WASHINGTON - The weather in Washington has been hot, sticky and relentless this week. So has the politics.
In a period of a few days, the president of the United States told four members of Congress they could leave the country if they were unhappy and go back to the countries they came from, sparking passage of a House resolution that condemned some of his verbal and Twitter attacks as racist.
In the same week, Democrats again broached the subject of impeachment, only to see the effort fail when many Democrats joined Republicans in voting to table, or put off, the issue.
In sum, it has been a trying week for American democracy that has plunged the country into an angry debate over race, immigration and political ideology.
'Send her back!'
During a re-election rally in Greenville, North Carolina, on Wednesday, President Donald Trump left little doubt that his attacks on the freshmen Democratic congresswomen will be a staple of his campaign strategy for 2020.
“These left-wing ideologues see our nation as a force of evil. The way they speak so badly of our country. They want to demolish our Constitution, weaken our military and eliminate the values that built this magnificent country.”
When Trump specifically went after Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, who emigrated years ago from Somalia, some in the crowd chanted, “Send her back!”
That moment seemed to trouble some Republicans on Thursday, and even Trump told reporters he “felt a little bit badly about it” and was “not happy” with the crowd chant.
Trump said he spoke quickly once the chant began, but video of the speech shows he paused for about 13 seconds as the chant grew from the crowd.
Omar told reporters Thursday she believes Trump is “fascist,” then added, “This is what this president and his supporters have turned the country into.”
The group of female lawmakers also includes House members Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts.
The president has been tweeting and criticizing them for days, and has urged them to leave the country if they are unhappy, even though all are U.S. citizens — three born in the United States.
Trump’s combative appearance at the North Carolina rally came on the same day the House voted to set aside an effort by some Democrats to initiate impeachment proceedings against him.
Earlier in the week, the House took the unusual step of condemning some of Trump’s attacks on the four lawmakers as racist.
All House Democrats supported the resolution, including civil rights icon John Lewis of Georgia.
“I know racism when I see it. I know racism when I feel it. And at the highest level of government, there is no room for racism,” Lewis said.
Race and politics
Trump’s victory in 2016 was spurred by strong support from white working-class voters.
But many Democrats believe the president is now making a dangerous bid for support based on racial resentment.
“These words are not just words. They are like gasoline, like a spark to the gasoline of disturbed minds,” said New Jersey Democratic Congressman Tom Malinowski.
Trump has denied he is a racist but has slammed the congresswomen as socialists, a line of attack that other Republicans have seized on, including Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy.
“This not China. This is not North Korea. This is America. And if you hate our country, you are free to leave anytime you want to,” Kennedy told reporters at the Capitol.
Many political strategists believe that Trump wants to elevate the congresswomen as the face of the Democratic Party, something White House counselor Kellyanne Conway hinted at in a testy exchange with reporters earlier in the week.
“He is tired. A lot of us are sick and tired in this country of America coming last to people who swore an oath of office.”
Many Trump critics, and even a few Republicans, see a more ominous turn in the latest attacks.
Democratic Congressman Dean Phillips is worried that the president’s raw focus on racial and ideological strains is tearing at the fabric of the country.
“And if racism ever becomes a partisan issue in this country, we have done a woeful disservice to our founders. We have done a woeful disservice to our Constitution, and a woeful disservice to every single person that calls America home.”
The president’s narrow victory in 2016 and his relatively low approval rating, currently around 43%, leaves him vulnerable for re-election, and makes his strategy a risky one, according to University of Virginia analyst Kyle Kondik.
“The approval rating is the troubling thing for the president because if his approval rating is under 45%, then he is going to need a significant share of people who don’t approve of him to vote for him. And that is when it becomes really difficult.”
This week’s rhetorical fireworks likely serve as a preview for what could be an ugly presidential campaign next year, the latest snapshot of a country deeply enmeshed in polarized and volatile political warfare.