“Send her back! Send her back!” The chant from a largely white crowd at Donald Trump’s campaign rally on Wednesday, was aimed at a black refugee from Somalia who became a US congresswoman. And it caused politicians, media pundits and millions of American citizens to recoil in horror.
Then there was Fox News’s reaction.
Prime time host Sean Hannity praised the president’s “massive rally in Greenville, North Carolina, where he had a very special message for the new radical leaders of this Democratic extreme socialist party”.
Hannity played a clip of Trump lambasting four congresswomen of color, eliciting boos and jeers from his supporters.
An hour later, host Laura Ingraham did address the “Send her back!” chant – but not to blame Trump.
“The media is of course quick, like this pavlovian response, to frame the entire rally around this one section of the crowd’s reaction,” she told viewers. Ingraham condemned what she called “the four congresswomen of the Apocalypse” and said of the rally: “The president was on fire.”
Once again, Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News has been a crucial component of the outrage in Washington this week. Its leading voices have, in the eyes of critics, gone all out to excuse the inexcusable, although some critics of Trump had appeared on the network.
It is also suspected by some that Fox News triggered the president’s racist tweets in the first place. The episode appears to be the latest example of the Trump-Fox symbiotic relationship, one constantly feeding off the other, with items on the channel rapidly finding their way into the president’s Twitter feed, creating news events and then circling back to being discussed on Fox News in turn.
On 9 July, Fox News host Tucker Carlson, known to have a strong influence on Trump, delivered an on-air diatribe about congresswoman Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, who was born in Somalia and is now a US citizen. “After everything America has done for Omar and for her family, she hates this country more than ever,” Carlson said.
He added: “Ilhan Omar is living proof that the way we practice immigration has become dangerous to this country.”
The following night, Carlson angrily denied charges of racism and again hammered Omar, who fled civil war in Somalia with her family in 1991. This may have given Trump talking points as he idled Sunday morning away on Twitter and ignited a firestorm.
Matt Gertz, a senior fellow at Media Matters for America, a watchdog that frequently criticizes Fox News, wrote in a blogpost on Thursday: “You don’t get frothing crowds chanting ‘send her back’ without Fox News. This is clear on the micro level.”
He said: “You can draw a straight line from 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.”
Those tweets had also caused widespread revulsion, but not on Fox. The hosts of Fox & Friends laughed and joked about Trump’s posts. One presenter said: “Someone’s feeling very comedic today.” There was more levity on the afternoon show The Five.
It was not all one-way traffic. Fox News contributor Jessica Tarlov called Trump’s comments “disgusting,” “racist tropes” and “the next round of birtherism”. Network regulars Geraldo Rivera and Ari Fleischer joined the condemnation. Host Steve Hilton, a Briton who was director of strategy for prime minister David Cameron, compared Trump to a bigoted character from a British sitcom by tweeting “you’re the president not Alf Garnett”.
But the star names that Trump follows most closely were silent or egged him on as he continued to play white identity politics. They also promoted a line that Trump has embraced, suggesting the four, dubbed “the Squad”, have become the face of the Democratic party.
On Monday, Carlson presented carefully handpicked clips from the congresswomen’s joint press conference on Capitol Hill while adopting a supercilious, mocking tone. He accused Omar of repeating a “conspiracy theory” that Trump colluded with Russia and ignored their pleas to ignore distracting tweets and focus on policy.
The morning after the Greenville rally, it was business as usual . Host Jesse Waters played down “Send her back!” by comparing it with sport: “Now I don’t know about you guys, but have you guys ever been to a football game? They chant some pretty bad stuff at a football game. Politics is a tough sport.”
Fox News seems to have hardened its pro-Trump stance over the years. Brian Stelter, chief media correspondent at cable news rival CNN, used his nightly newsletter to highlight a tweet by Murdoch from four years ago that said: “When is Donald Trump going to stop embarrassing his friends, let alone the whole country?” It was a response to a Trump spat with war hero John McCain.
Fox News host Bill O’Reilly also took Trump to task over the comment, Stelter noted. “Compare that to how Murdoch’s outlets have covered Trump’s racist comments,” he added. “Fox’s opinion stars have defended Trump’s comments, even at times laughing them off. It’s even possible Tucker Carlson’s commentary on Rep Ilhan Omar led to Trump’s racist outburst.”
Dan Cassino, a political scientist at Fairleigh Dickinson University and author of Fox News and American Politics: How One Channel Shapes American Politics and Society, said: “I think the tweets were driven by the amount of coverage. We know President Trump watches a lot of Fox News and in the past couple of weeks Fox has spent a lot of time talking about the four Congresswomen.”
He said: “Fox has chosen them as the people they’re going to demonize; a few years ago it was Hillary Clinton.”