Politics & Policy

To Defend Ilhan Omar, Democrats Use Identity Politics as a Shield

Representative Ilhan Omar at the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., March 13, 2019 (Leah Millis/Reuters)
To elevate her, they use identity politics as a sword.

Over the weekend, American political discourse reached another one of its low moments — a moment of nearly record-level hypocrisy and absurdity. And once again, a low moment centered around one of the Democrats’ celebrity House freshmen, Ilhan Omar.

The cycle went like this. First, Twitter discovered an excerpt of a speech Omar delivered last month at a Council on American–Islamic Relations banquet. Here were her controversial words:

For far too long we have lived with the discomfort of being a second-class citizen. Frankly, I’m tired of it. And every single Muslim in this country should be tired of it. CAIR was founded after 9/11 because they recognized that some people did something and that all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties.

As The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf notes, the charitable reading of her statement is relatively clear — don’t hold the many responsible for the actions of the few. At the same time, however, the language was both wrong and undeniably flip. CAIR was not founded after 9/11, and her comment about 9/11 minimized the gravity of the deadliest foreign attack on U.S. soil ever — and the most damaging at least since the British Army burned Washington in the War of 1812. In other words, Americans were alarmed after 9/11 for a very good reason.

Moreover, it was coming from someone with a record of blatantly anti-Semitic comments, including a reference to Israel as “hypnotizing the world,” a claim that support for Israel was “all about the Benjamins,” and repeated claims that supporters of Israel had “allegiance” to a foreign country. While charitable readings of statements should be our default, there are public voices who’ve forfeited the benefit of the doubt. Like Iowa’s racist congressman Steve King, Omar is one of those people. It’s her responsibility to be clear about what she means.

When Republican congressman Dan Crenshaw tweeted that her comments were “unbelievable,” the criticism was certainly in-bounds. Other critiques, however, were over-the-top, including — of course — the president’s. He tweeted out a video montage of scenes from 9/11 cut back and forth with Omar’s statement that “some people did something.”

Then Trump’s tweet was met with an avalanche of hysteria and hypocrisy.

Bernie Sanders called Trump racist:

Elizabeth Warren said he was “trying to incite violence”:

Beto O’Rourke called Trump’s tweet “an incitement to violence against Congresswoman Omar, against our fellow Americans who happen to be Muslim.”

Warren and O’Rourke were parroting Omar’s own claim that critiques of her words amounted to “dangerous incitement.” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez picked up the theme as well, claiming that conservative attacks constituted an “incitement of violence against progressive women of color.”

Incitement is a word with a meaning. In the constitutional context, it means speech that is “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action” and is “likely to incite or produce such action.” By no reasonable measure were Trump’s words incitement, nor were any of the other high-profile criticisms of Omar, including the New York Post cover showing the fireball when the second plane collided with the World Trade Center.

And if that’s incitement by some new definition of the term, then the Left is guilty as well. Where is the regret over its rhetoric in the Kavanaugh confirmation battle? It is terrible that Omar has faced threats, but let’s not forget that Cory Booker called Kavanaugh’s supporters “complicit in the evil” — even though Justice Kavanaugh’s family faced terrible threats and when two people were arrested for threatening Republican senators. I haven’t seen progressive rhetoric ease after a Bernie Sanders fan nearly assassinated Steve Scalise in an attempt to gun down Republican congressmen at baseball practice. Instead, I’ve seen apologetic after apologetic for activists who get in Republicans’ faces at restaurants, in movie theaters, and even at their own homes.

Democrats may argue that Ilhan Omar is different. Confirmation battles are high-stakes affairs, with fundamental rights at sake. Omar is a mere House freshman. She’s being singled out and elevated because of her race, religion, and gender. For example, here’s Maggie Haberman in the New York Times analyzing the weekend’s events:

Mr. Trump and his team are trying to make Ms. Omar, one of a group of progressive women Democratic House members who is relatively unknown in national politics, a household name, to be seen as the most prominent voice of the Democratic Party, regardless of her actual position. And they are gambling that there will be limited downside in doing so.

But that’s not quite right. While it’s true that Trump and conservative media dedicate quite a bit of airtime to Omar and to her friend and ally Ocasio-Cortez, it’s the Democrats and the media who have been working overtime to elevate their voices.

It wasn’t Trump who put Omar in Vanity Fair, labeled her one of “politics’ new power players,” and called her “ready to fight.” It wasn’t Trump who put her on the cover of Rolling Stone as “one of the women shaping the future.” And if she’s really so marginal in Democratic politics, why is Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi right there in that same Rolling Stone picture, standing beside Omar and Ocasio-Cortez?

In reality, Democrats are following a classic identity-politics playbook, using identity as both sword and shield. When the moment suits, then Omar and Ocasio-Cortez are the powerful voices of a new generation — in Ocasio-Cortez’s case, powerful enough to get Democratic presidential front-runners to immediately and eagerly sign on to her “Green New Deal.” Omar and her allies were powerful enough to get the Democrats to water down their condemnation of her blatant anti-Semitism. And make no mistake, their identity is part of their power. The fact that Omar and Ocasio-Cortez are progressive women of color has elevated their profile immensely.

But then when the moment changes, the meaning of their identity changes. When Republicans attack, there is indignation. How dare you attack a woman of color. How dare you obsess over a mere House freshman. Your attacks are proof of your racism. The powerful are attacking the powerless.

No one doubts that there are racists in the Republican coalition, but it’s absurd to attribute GOP attacks against Omar exclusively or primarily to racism — especially when she made expressly racist statements and when she was dismissive of 9/11. Do the Democrats believe Republicans wouldn’t denounce a white Democratic anti-Semite or a white man who made the same comments about 9/11 — especially if that white man was being hailed as a Democratic power player?

The Democrats and media cannot have it both ways. They cannot work diligently to elevate Omar’s voice and then rule out of bounds attacks against the person they’ve elevated — especially when her own words are often hateful and cruel.

There are aspects of both Omar’s and Ocasio-Cortez’s stories that are undeniably inspirational — and represent a large part of their appeal. Omar is a former refugee, an immigrant who became a congresswoman. Ocasio-Cortez has enjoyed one of the most meteoric rises in modern politics, from bartender to power broker. But powerful people are responsible for their words and ideas, and when Omar goes too far, it is not racist — nor is it incitement — to call her to account.


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