Trump rally crowd chants 'send her back' after president attacks Ilhan Omar

Tom McCarthy in New York

Goaded on by the president, a crowd at a Donald Trump rally on Wednesday night chanted “send her back! send her back!” in reference to Ilhan Omar, a US congresswoman who arrived almost 30 years ago as a child refugee in the United States.

Trump used the 2020 campaign rally in Greenville, North Carolina, to attack Omar and three other Democratic congresswomen – Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan – calling them “hate-filled extremists”. The group, which calls itself “the Squad”, has been the focus of racist attacks by the president this week, kickstarted by tweets posted Sunday in which he said the lawmakers, all women of color, should “go back” to other countries.

Omar, of Minnesota, arrived in the United States at age eight as a refugee of war from Somalia. Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley and Tlaib were born in the United States.

Trump’s “go back” tweets were prompted by an appearance before a House committee in which the congresswomen testified to inhumane conditions they witnessed during tours of migrant detention facilities in Texas.

Trump’s tweets led the House to pass a resolution of condemnation. “Every single member of this institution, Democratic and Republican, should join us in condemning the president’s racist tweets,” the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, said on Tuesday. “To do anything less would be a shocking rejection of our values and a shameful abdication of our oath of office to protect the American people.”

But clearly sensing a political winner – notwithstanding polling showing that a majority of Americans found his remarks to be offensive – Trump riffed on the theme at his rally.

“Let ’em leave,” Trump said of the members of Congress. “They’re always telling us how to run it, how to do this, how to do that. You know what? If they don’t love it, tell ’em to leave it.”

The crowd chimed in as he finished, shouting “leave it”. The chant “send her back” was an embroidery of a chant popular during Trump’s first presidential run, when crowds attacked his opponent, Hillary Clinton, with chants of “lock her up”.

The “lock her up” chant was led at the Republican national convention in Cleveland, Ohio, by Trump’s then campaign adviser Michael Flynn, who later pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI but has so far avoided prison time.

At least three former Trump aides have been locked up since the 2016 campaign, including Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, his former adviser Michael Cohen, and his former adviser George Papadopoulos, while others, including Flynn and Trump’s former adviser Rick Gates, have pleaded guilty to federal felonies.

Trump’s speech in North Carolina also included a professed exasperation with the fact that Ocasio-Cortez’s name is hyphenated.

“No, no: I don’t have time to go with three different names,” Trump said. “We’ll call her Cortez. Too much time. Takes too much time.”

The scene drew reactions of shock and horror from across the political spectrum. “The bigoted mob chanting ‘send her back’ tonight is significant,” tweeted Walter Shaub, a former director of the US office of government ethics under Barack Obama.

“When you outdo [Richard] Nixon in repulsiveness, you’ve gone a long way,” said commentator David Gergen on CNN, a veteran of the Nixon and other Republican administrations.

Related: Kellyanne Conway defends Trump by asking reporter: 'What's your ethnicity?'

“‘SEND HER BACK, SEND HER BACK,’ is ugly. It’s ignorant. It’s dangerous,” tweeted Joe Walsh, the conservative radio host and former Republican congressman. “And it’s un-American. It’s flat out bigotry. And every Republican should condemn this bigotry immediately. Stop this now.”

Omar herself responded with a tweet on Wednesday evening, in which she quoted a poem by Maya Angelou: “You may shoot me with your words, You may cut me with your eyes, You may kill me with your hatefulness, But still, like air, I’ll rise.” She later posted: “I am where I belong, at the people’s house and you’re just gonna have to deal.”

Democrats including Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren came to Omar’s defence on Wednesday night.

On Twitter, Sanders said Trump was “stoking the most despicable and disturbing currents in our society”, Harris labelled the behaviour as vile, cowardly and racist, while Warren said impeachment proceedings against the president must begin.

Fellow Democratic presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke said the chants were “the product of a president who sees our diversity not as a strength but as a weakness”.

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