated on July 3, 2009. He added on December 15, 2009, that the president was not proud of our country: “America as talked about by Barack Obama—is an America of guilt ... guilty of racism, sexism, bigotry, homophobia, discrimination, imperialism, colonialism.” Two years to the day later, Limbaugh asserted that Obama believed America was “criminal.” The host also said on December 30, 2011, that the president considered America to be “exceptionally evil.” For good measure, he included
Michelle Obama as well, citing her “bilious disgust with America” on October 31, 2011.
Perhaps most explosively, Limbaugh asked in March 2011 if the military had a “contingency plan for—I don’t want to say an anti-American president, ‘cause that’s gonna cloud my real intent here.” After being criticized for appearing to call for a military coup, the host fell back on his usual shtick, that this “was a media tweak ... That’s what’s called stirring the excrement.”
Even when discussing proposals that did not obviously relate to race, Limbaugh repeatedly characterized Obama and Democrats as favoring Americans of color over whites. For example, on February 22, 2009, just before Obamacare passed, he characterized it as “a civil rights bill. This is reparations.” On July 20, 2010, Limbaugh warned that, under Obamacare, “minorities” in “the federal bureaucracy” serving a black president could decide whether “the rest of us” live or die. Expanding his policy horizons, on July 22, 2009, the host declared: “Obama’s entire economic program is reparations!”
The language Limbaugh used when the topic was Black Lives Matter or immigration was just as racist. On the latter, more than a week of attacks on Obama over the violent death of Kathryn Steinle culminated in a diatribe on July 15, 2015, in which Limbaugh juxtaposed Obama not reaching out to her family while instead having written to four dozen felons he had set free by commuting their sentences, and connecting with Michael Brown’s family in Ferguson, Missouri. Limbaugh’s point was to remind his listeners that Obama cared more about prisoners (read: black and Latino people) and black people killed by cops than a white woman who was murdered by someone here illegally.
As America moved into the party conventions in the summer of 2016, Limbaugh declared on July 12 that Hillary and Bill Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Barack Obama all believed “there’s nothing redeemable about that America. It has to be ‘transformed,’ I think is the word Obama uses.” Later in that same broadcast, he stated that, “Obama stands with people he thinks have been given the shaft ever since this country was founded. I think his objective is to even the playing field, as he defines it. And the way he does it is to transfer discrimination from one group to the next, rather than end it. His prescription is payback.” This is how you convince Republicans that the Democratic Party has it in for whites.
On July 28, after Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention—a speech that soared with positive language about our country, including the words “America is already great”—Limbaugh dismissed those words as insincere: “That’s not Barack Obama. That’s not what he believes. That’s not who he is ... Obama is the guy who thinks America’s founding was unjust and immoral. He doesn’t relish it. He doesn’t cherish it.”
Hearing this for eight years certainly helped convince Republicans that Democrats prioritize the interests of minorities over whites and, by extension, that only Republicans would protect white interests. By further defining America as essentially equivalent to white America, Limbaugh made clear that anyone who “hates America” hates whites.
This context is vital to understanding why Trump lied about The Squad supposedly hating America. In this, as in his broader rhetoric on immigration and, in fact, in the way he defines Americanness, Trump is following the trail blazed by right-wing media figures, and none more so than Rush Limbaugh.
Since the day he descended on that escalator at Trump Tower, the racist-in-chief has been speaking the language of racially resentful and alienated whites, language Limbaugh broadcasted to millions of Americans five days a week after Barack Obama became president in 2009. Trump presented himself as the champion of those white people in the struggle against their enemies, people like President Obama and other liberals, as well as those whom liberals championed—particularly Americans of color and immigrants.
Trump’s road to the White House was significantly smoother than it would otherwise have been because Limbaugh had already paved the way for him. Going forward, the clash between the Obama and Limbaugh/Trump definitions of Americanness—exemplified by President Individual 1’s most recent attacks on Ilhan Omar and the rest of The Squad—will remain central to our public discourse for the foreseeable future.
Ian Reifowitz is the author of The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh's Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (Foreword by Markos Moulitsas). Some of the material in this post is excerpted (in some cases with slight alterations) from the book, with full permission.