Opinion: Ilhan Omar, Trump and the framing of the 2020 election

President Trump and the Republicans’ focus on Rep. Ilhan Omar has less to do with her than with the 2020 election.
(Nicholas Kamm / AFP/Getty Images)

You can look at the current brouhaha over a poorly made point by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) in a few ways, but in the end, this all comes down to politics and the 2020 presidential election.

This all began when Omar, a rookie member of Congress speaking off the cuff (again), offered up a softball to the right wing when she referred to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as “some people did something” — a verbal effort to set apart the horrific crimes of the 19 hijackers and their Al Qaeda network from everyday Muslims in the U.S.

It’s a valid point, albeit botched in the delivery. In the aftermath of those attacks, Muslims in the U.S. have been targeted for personal attacks and have seen their civil liberties erode because they share a religion with the terrorists.

A parallel hypothetical: Imagine American Christians seeing their rights curtailed because a few antiabortionists harassed abortion providers, and a few went so far as to bomb abortion clinics and murder doctors. Omar’s point was that there has been collective guilt assigned where it doesn’t belong, and that is wrong.


So what’s really going on here?

Unless, of course, you’re Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas), who, more than two weeks after Omar’s March 23 address before the Council of American-Islamic Relations of Greater Los Angeles meeting in Woodland Hills, retweeted a controversial Muslim cleric’s condemnation of Omar. President Trump picked up the cause, and off we went into yet another cul de sac of political distraction.

The lesson here: Omar needs a little down time to consult with some crisis managers on how to make her political points without also making so many unforced errors. She had a reasonable argument to make, she framed it poorly and now the issue is her, not the unconscionable treatment of Muslims post-Sept. 11. And before the right wing gets all up in a lather, yes, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were horrific crimes against the American people committed by radical Islamist terrorists. But that didn’t give the nation leave to target all Muslims, and it is crassly cynical to link Omar to them.

So what’s really going on here? It’s all about Trump’s reelection and the Republicans’ efforts to demonize Democrats as an anti-American other, ready to insult Mom, cheat at baseball games and put pebbles in the apple pie.


Right now, Trump is the putative Republican nominee for the 2020 election (efforts to challenge him aren’t likely to get far). So, all things being equal, the election will be about him, which is problematic for an incumbent whose polling numbers are as underwater as a 2009 mortgage. His tax cut has blown up, his administration’s ineptitude brings to mind the Marx Brothers in “Duck Soup” (“Hail, Freedonia!”), and his trade policies and foreign affairs have unsettled the global stage in ways that might be irreversible.

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About the only thing he has going for him is his blindly loyal base, which is maybe a third of the electorate, and that he hasn’t yet screwed up the growing economy he inherited from Barack Obama.

The election is also why he has been having fits over the recent increase in apprehensions of migrants, mostly asylum-seekers, at the U.S.-Mexico border. Trump won the White House in large part by fear-mongering and by scapegoating immigrants (as well as attacking key institutions of civil society), yet he has been incapable of crafting a coherent, workable and legal approach to addressing illegal immigration. There are more people in the overwhelmed immigration court system and more people in immigration detention than before he took office. Even some of his supporters balked at the cruel program of separating migrant children from their parents. And this latest chatter about sending asylum-seekers awaiting hearings to sanctuary cities and states is designed to distract (gee, what’s happening Thursday?), not address a problem.

There’s a lot there to tee up against. But the Democrats have a football-team-size field of candidates, heavy on progressives, and scattered across the left side of the spectrum of issues. Medicare for all. Social justice (an ill-defined topic to most people). Voting rights. Guaranteed basic income. Missing: “Kitchen table economics.” This is a fight on the left to secure the nomination, but over-focusing on those issues carries risks.

So what Trump and the Republicans are really seeking to do by targeting Omar and “socialist” Democratic ideas (“Paging Joe McCarthy! Paging Joe McCarthy! Redbaiting is back!”) is to frame the 2020 election as less about Trump than about all the “scary” things Democrats might do. And the longer Trump can make the Democrats play defense, the better his chances.

Especially if Trump gets to frame the contours of the election sufficiently to make people forget about Russian meddling, the Mueller report, obstruction of justice, conflicts of interest, environmental degradation, punitive tariffs, a revolving-door Cabinet and all the other controversies and weaknesses of his presidency.

For all his faults, Trump has proven that he can be a master manipulator. The Democrats will be lost in the wilderness if they can’t find a way to counter that. And the job gets even harder with self-inflicted controversies.


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