You don’t get frothing crowds chanting “send her back” without Fox News

Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

The video is difficult to watch, but it’s impossible to fully capture in words. As President Donald Trump lashed out at Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) at a rally in North Carolina on Wednesday night, the crowd took up a new chant. Beginning with a handful of attendees, it crescendoed as the president paused and gave space, until the nativist call echoed through the arena: “Send her back!”

Commentators will debate the factors that created the bitter brew that led here, to public cries at a presidential rally for the banishment of a U.S. citizen who came to this country as a child refugee from Somalia. They will attribute blame to a craven and complicit Republican Party, to a feckless Democratic one, to the rise of fractured, paranoid social media. To those I’ll add: You don’t get frothing crowds chanting “send her back” without Fox News. 

This is clear on the micro level. 

You can draw a straight line from Fox host Tucker Carlson’s xenophobic attacks on Omar last week to Trump’s racist Sunday tweets -- likely spurred by a Fox & Friends segment that morning -- that Omar and three other Democratic congresswomen (all women of color born in the United States) 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.” 

That kicked off a cycle of escalation. Trump constantly seeks approval from Fox’s stable of commentators. With few exceptions, they gave Trump’s attacks the green light, praising the comments both as political strategy and on their merits while defending him from charges of racism. The president absorbed this feedback and repeatedly escalated his attacks, culminating with last night’s rally.

Fox’s response to the jeering crowd has largely been a mix of praising the president’s performance, downplaying the chilling implications of the chant, and offering the mildest possible criticism that perhaps the incident provides Trump’s political opponents with an opening. If the president was watching, he saw little that might give him pause from continuing down this horrifying path.

But the story began long before Carlson’s attacks on Omar last week. The chants of “send her back” are the latest sign of the rise and empowerment of the international nativist right.

“The right-wing populist wave that looked like a fleeting cultural phenomenon a few years ago has turned into the defining political movement of the times, disrupting the world order of the last half-century,” The New York Times reported in an April feature on Rupert Murdoch. “The Murdoch empire did not cause this wave. But more than any single media company, it enabled it, promoted it and profited from it.”

In the United States, that tectonic political shift was fueled by Murdoch’s Fox. The right-wing propaganda network featured bigotry as a core part of its business model from the beginning. But the election of Barack Obama, the nation’s first Black president, sent Fox into a spiral of bigotry, conspiracy theories, and constant fearmongering about the dangers to the public wrought by Muslims and immigrants. 

That shift helped turn Trump into a plausible Republican political contender. On the one hand, Fox directly promoted Trump’s racist birtherism and gave him a regular platform to speak to its audience about the issues of the day. On the other, the network’s feverish coverage had primed the Republican base to eagerly support the bigoted, hyperaggressive, anti-immigrant would-be strongman when he sought the presidency. 

Fox always takes on the character of the GOP of the day. Since Trump’s election, that has meant feeding its audience a toxic slurry of white nationalist talking points. Trump and the network fuel each other's bigotry, while his base come to accept it, then expect it, then demand it. Day after day, night after night, Fox and the president tell viewers that immigrants are dangerous ingrates whose increased presence in this country poses a danger to both their political power and their very lives.

It’s a short step from there to demanding their removal, citizens or not.