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President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Greenville on Wednesday.

President Trump’s campaign speech in Greenville on Wednesday evening, in the wake of his recent controversial tweets about “the Squad” — Democratic freshmen Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib — ultimately will do little to sway voters one way or another.

But the audience that chanted “Send her back!” will likely mar North Carolina’s national profile. And that’s a shame.

In a rare moment of capitulation, Trump on Thursday disavowed the chant, saying, “I disagreed with it,” and “I didn’t say that, they did.” He claimed that he tried to stop it.

But when we go to the tape, there’s no evidence to support that assertion.

The chant was doubtless inspired by his tweets, calling the Squad’s patriotism and nationality into question, saying that the four American citizens, three of whom were born in the U.S., “originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe” and should “go back” to them. He followed it by calling Squad members “hate-filled extremists” and making claims about Rep. Ilhan Omar that were simply false, like accusing her of professing a “love” for al-Qaida and talking about “how great” and “how wonderful” it is.

We can’t, nor would want to, defend every statement made by members of the Squad — they are controversial figures, political neophytes, and will no likely stumble, as many politicians do. Not long ago, Omar apologized for a statement that many took to be anti-Semitic.

That’s likely why Trump chose to point his finger at them to start with. They serve as welcome distractions from his census question loss and the dire situation on the border, as well as from a new Trump administration policy intended to make it even more difficult for refugees at the border to apply for asylum.

But no one should be fooled into thinking that their offenses are an excuse for any variation of “go back where you came from.” Such rhetoric has long been used to tell people of color, “ you don’t belong here.” When one of the Little Rock Nine was integrating Central High School in 1957, a jeering white student screamed in her ear: “Why don’t you go back to Africa?”

It’s disappointing that the message of Trump’s tweets resonated in Greenville — as it did with Andrew Anglin on the neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer, who wrote of the tweets, “This is the kind of WHITE NATIONALISM we elected him for.” An incident like this, transmitted across the nation — across the world — makes North Carolina look bad in ways that can affect our economy and our reputation. We’d rather be known for our many virtues.

Some speculate that Trump’s attack on the Squad is nothing more than an election tactic, one he’ll try to ride to a 2020 victory.

Does it make the president look better or worse to not be racist but to use racism as an election tactic? Does it make North Carolinians look good to respond to it so enthusiastically?

It is encouraging that Trump’s rhetoric has faced pushback not just from Democrats, but from several prominent Republicans, too, like Rep. Will Hurd of Texas, who called his tweets “racist and xenophobic.” As of this writing, 40 of the 250 Republicans serving in the U.S. Congress criticized Trump’s attack.

Others, no doubt, would do the same if they didn’t fear retribution from Trump’s supporters at the voting booth in 2020.

Vigorous debate and criticism is essential to our democracy. Trump isn’t the only politician to rile up his followers or to spread falsehoods about his political opponents. But he seems to be determined to take the tactics to unprecedented heights.

North Carolinians, even his supporters, should reject this racist rhetoric. Even in the heat of a divisive political campaign, we’re better than this.

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