Omar makes an enticing target, because in the recent past she has made comments about Israel’s lobbying power that to many people’s ears veered too close to anti-Semitic stereotype. Now conservatives feel they can say whatever they want about Omar, no matter how false, because they can simply paint any Democrat who defends her against such lies as somehow anti-Semitic.
Even more important, it allows Republican propagandists to have it both ways. To mainstream journalists and liberal critics, they can pretend that they’re merely “criticizing” Omar as a person, not targeting her for being a black Muslim. But they also know their own audiences don’t read the story that way, but instead view it as racist demagoguery — which is why they like it.
But racism isn’t necessarily the electoral slam dunk that Trump and his backers think it is. Yes, Trump ran a racist campaign in 2016 and won, but only because of tiny margins in a handful of districts. It’s unsurprising that he returned to that well last year, successfully driving the media to devote enormous amounts of coverage to a small group of Central American migrants seeking asylum, that Trump frequently likened to an “invasion.”
Perhaps most importantly, what changed during those two years is that the taboo against labeling bigotry as bigotry has faded dramatically.
In 2016, Trump benefitted from the notorious reluctance of many in the media and politics to correctly identify his behavior and attitudes as sexist and racist, instead falling back on the long-standing habit of giving conservatives the benefit of the doubt and presuming they act out of ignorance rather than malice. When Hillary Clinton broke with this tradition and called out the racist supporters of Trump as “deplorables,” her truth-telling was treated as a bigger scandal than all of Trump’s numerous lies.
But by 2018, huge numbers of people were fed up with pretending that bigots mean well. Full-throated denunciations of Trump’s racism and sexism have become normal in a way that would have shocked people in 2016. Now that politicians and journalists feel free to call out Trump’s racism and fear-mongering for what it is, I suspect that has blunted the impact of his demagoguery. The media’s increasing willingness to admit that Trump’s rhetoric almost always involves actual lying has helped, as well.
These attacks on Ilhan Omar are just the beginning of what will be a two-year blitzkrieg of lies and bigotry rained down on the country by Trump, Fox News and their allies. Democrats need to offer a blunt, unapologetic, forceful response that correctly identifies this behavior as racism and sexism, and calls out attempts to deny it as gaslighting. Trump and company are going to be hyper-racist no matter what. But a forceful pushback can make the road much tougher for them.
The good news is that many Democratic leaders seem to be getting the message. After an initial hesitation to defend Omar by name, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi released a statement describing Trump’s comments demonizing Omar as “hateful and inflammatory rhetoric” and indicated that she would assign a security detail to Omar and her family. Multiple Democratic presidential candidates, including Sens. Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren, have bluntly described Trump’s language as “racism,” “vilifying a whole religion” and “inciting violence” against “an entire group of Americans based on their religion.”
Trump won’t be slowed down by these reactions — he’s continuing to attack Pelosi for failing to “control” Omar — but by correctly labeling his language, instead of hiding behind euphemisms, Democrats are raising the political price he’s paying. They are also modeling courage for followers, the kind of courage that will hopefully inspire higher voter turnout in 2020.
Trump will definitely win if Democrats stand by and do nothing but offer mealy-mouthed and limp statements in response to his overt bigotry. But if Democrats can continue to show spine and fight back, they have a fighting chance of taking back the White House in 2020. And then the process of trying to clean up the racist toxin Trump has spread across America can truly begin.