A pathetic defense strategy emerged among Donald Trump’s most loyal supporters after Trump tweeted Sunday that four Congresswomen, all of who are U.S. citizens and all but one of who were born in America, should “go back” to the “countries” where “they originally came from.” The strategy involves arguing that Trump’s offensive statement is not racist because it supposedly doesn’t fit the word’s definition.
For example, Fox News’ Brit Hume tweeted Monday morning: “Trump’s ‘go back’ comments were nativist, xenophobic, counterfactul and politically stupid. But they simply do not meet the standard definition of racist, a word so recklessly flung around these days that its actual meaning is being lost.” He then tweeted a link to Merriam-Webster’s entry, which he identifies as “my standard definition of racism.” However, Hume instructs his followers only to “note definition 1,” conveniently brushing aside definitions 2 and 3 because they do not help his argument.
This dictionary strategy requires us to consider Trump’s words in a strictly intellectual manner. If his words fail to pass a definitional test (as interpreted by a Trump loyalist), then we are apparently required to avoid calling Trump a racist and repress any natural feelings such words elicit regardless of their label. Soon after Hume’s tweets, Merriam-Webster weighed in, noting a caveat included in the definition’s usage notes, which Hume ignored. The caveat warns against relying on a dictionary definition “for settling disputes,” such as when “discussing concepts like racism,” noting that “quoting from a dictionary is unlikely to either mollify or persuade the person with whom one is arguing.”
So, if people like Hume want to play the definitions game, where should they look? A good place would be the law. No defense attorney would argue that although a client’s actions constitute murder under the state criminal code, a jury must acquit because some dictionary definition appears to say otherwise. Senator Tim Kaine looked at the law and then proceeded to shut down this pathetic defense strategy. Kaine directed our attention to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) guidance on federal discrimination laws, which cites “go back to where you came from” as a prime example of “potentially unlawful conduct” that violates civil rights. In this case, Trump’s own government has told us all we need to know.