Living in 2019 means getting used to the fact that every week brings with it some new, scurrilous attack on Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN). Sometimes these come from Democrats; most of the time they come courtesy of Trump, right-wing media, and the gaggle of ethnonationalists increasingly becoming the face of the Republican Party. Whatever their origin, the attacks build on each other, day after day, week by week, to the point where you’d be forgiven for thinking there was little else happening in the world.
The “why” isn’t hard to understand. For Democrats, terrified of running afoul of AIPAC and the imaginary centrist voter that comes to them in their sleep like the Ghost of Christmas Past, attacking Omar and the rest of the so-called squad is a good opportunity to reassure those forces that the party won’t do or change anything when in power. For the Right, no doubt, the attacks are an expression of simple racism, and an attempt to strike fear into the hearts of an American public they’re gambling is as bigoted as they are.
Yet there’s something else to it as well. As Omar herself said, by trying to paint her as a Bush-era, Islamophobic caricature come to life, Trump is, on one level, trying to use racist fearmongering to distract from his own wilful failure to improve the lives of working Americans, a strategy that’s already failed spectacularly during the 2018 midterms. On another level, he’s trying to undermine the working-class solidarity Americans of all backgrounds ought by rights to feel.
“Throughout our history, racist language has been used to turn American against American in order to benefit the wealthy elite,” she wrote. “If working Americans are too busy fighting with one another, we will never address the very real and deep problems our country faces.”
This is key, because throughout her political career, Omar has demonstrated this understanding that people of different races, genders, religions, and sexual orientations have more in common than the bigots who try and divide them would have them believe. Her 2018 victory alone is evidence of that.
While Minnesota’s fifth district is the most diverse in the state, it’s still majority white. To win, Omar stitched together a coalition of voters from different racial and ethnic groups, united by a program that combined universalist, bread and butter measures — canceling student debt, a national bill of rights for renters — with more specifically oriented social justice policies: raising the refugee quota, taking on racial and religious profiling, banning private prisons, to name a few. (She also ran on starving “perpetual war and military aggression” of government funding.) Despite the series of Democrat and right-wing pile-ons this year, her constituents still love her, as demonstrated by the warm welcome she recently received at the Minnesota airport.
This strategy had been Omar’s entrée into electoral politics in the first place. In her 2016 run for the state legislature, Omar toppled a forty-four-year Democratic incumbent thanks to an army of volunteers and a relentless campaign of door-knocking she personally led that brought together a cross section of voters and inspired a large turnout — several hundred more voters than the 5,500 that longtime Minnesota political operative Brian Rice had initially believed was the maximum possible.
Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party chairman Ken Martin likened it to Paul Wellstone’s 1990 campaign that “inspired a lot of disaffected and disillusioned people who were frustrated with politics and wanted a change.” While her defeated opponent insisted Omar was only doing well because of “young, liberal, white guilt-trip people,” those who saw the campaign firsthand talked about the hard work and broad support that was the campaign’s bedrock.
In the state legislature, she put her political vision in action. She used her newfound clout to back Twin Cities workers campaigning for a minimum wage and trying to unionize, saying it was “part of our country’s history for people to come together and collectively fight for their rights.” She helped write the Working Parents Act, a package of measures that mandated paid family leave, sick leave, stronger wage theft protection, and more, and co-authored bills repealing the prohibition of rent control, requiring the expunging of evictions more than three years old, prohibiting drug manufacturers and distributors from price gouging, and much more.
Omar was also the chief author of a host of legislation tackling a variety of issues that included foreign policy. She wrote bills that barred state and local governments and law enforcement from getting their hands on military weapons, increased punishment for anyone committing an offense against a protester, made Minnesota a sanctuary state, added gender discrimination protections to the state constitution, and others. In her final year in Minnesota’s House, she spearheaded a resolution calling for an end to US military aid to Honduras, mired in violence and abuse since an Obama-backed coup ten years ago now.
She also took brave stances. Omar was one of just four House members to vote against a bill whose approach to combating the practice of genital mutilation would have, in practice, discouraged those affected from seeking medical treatment, as a number of immigrant and refugee groups pointed out. She was one of only two to vote against a bill allowing insurance companies to deny payouts to those whose loved ones died while committing an act of “terror,” the definition of which the bill left up to the companies themselves to decide. These votes carried political risk, given how easily, in combination with her personal background, they could be used to smear and caricature her. (“Muslim Lawmaker Votes in Favor of Terrorists,” ran one headline).
And now she’s continuing that track record in the US House of Representatives. Although hostile Democrats and the Right have put the focus on Omar’s foreign policy — her criticisms of Israeli policy and her public grilling of war criminal and Trump appointee Elliott Abrams, which, it must be remembered, set off the first wave of attacks against her — most of the bills she’s sponsored have dealt with the domestic front. One of them would have reimbursed childcare costs for federal workers affected by this year’s government shutdown. Another outlaws the shaming of students for lunch debt and allowed schools to be federally reimbursed for unpaid meals. Her Zero Waste Act aims to wean the United States off toxic landfills, which she noted is an issue of racial and economic, not just environmental, justice, and she just made headlines by introducing a bill to cancel student debt.
One of Omar’s bills, in particular, has been overlooked: the Frank Adelmann Manufactured Housing Community Sustainability Act, which seeks to incentivize mobile home park owners to sell their land to residents, named after a Minnesota man who killed himself after the park he’d lived in for ten years was sold and closed, leaving him stranded. The mostly poor mobile home residents who don’t own the land on which they live routinely have their lives thrown into chaos, whether by seeing their rents jacked up, being displaced, made homeless, or separated from their families by sudden park closures, or simply losing their homes, which, contrary to the name, are often not easy to transport. Counter to the Right’s narrative, Omar is keenly aware of the plight of the working class, white or otherwise.
There’s also another dimension to the right-wing attacks on her. Omar, whose legislation strengthening oversight of foreign lobbying passed the House earlier this year, is accused of being some sort of alien, terroristic influence by the supporters and members of an administration that is embarrassingly servile to Saudi Arabia — a state that quite literally collaborates with international terrorists and turns a blind eye to their funding. That country’s state-owned newspaper smeared Omar late last year as part of an Islamist plot to take over Congress. Meanwhile, a recently released House report determined that “with regard to Saudi Arabia, the Trump administration has virtually obliterated the lines normally separating government policymaking from corporate and foreign interests.” When they imply Omar is some disloyal threat working for hostile foreign powers, they’re projecting.
White supremacists fear and hate Omar because they see her as a threat to their vision of a permanent racial hierarchy. But for the Right more generally, she’s a deeper threat. With her politics, her personal appeal, and her knack for building working-class coalitions, Omar threatens their ability to keep on legislating for the rich while trampling the poor and pointing the finger at the Other. That’s why they hate her.