What Trump’s “Go Back” Insult Really MeansPhoto courtesy of Getty Politics Features Donald Trump
This article is, of course, about Donald Trump’s horrific tweet of the other day. If you haven’t seen his most recent burst of white supremacy, I’ll save you a Google. Here’s Reuters on it:
Support for U.S. President Donald Trump increased slightly among Republicans after he lashed out on Twitter over the weekend in a racially charged attack on four minority Democratic congresswomen, a Reuters/Ipsos public opinion poll shows. The national survey, conducted on Monday and Tuesday after Trump told the lawmakers they should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” showed his net approval among members of his Republican Party rose by 5 percentage points to 72%, compared with a similar poll that ran last week.
Now, if you’re anything like most of my readers, you’re used to hearing that Trump is racist, and that what he’s said is an outrage, and both of these are of course true. Calling Trump a racist is like saying the stars shine. It’s a fact of nature. However, there’s a part we don’t usually talk about. And that’s why the “Go Back” slur is so uniquely disgusting.
I’m going to posit that most of us don’t really think of the phrase “Go Back” much, beyond holding it in contempt. It’s something that hateful people say, and there’s not much more to it than that. We could exchange it with any other slur.
But Go Back, if you were going to choose hurtful words, are pretty singular in the grand scope of things. It’s one thing to call someone ugly, or to insult their family, or say that they suck in all the various ways we can call out suckness. Insulting someone is like grading someone: you have this fault, and the implied message (if you want to delve into such things) is that you ought to mend you, God ought to have made you better, isn’t it a pity you have to be that. Most insults are saying “You are here and you suck.” Go Back tells people “You were never supposed to be here in the first place.” It’s a bit like telling someone they should never have been born.
To tell someone to Go Back, you have to be standing in a center place. It’s saying, “Not only do I have a right to be here, I have a right to tell you not to be here.”
Most of us have in mind a certain kind of person who says “Go back.” This individual is typically a yokel, and in our mind’s eye, quite possibly does not know where, geographically, he is standing when he tells someone else to go back. We tend to think of the Go Back speaker as making a factual error.
In other words, the speaker has looked at another person, made a prejudiced and mistaken assumption, and then told them to go back home. This is what we assume about the typical Go Back-type individual. That he’s an ignoramus, first and foremost.
But I suggest that Go Back is mostly used by people who know better. In fact, I’d bet that the slim majority of people who use the term “Go Back” understand, at some level, that the people they are talking to are Americans. Why else would Kellyanne Conway ask journalist Andrew Feinberg “what’s your ethnicity?” Conway didn’t mean to ask that of a professional white person, but it kind of just slipped out there:
Kellyanne Conway just asked reporter @AndrewFeinberg “what’s your ethnicity” after he asked about Trump’s attack on Democratic congresswomen to “go back” to where they came from pic.twitter.com/dEdzxtycUN
— Bloomberg TicToc (@tictoc) July 16, 2019
To tell someone to Go Back (and for anyone else to take it seriously), you have to have that noxious thing: privilege. We spend a lot of time talking about privilege, but we’re not always great about nailing down what it means.
What exactly is, privilege? When you get right down to it, I mean. What is privilege in racism, in sexism, and in economics? There are lots of well-formulated examples. I posit it’s simply this: time.
Human lives are made of many parts. But more than money or power, what privilege gives you is time. What privilege amounts to is endless forgiveness for some people, time-sensitivity for others. It means the application of weird, arbitrary, unnecessary standards to the less-privileged, and less time to meet those standards.
I’ve even written an equation for it:
Privilege = mediocrity + time
Go Back is not about legal status. It is mostly about time. Implicit in the phrase “Go Back” is that there was a right time for you to be here, and that time is up.
Privilege means that there is never a clock ticking for you. It means that you are never told to Go Back. Privilege means you never have to prove you are supposed to be here. Privilege means nobody assumes you’re here on sufferance. Privilege means never having to prove yourself. It means never having to show your documents. Privilege means your ideas automatically get a hearing. Or, worse still, your ideas aren’t even debated: they’re assumed to be true. Privilege means a longer shot clock, on every one of these counts.
“Go Back” presupposes you have not earned your place here. “Go Back” suggests your term is done. “Go Back” suggests there are standards to meet, and you must meet them, and you must meet them on the speaker’s time frame.
But even this is a lie. For the Go Back speaker, nothing is ever good enough. Where the Trumps of the world are concerned, unless you’re white, it doesn’t matter how long you have lived in this country. They will never give you time. To the Trumps of this nation, if you are a person of color, there is never any amount of effort or status that qualifies you Not to Go Back.
“Go Back” is the essence of privilege. It’s privilege in its most crystallized form. That’s why, even among Trump’s nauseating history of lies and insults, it sticks out.
I am a white male opposed to Trump. If I criticize the President, I will be called names, but I will never be told to Go Back. And that’s the difference. I get time, and Ilhan Omar doesn’t.
The time constraint doesn’t just apply to people. It applies to ideas, as well. Privileged ideas get plenty of time. The free market will fix everything, just give it more time. Our invasions of other countries will work, just give them more time. Our technology will rescue us from climate change, just give it more time. The demographics will save our politics, just give it more time. Incremental change will do the job. Students will earn their way out of debt. The system will work. Just. Give. Them. More. Time.
Whether it’s Go Back, or the philosophical clash of ideas, the result is always the same: Time is given to some, and not to others. Our medical system gives more time to rich people to live, literally, and not to the poor. And we give time, abundantly, to discredited and bankrupt ideologies, but have no time for ideologies that might have a shot.
What is progressivism? Simply this: the awareness of what deserves time. The clock has run out on Go Back. The clock has run out on austerity. The clock has run out on the failed dogmas of the past.
Now is the time for Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, Pressley and Tlaib. Now is the time for progressive values, for progressive options. The fundamental things apply, as time goes by.