President Donald Trump telling four congresswomen to “go back” to the countries where they came from has caused a storm in Washington’s political circles. But what do people beyond the nation’s capital think?
The president’s tweets have pushed people even further into two camps – those who love him, and those who hate him.
In Leesburg, Virginia, the two camps are represented, with both sides equally passionate in their views.
Susy Moorstein, an antique dealer, says that she’s scared after seeing his tweets. “They’re beyond the pale.” She adds: “It just brings out the worst in everyone.”
Moorstein spoke about the president and his tweets while standing in an alleyway in downtown Leesburg, a town that is located about 40 miles from Washington. “We have racial issues in the country that we’re trying to work through, and he just constantly seems to antagonise,” says Moorstein.
She says she voted for the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, in the 2016 presidential election – it was not so much a vote for Clinton, she says, but a vote against Trump.
Moorstein says that she finds the president’s comments about the lawmakers, all Democrats, and his public statements, words that she characterises as racist, deeply upsetting. “It’s very scary,” she says, explaining that sometimes she feels as though she is in the midst of a bad dream.
The row began on Sunday when Trump wrote on social media that lawmakers who criticise the US 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”.
His insult was directed at four female members of Congress – Ilhan Omar of Minnesota; Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of Queens, New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan; and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, all of whom are women of colour.
The Democratic leadership was forceful in its condemnation. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader of the US House of Representatives, fired back at the president for his tweets and said that his popular slogan, Make America Great Again, was really about “making America white again”.
These issues are also playing out in Moorstein’s hometown, Leesburg. The town lies in Loudoun County, Virginia, a place that has backed Republican presidential candidates in the past and at least one Democrat.
But few presidential candidates, regardless of their political affiliation, have roiled Loudoun County as much as President Trump.
Long-term residents like Moorstein say that political discussions today are much more pointed than they were in the past, and that she prefers to talk about the 2020 campaign in private settings and not in places where people might overhear her (and get agitated about the subject).
She says people respond to the president’s language in emotional ways and this has created arguments – but has also galvanised many of them into political action.
Michelle Thomas, a senior pastor at Holy and Whole Lifechanging Ministries, a church located in Virginia’s Loudoun County, says she was surprised when president said that some people in the US should go back to where they came from. “Who exactly has the right to stay?” she says. “Is it just the black and brown people who have to go back?”
“Racism is a learned behaviour,” she says. “And he’s teaching America how to hate again.”
Buta Biberaj, a lawyer and a board member of the county branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), says that his rhetoric has an impact on the national and local level: “He is a master of ‘Divide and Conquer.’ He’s pitting people against each other.”
Moorstein spoke about the president and his tweets a few blocks from a confederate monument, one that was built in Leesburg in 1908. These statues stand as a reminder of the difficulties the US still has in confronting its segregationist past. For some they are a symbol that needs to be erased in modern America – for others, they are a rallying point and important memorials.
For Moorstein and others, the president’s tweets have reignited racial issues and inflamed tensions.
But others stood by the president and said Democrats, liberals and others had over-reacted.
Douglas Grimes, a firefighter, says: “I think he’s a straight shooter, and I don’t think the public takes that very well. He’s getting things done, I do support him.”
John Hunter, who’s recently retired, agrees, saying that people overreacted to the president’s comments about the four lawmakers. For his part, Hunter says that he is concerned about the president’s “performance” and not his tweets. “That’s his style,” Hunter says, describing the president’s remarks on social media. “He’s not a racist.”
People in Leesburg agree on one matter, though – those who are energised, whether by their admiration for their president or rage against him, are more likely to vote.
And whichever side is stronger will tip the election – both here in Loudoun County and across the US.
“What he does is going to get people out there and vote,” says Moorstein. “I think it could go either way.”