Politics & Policy

Trump’s Omar Comments Erode Our Sense of Citizenship

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D., Minn.) at a rally in Washington, D.C., April 30, 2019
The episode is a reminder that presidential words matter.

‘Send her back!” they chanted, meaning Representative Ilhan Omar, the Somalia-born Jew-hating weirdo elected to Congress by the ghastly fruitcakes who run things in Minneapolis. President Donald J. Trump, elected president by the ghastly nut cutlets who run things in much of the rest of the country, basked in the chant, glowing like a gopher sauntering forth from Chernobyl — he was, in effect, hearing his own daft words shouted back at him ecstatically, and he has a real weakness for that sort of thing.

Much has been made about whether the episode and Trump’s words inspiring it were racist; my own view is that Donald Trump is incapable of being a racist in the traditional sense of that word, because racism is derived from a perverted and misapplied sense of loyalty, a sentiment from which President Trump is manifestly immune. What is more interesting — and more troubling — is what the exchange says about our eroding sense of citizenship.

The American Revolution was the process by which our Founding Fathers elevated themselves from subjects to citizens, and citizenship is the foundation of the American identity. You can become an American because you can become a citizen — you can move to Poland or China, but you cannot become Polish or Chinese, no matter how long you live there, no matter how the state classifies you, no matter how well you learn the language, even if you make a really mean bigos or niu za tang. America is not an idea or a collection of documents, but neither is it a closed ethnolinguistic set. It is a nation in which relations among the people and between the individual and the state are defined by the terms of citizenship.

Citizenship is a precious thing. To be a citizen is more dignified and more honorable than to be a subject. When the Romans lost their republic and slid into empire, it was not democracy they were losing — they never suffered from that particular superstition — but their status as citizens. There were things the Roman state could not do to a Roman citizen — crucifixion, for example. The state had to respect the citizen because the citizen was the building block out of which the republic was built. The conversion of the Roman republic into an empire under god-emperors was a catastrophe for the Roman citizen — not only politically but also culturally and spiritually and, eventually, economically. God-emperors are not traditionally real big on property rights and due process.

The idea that Ilhan Omar could — even as a matter of mass-dunderhead rhetoric — be treated as a non-citizen because the president and his admirers do not like her politics (which are quite unlikeable) does violence to the idea of citizenship per se. In that much, it is fundamentally and literally un-American.

It is not the worst act of violence committed against the concept of citizenship in recent years: That particular distinction belongs to Barack Obama, who unilaterally arrogated to himself (and his successors!) the power to order the extrajudicial killing of American citizens in conditions that, once the legalistic mumbo-jumbo is penetrated, amount to “whenever and wherever the president damned well feels like it.” In principle and as a matter of citizenship, there is no meaningful difference between Barack Obama’s ordering the assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki — “the Osama bin Laden of Facebook,” they called him — and Donald Trump’s (hypothetically) ordering the assassination of a political critic in Reno. The pretext of “national security” will cover a multitude of sins.

Ilhan Omar became a U.S. citizen when she was a teenager. (As Jake Tapper wryly points out, she has been a citizen longer than the president’s wife has.) Maybe it was a mistake to let her into the club — I am open to the argument that we should be far choosier about whom we offer the honor and dignity of American citizenship. I might even ask some pointed political questions: Are you a Communist? Are you a Jew-hating weirdo? But we didn’t do that. Ilhan Omar is a citizen and must be dealt with as one.

“Oh, they’re just being puckish!” comes the inevitable response. “It’s a high-spirited response to how genuinely awful Ilhan Omar is! They’re just trolling the Democrats and the media!” That may be the fact, in which case — grow the hell up. Ideas have consequences, even half-formed and half-understood ones.

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.” So said Abraham Lincoln in much more difficult times than these. We should resist the urge to treat our presidents as god-emperors, but Lincoln testifies to the fact that presidential words matter.

Alas, so does Donald Trump.

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