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In the wake of ‘send her back,’ thinking of McCain’s ‘No, ma’am’ moment

Sen. John McCain
REUTERS/Carlos Barria
Sen. John McCain looking on as Gayle Quinnell asks the "Arab" question during a town hall meeting in Lakeville on October 10, 2008.

As you know, at a rally on Wednesday, when Trump engaged in his nine-zillionth fact-challenged attack on U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar (about whom he never tires of talking because she is both black and Muslim), the president’s admirers started chanting “Send her back,” presumably meaning back to Somalia, where she was born. (She is now a U.S. citizen.)

Trump now claims that he disagreed with this “send her back” chant, and disapproved of it, although “sending” Omar back to Somalia, is not so different from Trump’s own position, which is that she should just “go back” there, rather than stay here and criticize anything in America, including the way he is running the country.

Watching the tape of the “send her back” moment, it’s clear that Trump did nothing to silence the chant, nor to express any disagreement at the time. Exactly what if anything he disagreed with is also unclear, not only to me but apparently to Trump. 

Trump could, of course, have expressed his disagreement. He was holding the microphone. He didn’t do that. Trump suggests that he tried to show his disapproval. This is roughly impossible to reconcile with what occurred. We’ve seen Trump when he feels like telling someone to shut up. This was not that.

Trump claimed that he showed his disapproval by resuming his speech as quickly as he could, to cut off the chanting of “Send her back.” I repeated his “explanation” in an addendum to my own post of yesterday, because I hadn’t watched the tape. But it was a lie.

I’ve now reviewed the footage. Not only did Trump not quickly resume his speech (he waited for 13 seconds, but hey, it’s not the number of seconds that counts) he waited until the chanting of “Send Her Back” had ended on its own. He did nothing to stop it. He waited till it stopped. What would he have done if it had kept going, picked up support, grown louder? We’ll never know.

The only thing you can give him credit for — if credit is the word — is that he didn’t lead or join the chant of “send her back.” Just waited till it stopped on its own. No Nobel nomination for courage or civility will be forthcoming for this, but at least he didn’t lead or join the chant calling for a sitting member of Congress to be deported for being insufficiently grateful for being allowed to live in Trump’s America. An America which, one gathers, Rep. Omar believes still has room for improvement.

So I wanted to clarify that, because until I watched the tape I had taken Trump at his word that he had done something to end the chant. That was a lie.

But over rest of the day my mind drifted back to a famous incident involving the honorable Republican nominee and war hero Sen. John McCain, who ran against Barack Obama in the 2008 election. In this incident, as McCain led a rally — in Minnesota, as it happens — he engaged in a back-and-forth exchange with a woman in the audience. She said that she was worried about the idea of Obama as president, and that she didn’t trust Obama “because he’s an Arab.” 

(I assume she meant that Obama was a Muslim, which he wasn’t, but his step-father was Indonesian. Obama spent four years of his youth in Indonesia, his stepfather’s homeland. Indonesia is a predominantly Muslim country. Anyway, Obama was and is Christian.)

McCain didn’t exploit the moment. He didn’t exhort the crowd to express their feelings about the possibility of an Arab or a Muslim president. He didn’t leave it hanging. He didn’t embarrass the poor woman any more than she had already embarrassed herself. He didn’t hesitate at all after her inaccurate statement about Obama. He just took the microphone from her and said “No ma’am. He’s a decent family man that I just happen to have difference with on fundamental issues and that’s what this campaign is all about.”

Read that quote again. It’s kinda wonderful. It’s on this video here. It’s only a minute but if you watch it from the beginning, you get to see McCain do two classy things. 

Before you see McCain with the ‘Obama’s an Arab’ lady, you’ll also see McCain take a question from a man who said he was “scared of an Obama presidency,” to which McCain replied that Obama, “is a decent person, and a person you do not have to be scared of [having] as president of the United States. But if I didn’t think I’d be a heck of a lot better president, I wouldn’t be running. And that’s the point.”

Maybe that was the point. But the point now is that just eight years before the Republican Party nominated Trump, they nominated a man who went out of his way to tell the audience and the world that his opponent with the funny name was not scary, not an Arab or a Muslim, just someone with whom he had important differences of opinion on where America should go in the quadrennium to follow.

Rest in peace, John McCain, a very decent person. What would you have done if someone had advised you to tell a gaggle of young women in Congress to go back where they came from?

Comments (40)

  1. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 07/19/2019 - 09:38 am.

    I think it’s cute the way you still expect to find a shred of basic human decency inside the mind of Trump.

    • Submitted by Mary Stackpool on 07/22/2019 - 12:12 pm.

      I agree! No benefit of the doubt is appropriate. It is painfully obvious that there are “chant leaders” always in Trump’s rallies, always. They travel with him. Today we find out that VP Pence’s nephew is one of those chant leaders.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 07/19/2019 - 09:59 am.

    We can only speculate, of course, but based on the evidence we have, it seems likely that he would ignored the advice, and perhaps even spoken against it. Even ignoring the advice would be far more “patriotic” a response than allowing the “Send them back” chant to die of its own accord. His responses also suggest the he would not have been as contemptibly craven as the vast majority of his fellow Republicans in both the Senate and the House, who have remained silent as Mr. Trump exhibits his bigotry for all to see. The GOP is largely complicit in Trump’s racist, neofascist blatherings, including, as far as I know, Jennifer Carnahan, current chair of the Minnesota GOP, whose heritage is Korean.

    • Submitted by John Evans on 07/19/2019 - 09:18 pm.

      And what has Carnahan’s ethnic heritage got to do with it? Do you have different expectations of her because of it? What expectations are those?

      • Submitted by Henry Johnson on 07/20/2019 - 08:14 am.

        I think the point John is that it demonstrates how totally intimidated Trump has the republican party members – even when his invective is directed at people close to your own situation (non-white and female), you stay quiet, because you don’t want to upset the bully in the white house.

        • Submitted by John Evans on 07/20/2019 - 10:43 pm.

          Yeah, I get that, but I think it’s assuming too much, for several reasons:

          1) I don’t know whether Carnahan identifies herself as a minority at all. That’s her decision, not yours or mine. Unless she publicly attributes her point of view to her minority ethnic experience, I wouldn’t mention it.

          2) You shouldn’t expect members of one minority group to have any greater sensitivity to the plight of another minority group. It doesn’t work that way in real life.

  3. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 07/19/2019 - 10:00 am.

    Now you have started something bringing up Senator McCain’s name. Trump will be mad at you.

    I didn’t always agree with McCain, but at least he was decent, responsible, and a true American hero vs the bone spur despot in the Whitehouse.

    • Submitted by Misty Martin on 07/19/2019 - 12:55 pm.


      I wish I had a tee shirt with a picture of the late, GREAT Senator John McCain on the front, a picture of President Barack Obama on the back, and maybe leggings with the words “bring back Jimmy Carter” running down the legs – and maybe a “SQUAD” ball cap – do you think they’d let me in to a Trump rally then?!?

  4. Submitted by Dan Landherr on 07/19/2019 - 10:30 am.

    You may have pinpointed the reason McCain lost and Trump won. Those voters stayed home when McCain was on the ballot.

    I am really tired of seeing the news outlets have to explain that elected members of Congress are in fact US citizens. Are people really stupid enough to think someone can get elected to the House of Representatives if he or she isn’t a citizen of the United States?

    • Submitted by Mike Schumann on 07/19/2019 - 01:48 pm.

      What makes you come to the conclusion that people think that you can get elected to Congress without being a US Citizen? People really aren’t that dumb. Just because someone doesn’t agree with your politics doesn’t automatically make them stupid.

      This is the kind of attitude that lost Hillary the election.

      • Submitted by Brian Nelson on 07/19/2019 - 03:15 pm.

        Trump seemed to do quite with the “birther” conspiracy when Obama was in office. And certain people seemed quite happy to have that purveyor of conspiracy theories succeed Obama.

      • Submitted by Tom Crain on 07/22/2019 - 09:45 am.

        ‘What makes you come to the conclusion that people think that you can get elected to Congress without being a US Citizen?’

        Perhaps it was the ‘send her back’ chants. Either they are ignorant (not stupid!) of the citizenship requirement of congress persons, or they just intended ‘send her back’ to mean remove her from congress and send her back to her district.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 07/21/2019 - 11:05 am.

      And it had nothing to do with the fact that Obama was a far better campaigner than Clinton?

  5. Submitted by Paul Yochim on 07/19/2019 - 11:15 am.

    I had always wondered why John McCain ever became a democrat but when I saw what happened to Arlen Specter when he jumped ship my questions were answered.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 07/19/2019 - 07:03 pm.

      If you read what McCain said, he made it clear that he disagreed with Obama (and by extension Democrats) on fundamental issues. He could do that without demonizing them.
      That’s class.

  6. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 07/19/2019 - 11:33 am.

    You are right Eric; Trump didn’t participate directly in the “Send her back” chant. He was waiting for it to stop on its own. He did have a smug look of approval on his face that said how proud he was of them following in the image he has been grooming. Now they have been masterfully suckered into losing their decency too, which, in his him mind, justifies his lack of decency. A day after he tried to back away from agreeing with the chant, he is back at it again on Twitter. Nothing in Trump life has a shelf life longer than 24 hours and sometimes much less.

  7. Submitted by John Evans on 07/19/2019 - 11:44 am.

    Come on, it’s just politics! The McCain town hall moment was just an accomplished politician avoiding stepping in a hole, and using the opportunity to pose as a great exemplar of American values.

    McCain was guilty of plenty of vile appeals to the worst angels or our collective nature. The one everyone remembers was “bomb-bomb-bomb, bomb-bomb Iran!” But that was hardly out of character.

    • Submitted by Tom Christensen on 07/19/2019 - 01:07 pm.

      John did have his moments; it’s just politics. I remember John walking up to vote on repealing the ACA in the Senate and doing a thumbs down to try and save the Republicans from themselves. It turns out the public likes the ACA. Fast forward, the Republican Party used to disavow someone as “not” being a conservative if they got out of line from the party dogma. You don’t hear that anymore because the Republican Party has turned into a “Junk Party” where anything goes. Blatant racism is okay, debt and deficits are okay, repeal and replace without an alternative is okay, polluted air and water are okay, only serving the top 1% is okay, tax cuts sold to help the middle class, but didn’t, are okay, kids in cages are okay, and the Senate has been turned into a one-man vote. It all boils down to Trump who has sucked the life out of the party because of the cowards in congress handing their authority to Trump. Now the party goes forward without any principles, compassion, ethics, morality, or commitment to the country. Never mind, I understand, it’s just politics.

    • Submitted by Henry Johnson on 07/20/2019 - 08:19 am.

      I actually thinking you’re being a little over-cynical on this one (and I do that myself sometimes).

      I think he was genuinely moved by his basically decent nature to put a stop to that Obama is an arab talk. It’s possible that by not objecting he would have gained some votes from the far-right folks, but he didn’t, I I think he genuinely repulsed by that nasty type of allegation.

      I do agree though that he made a lot of mistakes in his career (which he admitted himself), and I agree with you when you’re saying he was way too much of a war hawk, especially about Iran.

  8. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/19/2019 - 12:31 pm.

    McCain is probably more responsible for the toxic politics of Trump than any other man in US history. It was McCain’s idea to put the Tea Party on the ballot along side himself. He reached in the Nation’s darkest rabbit hole and pulled Palin out of obscurity and into the worldwide spotlight. He brought this politics into the Party like no other candidate and paved the road for Trump. The fact that these didn’t get along doesn’t erase the original sin.

    McCain wouldn’t have had to: “no maam” anyone in the first place if he hadn’t brought these guys into the fold to begin with.

    • Submitted by Barbara Boldenow on 07/19/2019 - 02:30 pm.

      Thank you for mentioning that. I had managed to put her out of my mind for months if not years. Yes, what a toxic blunder. Just another pretty face and a nasty mouth. The prelude to trump.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 07/19/2019 - 07:42 pm.

      When McCain picked Palin, he effectively ditched the campaign slogan “Country First “.

      Maybe it just cost too much to print new banners.

    • Submitted by Henry Johnson on 07/20/2019 - 08:30 am.

      Yes, I agree, choosing Sarah Palin was a huge mistake, and did pave the road in some ways for the ugly mob/crowd face of the current Trumppublican party.

      He let his ambition to win get the better of him I think, he saw he was losing in he polls, and impulsively decided to do a hail Mary pass by choosing Palin.

      For such a patriotic man, it was also selling out his principles in that good lord, especially given his advanced age, he was setting up a scenario where a superficial dimwit to be president of the united states was quite likely (sort of like we have now).

      On the other hand, I give the man credit for writing in later years that choosing her was a mistake and that he regretted having done so.

      Overall, yes, the man made mistakes and he was way too much of a war hawk for me, but at least he had a core of decency and honesty and a willingness to work with others and to serve his country that seems like a pretty precious thing for a republican here in the Trump era, where the opposite traits now seem to be so much the norm.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/21/2019 - 10:23 am.

        Yes, the Party has been drifting towards Trump for a long time, they may well have ended up there eventually in any event, but McCain made sure it was sooner rather than later. His vote to shut down the Republican health care repeal redeemed him to some degree, but Palin and the Tea Party were a HUGE mistake. Honor is a funny thing, you’re only as honorable as the last dishonorable thing you’ve done… and that was big dishonor.

        I just think if you’re looking for examples of honorable behavior to contrast with Trump, there are better examples than the guy who ushered the Trump era into American Politics. And remember, after losing to Obama the guy pretty much voted lock step with Republicans to block Obama for the next 8 years. I don’t recall him speaking out against the shameful decision to deny SCOTUS hearings for a year for instance. Whatever.

  9. Submitted by Michael Ofjord on 07/19/2019 - 12:32 pm.

    Seeing the video of McCain, it is apparent there is a depth of conscience and decency that most Republican leaders have lacked for decades, when it comes to true leadership. He didn’t feel the need to denigrate the other (Obama) to feel good about himself. That is real power and what America and the world always needs.

  10. Submitted by Misty Martin on 07/19/2019 - 12:39 pm.


    YOU READ MY MIND!!!!!!!!! I was just thinking of the same thing, honestly, and what a difference between the two men! What an example of a true American hero and gentleman the late, GREAT Senator John McCain was!!!

    I hope America isn’t through with seeing greatness in politics – I pray that we can get back to the integrity that the oval office requires and that we Americans deserve – in the future. I pray for a better leader and Commander-in-Chief after the 2020 election results.

  11. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 07/19/2019 - 01:58 pm.

    McCain = class act. Trump = crass act. I could use other words to describe Trump, but I will censor myself.

  12. Submitted by Richard Pape on 07/20/2019 - 04:47 am.

    I always wonder what would have happened had McCain would have won the 2000 Republican presidential nomination. He could have defeated Gore and we would not have had our country run by Dick Cheney. a very liberal Democrat. But in 2000 I thought McCain was a breath of fresh air. He was progressive on immigration and border issues and was light years ahead of most on campaign finance reform. Sorry, what if in life. I just thought he was a decent man who really wanted best for his country. It wasn’t I’m him to be opportunistic. I will always remember the thumbs down on the ACA. I was so proud of a man,terminal, yet stood up against his party and its agenda. A profile in courage moment. RIP Sen. McCain. You are very missed

  13. Submitted by Howard Schneider on 07/20/2019 - 09:10 am.

    I agree that McCain showed some class in response to the “Obama is an Arab” comment. However, he could have done better. Essentially, McCain said, “no ma’am, he is not an Arab, he is a decent family man.”

    What? Did he really mean that these two are mutually exclusive? Probably not, but wish that he clarified one can be both Arab and decent family man…

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 07/21/2019 - 11:07 am.

      The woman’s comments clearly implied that she was equating Arabs with terrorists.
      McCain made it clear that Obama was neither an Arab nor a terrorist.

      • Submitted by Howard Schneider on 07/23/2019 - 09:53 pm.

        I checked again the video; the woman stammered three comments:
        – I don’t trust Obama
        – I read about him
        – he’s an Arab

        She said nothing about terrorism. Thanks.

  14. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/21/2019 - 10:39 am.

    Actually, the fact that some people want to celebrate or laud McCain’s: “no maam” moment betrays a sad decay in American expectations. Frankly, this was minimum requirement of decency and honesty, not a courageous and patriotic moment in history. We can give the man credit for meeting the minimum requirements that eludes Republicans since then, but let’s not pretend this was a heroic moment of any kind.

  15. Submitted by Henk Tobias on 07/22/2019 - 10:06 am.

    Obviously McCain was a fool. He didn’t go after Obama on racial grounds and lost the election. Also too, he joined the Military and got himself shot down and captured. Donald the wise one, once said he prefers people who didn’t get captured. He himself avoided being captured by simply avoiding the draft altogether. Using one of his fathers tenants, who happened to be a doctor, Donald got bone spur deferment. (funny side note, he doesn’t remember which foot it was) He attacked Hillary with all kinds of things, true and more frequently untrue, and he won.

    So who is the smart one here, the guy who takes the high road and does the right thing or the guy who uses deceit and dishonesty and gets what he wants. Its pretty clear who Republican voters choose.

  16. Submitted by Kathleen Castrovinci on 07/22/2019 - 10:32 am.

    We are now living at a dangerous time in our American History where we will be judged by the people we elect.

    Donald Trump does not have a decent bone in his body, but plenty of racist ones. From this man’s history going back over 40 years with his Father, it is evident what Trump is.

    Stop looking for that McCain moment of actual human decency from Trump and today’s Republicans because they DO NOT have any.

  17. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/24/2019 - 08:16 am.

    I’d forgotten the: “Bomb bomb Iran” thing… nothing “classy” about that, specially for a pilot and a veteran, you’d think he’d have a little more respect for the death and destruction war yields.

  18. Submitted by Tom Crain on 07/25/2019 - 10:23 am.

    John McCain tried to foist the likes of Sarah Palin on this country. Remember her? No amount of time spent as a POW can paper over that deed.

    Also I have not seen mention of his membership in the Keating Five.

  19. Submitted by John Evans on 07/19/2019 - 04:09 pm.

    I think you’re stereotyping here. Not all racist bigots are worthless. We have some very fine racist bigots here in Minnesota. I’d stack them up against the racist bigots of any other state.

    Sheesh. Some people are never satisfied.

  20. Submitted by John Evans on 07/19/2019 - 09:19 pm.

    I really would like to stack them up in some other state.

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