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After a week of public sparring with four minority congresswomen, set off by a series of tweets, President Donald Trump took his attacks to the campaign trail on Wednesday night.
The crowd loved it, even echoing words from his tweet. “Send her back,” the crowd chanted after Trump criticized Rep. Ilhan Omar during his speech.
Trump did not rebuke his supporters during the rally, but the next day he said he was ‘not happy’ with the chant.
In conversations with people across the nation, the PBS NewsHour found a complicated picture of how the president’s words have affected voters.
We reached out to voters across the political spectrum and asked them to share their initial reactions to the president’s tweets. What do they think this moment says about politics and racism in the United States. Here’s what they said:
Trump’s tweets didn’t surprise Emmett Merchant, a Democrat who said Congress should “do their job and impeach this dude.”
Merchant, 49, and his wife, Duane, are both engineers with advanced degrees who live outside Houston, Texas. They’ve raised nine children, seven of whom have already graduated from college. But a successful life has not inoculated Merchant, an African American, from fear if a police officer were to pull up behind him and turn on his emergency strobe lights. “I’m scared for my life,” Merchant said.
“We’re still dealing with this white superiority complex in America, and the bad thing about it is a lot of them don’t even realize they are racist,” Merchant said.
For centuries, Merchant said, the United States benefited from free slave labor, helping it become one of the richest countries in the world. He is angry that Trump would suggest U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., a U.S. citizen who has fought for slave reparations in Congress, should go anywhere.
“This is my country,” Merchant said. “We built this.”
While no one has told Lucy Arias to “go back to where you came from,” said she gets a lot of questions about her family’s origins and why she doesn’t have an accent. Arias, 46, of Saint Paul, Minnesota, was raised in California by her Latino father and White Earth Ojibwe mother.
Given her American Indian heritage, the current national discourse is particularly poignant, said Arias, an early childhood public school teacher and married mother of three children.
Growing up, her father did not teach her Spanish because speaking a language other than English outside the home was frowned upon, Arias said. And her great-grandmother was sent to a boarding school in the U.S. as a young child where she was forced to forget her community’s Ojibwe language and speak English instead.
Racism had shaped the very words her family spoke, part of a broader history of exclusion in the U.S. that Arias says many Americans overlook. That history also made both Trump’s tweets and some responses to them unsurprising for Arias.
“It’s that lack of empathy and understanding that not everybody has had the same American experience,” she said. “I can understand why people feel that way because they don’t know what it means to have somebody say that to you. They forgot that every immigrant group that has come to this country has had that backlash.”
On the other side of the political spectrum, some Trump supporters saw the latest tweets as another example of the president’s authenticity and willingness to say what he thinks.
“Sometimes he says things in a way that’s offensive to some. Some people think he’s too blunt. I don’t,” said Kelly Herrmann, a Trump supporter from Ohio. “There was nothing racist about what he said.”
Herrmann, 54, said she takes the same approach in her job coaching a women’s college volleyball team. “I believe that saying what I mean is part of how I set [the players] up for success,” she said. “That level of authenticity and level of communication is just a sign of maturity.”
Herrmann also dismissed the notion that Trump’s tweets attacking the female lawmakers had anything to do with their gender. “Women want to be treated equally. But then, when someone says something to you in a harsh tone, you cry and play the female card. Just stop.”
Herrmann said that she thinks the lawmakers Trump targeted are “ignorant and unappreciative” of the opportunities the country provides. “If you don’t like it, get out. That’s what he said.”
Edwin Hyatt, a 85-year-old Republican from Alabama, expressed a similar sentiment. He likes that Trump “tells it like he sees it,” even if that is not always politically correct.
When it came to the tweets and Trump’s subsequent comments this week, Hyatt said people are too quick to “cry racism.”
“I don’t see anything racist about it. It really burns me up when everything now seems to be racist when it wasn’t. He didn’t mention race at all,” Hyatt said.
Instead, Hyatt said the congresswomen are the ones spouting anti-American ideas. He pointed to accusations that Rep. Omar has been sympathetic to al-Qaeda. Trump has repeated those false characterizations of Omar’s comments many times, including at his rally Wednesday.
Dale Dollahite, a 64-year-old from California, said she did not take Trump’s tweets as a racial statement.
“President Trump throws out things and people have meltdowns immediately,” she said. “We need to get over ourselves.”
Dollahite is white but lived in a number of countries during her childhood, including India, Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines and Saudi Arabia. She said the four congresswomen need to stop making a big deal out of Trump’s comments and get to work.
“They need to do their job,” she said.
Some Americans viewed Trump’s comments not only as distasteful, but hypocritical.
“His wife is an immigrant. We are a country of immigrants,” said Erik Morales, a 23-year-old Latino Democrat from New Jersey.
Morales pointed to past Republican presidents like Ronald Reagan who supported immigrants. During a 1989 speech, Reagan called immigration “one of the most important sources of America’s greatness.” (Democrats used a full page of remarks by Reagan, a figure idolized by many on the right, in their resolution condemning Trump.)
When it comes to Trump, Morales said he has become used to the president targeting Hispanics. “It doesn’t affect me anymore,” Morales said. “I’m used to it.”
When hardly a day goes by without Trump criticizing someone on Twitter, many Americans have decided to tune him out.
Allison McCauliffe, 42, a Democrat from Connecticut, is one of those who said she has become “immune” to most of Trump’s rhetoric. But when he made his attack against the congresswomen, “I was pretty shocked,” she said. “I was embarrassed that our president would use that type of language about American citizens.”
McCaullife said Trump’s comments are “degrading to the office” of the presidency and Republicans’ failure to rebuke Trump is “disappointing.”
The fact that the U.S. is a country of immigrants is personal for Anthony Mata, a 69-year-old Trump supporter from Florida. He immigrated to the U.S. from Cuba and has since become an American citizen.
But Trump’s comments did not come as a surprise to Mata, nor did they bother him. He said people shouldn’t take the tweets too seriously.
“I think Donald Trump has a sense of humor. He says things like that, and he doesn’t mean to hurt anybody,” he said.
Mata said he hangs out with a lot of white Americans and they sometimes tell each other to “go back” to their country as a joke.
“They tell me to go back to Cuba, and I tell them to go back to England,” Mata said.
When asked why Mata voted for Trump in 2016, he responded with a familiar issue: the economy. Immigrants coming to the U.S. want jobs, Mata said, and Trump has delivered on that front.
The economy has added 5.6 million jobs since Trump took office, continuing the economic recovery that began during President Barack Obama’s first term.
When Brian Hall first heard about the president’s tweets, he said he got “kind of mad.” But after he looked into it, Hall felt Trump’s tweets were taken out of context and said that Trump is “not always great at tweeting.”
“I don’t really think the president is racist,” said Hall, 47, a Korean-American who considers himself politically independent but who voted for Trump during the 2016 presidential election.
Born in Busan, Korea, Hall was adopted at age 3 with his older brother and sister. Their adopted family raised them “in a predominantly white neighborhood north of Flint, Michigan,” he said.
“I grew up fighting every time someone called me a name,” he said. “It got to the point where I said, ‘You know what? It just doesn’t matter.’”
Earlier this week during a work trip in Cleveland, he said a stranger called him a racial slur. Hall thinks Hollywood emboldens racism in the U.S., with stereotypical portrayals of Asians in movies, such as “The Hangover,” he said.
He and his wife have raised their three teenagers in Westerville, Ohio. They never really discussed race in their household, but emphasized the importance of doing no harm.
“We taught our kids to treat others the way they wanted to be treated,” he said.
Daniel Bush contributed reporting.
Laura Santhanam is the Data Producer for the PBS NewsHour. Follow @LauraSanthanam
Gretchen Frazee is a Senior Coordinating Broadcast Producer for the PBS NewsHour.
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