Everyone knows that the election of Donald Trump has radically changed the parameters of public conversations about hot-button topics like racism, sexism, and immigration. As one sociologist has put it, Trump traffics in “disinformation-assisted hate propaganda,” a strategy meant to incite fear and mobilize his political supporters.
Trump’s propaganda machine was running full tilt in the summer of 2019, in the weeks leading up to a rally Trump would hold in Greenville, North Carolina, the town where I live and work (teaching at Eastern Carolina University). The year before, the administration had abruptly implemented a brutal policy of separating children from their parents if the family had crossed the U.S./Mexican border illegally, no matter if they were seeking asylum. The policy had provoked enough outrage that the administration had ostensibly had suspended the policy shortly afterward. But widespread reporting in the spring of 2019 revealed that separations of migrant children from their families were still routinely occurring at the Mexican border.
It was in the charged context of children in cages that Trump began to tweet in mid-July about four American congresswomen, recently sworn into office: Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI). Trump’s tweets about the women implied that they were born in other countries (when only Omar is a naturalized immigrant) and that they should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came.”
His tweets ignited debates on cable news and online, and also in Greenville, which was preparing to host a Trump rally on July 17. Local critics condemned his rhetoric and his harsh immigration policies, while local supporters pushed back, in effect replying: “America, love it or leave it.”
The July 17 rally filled the city’s largest venue, an 8,000-seat coliseum, and brought visitors from across North Carolina, but also from South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. The rally also marked the emergence of a new Trump rally chant, “Send her back!” At Trump’s first mention of Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, the crowd, as if on cue, started chanting “Send her back!” — an echo of the 2016 rally chant whenever Trump mentioned Hillary Clinton, “Lock her up!”
“Send her back” became the headline out of Trump’s Greenville rally. And — even worse for all of us living in Greenville — these sentiments now became associated with our local institutions, our businesses, our neighbors, and ourselves.
The rally’s racist chant could have happened anywhere, but it reverberated in specific, local ways tied to my city’s region, racial makeup, political composition, and its status as a university town.
The rally had been presaged by the appearance, seemingly overnight, of various vendors selling campaign merchandise throughout my neighborhood and those surrounding the coliseum. In the context of the crisis at the Southern border and Trump’s public critique of “the squad,” I too, felt a sense of unease at the appearance of these tents throughout my neighborhood, not just because they were harbingers of the rally to come, but because of the often-aggressive, exclusionary tone of the merchandise itself. For example, one banner displayed the letters: L-G-B-T. Underneath it “L (liberty) G (guns) B (beer) T ( Trump),” while another banner featured the image of an AK-47 and the words “Come and Take It.”
The arrival of the vendors provokes a lively debate online. On my Nextdoor app, a social networking platform for neighbors to share information about local events and concerns, a user wrote, under the subject line “WHO IS HANGING THOSE HIDEOUS DONALD TRUMP SIGNS”:
This isn’t political. More of a matter of taste and class. Even if you do support trump [sic] this is just tasteless to force your opinion on others that want to ride through and see this monstrosity.
Two of the app’s users replied, with one likening the signs to “seeing KKK.” Nextdoor’s community guidelines discourage political comments, so this July 15 post stood out amongst the calls for lawnmower repairs and suspicions about a door-to-door salesman.
There were thousands of other posts about the coming of the rally (#TrumpRally) that appeared on other social media platforms. A noteworthy example occurred on Facebook, on the page of a Greenville moms’ group. On the day of the Trump rally, a group member shared a photo of a notice posted on the front door of a local business, The Scullery, a breakfast/lunch/coffee spot right near the university. The sign made no mention of Donald Trump, the day’s rally, which was just up the street, or the family separation policy, but stated: “100% of today’s sales will be donated to American Immigration Council in order to help with the immigration crisis at our southern border, and to celebrate our diverse community.” The same sign was also featured in national coverage of the rally.
Debate over the Trump rally also made its way into the pages of the Greenville newspaper The Daily Reflector, specifically in the “Bless Your Heart” (BYH) section of the daily paper. “Bless Your Heart” is both a common Southern phrase that can be used either sincerely or sarcastically, and the title of the newspaper’s daily compilation of opinions, denunciations, taunts, and occasionally praise submitted anonymously by the paper’s readers. A popular feature in the paper, the BYH plays a prominent role in the civic life of Greenville.
In the days leading up to the rally, the frequency of posts about Trump, the rally, and his immigration policies began to multiply in BYH. After the rally, BYH was filled with comments both for and against the racist chant that was now identified with the city of Greenville. “BYH to the Nazis chanting ‘Send her back’,” one reader wrote — whether sincerely or sarcastically was hard to say. Responding to the complaints posted on Nextdoor, one Trump supporter confessed feeling frankly fearful: “Our neighborhood chat site had a post about a neighbor displaying a Trump sign in the yard. I would put one out too but I am afraid the neighbors would beat me up. If you have a Trump sign then I think the neighbors let their dogs use your lawn as a toilet. So I am a secret Trump supporter.”
July 19, two days after the Trump/Pence rally, the interim chancellor of Eastern Carolina University, Dan Gerlach, released a statement to the campus community. The press release affirmed the university’s commitment to the open exchange of ideas as well as the diversity and safety of the community. Many faculty, staff, and students were dissatisfied with the chancellor’s statement. The controversy lingered until the start of the fall semester when debates over the university’s role resumed in public.
On August 20, the university hosted a well-attended town hall for students and faculty to engage in dialogue with university leadership. One professor who attended wrote an editorial lambasting the chancellor for not adequately preparing the community for the trauma of the rally, citing conversations with worried students whose families reportedly “asked them about transferring schools after the recent events, mostly due to safety concerns.” Similar concerns were soon taken up by the faculty senate. On September 10, the Senate passed a resolution “supporting the faculty’s commitment to diversity and inclusion,” and condemning hate speech and all prejudicial acts and language.
The richness and complexity of local debates about politics is often missed in national coverage of cities like mine. Because of the shame many of us felt about our city’s association with the hateful chant of “Send her back!” a number of us loudly voiced our rejection of Trump’s xenophobic ideologies. But where it was possible, we did so within the framework of hospitality that forms the backbone of so many Southern cities — bless their hearts.
Amanda Klein is an associate professor of English and a media studies scholar at East Carolina University.