After Smearing of Obama, Democrats Should Know How to Defend Ilhan Omar

Representative Ilhan Omar listens to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi during a rally at the U.S. Capitol on March 8, 2019. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Barack Obama did not attend a madrassa as a child. He did not, as a Fox News host claimed in 2013, “pay out of his own pocket for the Museum of Muslim Cultures” during a government shutdown. He did not have ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. He was not a terrorist sympathizer. But for eight years, the right-wing rumor mills insisted to all and sundry that Obama — whose middle name was Hussein, whose father was a Muslim — must also be Muslim and therefore, a extremist. “Obama was enrolled in a Wahabi school in Jakarta. Wahabism is the RADICAL teaching that is followed by the Muslim terrorists who are now waging Jihad against the western world,” claimed one chain email, quoted by Politifact.

To the right wing, Obama’s fictional Muslim faith worked as a stand-in for radicalism, for criminality — in short, for his race. Obama could not have been born in the U.S., these voters assumed. He must instead be an interloper, maybe even a Manchurian candidate, foisted on the American people to destroy free markets and the nation’s moral character. When conservatives did acknowledge Obama’s real, Christian faith, they often denigrated it or dismissed its existence altogether. Obama could not even attend church properly. He distanced himself from his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, after ABC News published clips of Wright’s anguished sermons on the virulent character of American racism; Wright’s outcry, “God damn America,” was translated by the right not as a proportionate reaction to centuries of violent oppression but as proof of his famous parishioner’s disloyalty to the United States.

After eight years of the Obama presidency, Democrats should be very good at identifying a baseless smear campaign when they see one. The skills they should have honed under Obama would be crucial now, with prolific liar Donald Trump in office. Relentless fact-checking won’t end Trumpism’s hold on America, but the president’s political opponents ought to at least be able to discern between truth and fiction. Instead, it’s not clear what, if anything, the party’s leaders learned from its Obama-era battles. Faced with a smear campaign against one of its newest congresswomen, the party has stumbled repeatedly.

There’s a clear link between the treatment Obama received as president and the harassment Representative Ilhan Omar undergoes now. Unlike Obama, Omar is Muslim and a hijabi at that; unlike Obama, she was born in an African country. She is even to Obama’s left. The Affordable Care Act never qualified as a socialist policy, despite right-wing claims to the contrary, but Medicare for All, which Omar supports, might fit that description. She is nearly everything the right wing feared Obama would be, and she has borne the cost.

The right wing has again swung into position, with Omar as its principal target. The freshman lawmaker from Minnesota has been painted as an anti-Semite who harbors a secret hatred of the United States. To make the case against Omar, conservatives — with an assist from some liberals — accused the lawmaker of repeating anti-Semitic tropes in a February tweet that criticized AIPAC’s influence in Washington. Omar apologized, saying “my intention is never to offend my constituents or Jewish Americans as a whole.” But a few weeks after that furor subsided, conservative commentators and elected Republicans accused her of trivializing 9/11 in a speech. Trump joined in, tweeting a video that spliced Omar’s remarks with footage from the attacks. Their central complaint — that Omar had said of 9/11, “some people did something” — is inaccurate. Omar was speaking broadly, making a distinction between the 9/11 attackers and the rest of the Muslim world, as Tom Scocca pointed out at HmmDaily. Yet that did not prevent the New York Times’ Bret Stephens from publishing a column that chewed up Omar’s remarks and spat them back out in unrecognizable order; “some people did something” became “something someone did.” Mischaracterizations of Omar’s remarks resemble complaints from Trump and others on the right that Obama — and Hillary Clinton — refused to say the simple words “radical Islamic terrorism.” The implication is that Omar is soft on terror. After all, the 9/11 attackers were Muslim, and so is she. Was she afraid to mention that? Really makes you think.

Meanwhile, the death threats pour in. On Friday, Florida authorities arrested a professed Trump supporter who left threatening voicemails for Senator Cory Booker, Representative Eric Swalwell, and Representative Rashida Tlaib, who, like Omar, is Muslim. Talking Points Memo reports that the man threatened to kill Ilhan Omar in each of the voicemails. Omar had already said that she “experienced an increase in direct threats on my life” after Trump tweeted that edited video of her 9/11 remarks, and earlier this month, police arrested a Western New York man for threatening to shoot Omar, whom he’d called a terrorist.

Omar needs the support of her party, and she’s received it from some members. Tlaib and other left-wing freshman Democrats issued strongly worded statements of support, as did most of the party’s presidential candidates. But after Trump tweeted his edited Omar video, other Democrats dithered. In a tweet, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand offered support for the congresswoman but said that as a senator who represents 9/11 victims, she can not “accept any minimizing of that pain.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi offered what HuffPost called a “lukewarm” response to Trump’s video, which did not refer to Omar by name. She issued another, more strenuous condemnation of the video days later, saying that her party has “no taint” of anti-Semitism. “I don’t think that the congresswoman is anti-Semitic. I wouldn’t even put those in the same category,” she told CNN. Steny Hoyer, the House Majority Leader, has remained silent on the subject of Omar since March, when he attacked her in a speech to AIPAC.

Representative Lucy McBath returned a campaign donation from Omar. So did Dan McCready, a candidate for office in North Carolina’s Ninth Congressional District, after one of his Republican challengers attacked him for taking Omar’s money. In explanatory tweets, McCready tried to split the difference. He hates anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, he said:

McCready’s explanation might be coherent if Omar was anti-Semitic. She isn’t, as Pelosi has now noted. But it’s startling and disturbing that so many other Democrats will not call a smear a smear. Islamophobia “is still very present on both sides of the aisle,” Rashida Tlaib told CNN in March. This is not an image the Democratic Party — which has been touting the historic diversity of its freshman class — wants for itself. But the party cannot escape its history. Many of its members have backed violent interventions in majority-Muslim countries. Most still profess support for an increasingly far-right and oppressive Israeli government. These tendencies still haunt the party, even as it begins to diversify. Obama wasn’t a Muslim, after all; maybe this made him easier for Democrats to defend.

But Omar isn’t going anywhere, and neither are American Muslims. On the subject of Omar, and the smears that endanger her life, Democrats should speak with one voice. If they can’t, they’ll prove definitively that they failed to learn one major lesson from the Obama presidency. Give prejudice any oxygen, and it will ignite.

After Obama, Dems Should Know How to Defend Ilhan Omar