Politics & Policy

Democratic Rage Might Trump Keith Ellison’s Past

Ellison speaks at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Pa. (Reuters photo: Jim Young)
Anti-Trump fervor might help him more than revelations about his past hurt him.

It turns out that conservatives and pro-Israel groups determined to highlight the radical past of Representative Keith Ellison (Minn.) are not his biggest problem as he seeks to become chair of the Democratic National Committee. A generally laudatory feature in the upcoming issue of Mother Jones magazine may have provided moderate Democrats with the evidence they need to stop Ellison. But even though a leading left-wing magazine has validated the stories circulated by Ellison foes about his connections to Louis Farrakhan and Farrakhan’s anti-Semitic Nation of Islam movement, the revelations in that article that contradict main elements of Ellison’s explanations of his past might not derail his candidacy. Anti-Trump hysteria might overwhelm any concerns about him.

With only two weeks to go before the DNC votes later this month, Ellison is still a leading contender in the race, if not the favorite. Ellison has the endorsements of Senators Bernie Sanders (Vt.), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), and Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) — a powerful combination of left-wing firebrands and the party establishment. But with former labor secretary Tom Perez (who has the endorsement of former vice president Joe Biden) gaining some progressive support (as well as the support of more-mainstream Democrats who are uncomfortable with Ellison’s past) and the emergence of a third choice, mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., the outcome is in doubt.

That’s why the feature in Mother Jones — which touted him as “everything Republicans thought Obama was” but still what Democrats might need to emerge from their 2016 debacle — comes at a seemingly bad moment for Ellison’s candidacy. As the race began in the weeks after the election, Ellison had to scramble to fend off criticisms from pro-Israel Democrats that he was a former Farrakhan supporter and a foe of the Jewish state. But not even the emergence of a tape from a 2010 speech in which he invoked age-old anti-Semitic stereotypes and accused Israel of mobilizing American Jews “to do its bidding” and manipulate U.S. foreign policy was enough to convince a figure like Schumer to abandon him. Though major Democratic donor Haim Saban denounced Ellison as an anti-Semite and a potential disaster for their party, Ellison’s efforts to rationalize the speech and downplay his ties to Farrakhan as a brief youthful infatuation might be working.

The Mother Jones article debunks Ellison’s narrative and timeline concerning his relationship with the Nation of Islam. According to the magazine, there’s plenty of evidence that he was an active member of the group rather than merely a sympathizer. It also proves that his claim that he disassociated himself from Farrakhan after the 1995 Million Man March is false. Ellison was defending Farrakhan for years after that and didn’t fully denounce the Black Muslim leader until his first run for Congress, in 2006. The magazine also dug up evidence that the young “Keith Hakim,” as he called himself in the 1980s, not only was an apologist for Farrakhan but also claimed that “European White Jews are oppressing minorities all over the world” and spoke often about “Jewish slave traders.”

In the Democratic party of only a few years ago, these tidbits about Ellison’s radicalism might — when added to his appalling 2010 speech and record of opposing funding for Israeli missile defense and the Jewish state’s right to defend itself against Hamas terrorists — have been enough to sink him. But the Democratic party that he seeks to lead appears far more interested in doubling down on racial-identity politics and tilting even farther to the left than it is in reaching out to the working-class white voters who cost it the presidency last fall.

While the last election left Democrats at what is arguably their lowest point in more than 60 years, there appears little appetite in their ranks for drawing conclusions from the results. While Ellison speaks of wanting to compete in every county in the nation, the strength of his candidacy represents the way the party’s obsession with identifying more with minority and victim groups than with the rest of the electorate seems to have overwhelmed any desire for it to reach out to the kind of blue-collar groups that Buttigieg wants to target.

Ellison seems more like part of a formula for more electoral disaster than of one for revival.

Ellison is smart and articulate, and was savvy enough to spend the last decade making friends with liberal Jews, many of whom have been useful allies in doing damage control about his troubling background. And in a party that blames Hillary Clinton for losing without asking why it happened, a Sanders supporter such as Ellison is in a strong position. But given the way tilting left cost the Democrats swing states last year, Ellison seems more like part of a formula for more electoral disaster than of one for revival.

Yet the depth of the party’s grass-roots activists’ feelings about Trump makes Ellison appear to be the embodiment of their desire to repudiate the president and his policies. Electing an African-American Muslim to be DNC chair strikes a lot of angry Democrats as the perfect response to Trump’s executive orders on immigration, no matter what baggage Ellison might be carrying. If that means putting forward a leader who has repeatedly lied about the extent of his association with Farrakhan, that might just match the mood of those protesting every Trump appointment with increasingly extreme rhetoric. Indeed, proof of Ellison’s past extremism might be just the ticket for Democrats who want to “resist” the administration rather than merely oppose it. The Mother Jones report, rather than hurting Ellison, might just help remind some Democratic activists why they want him to lead their party.

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