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July 17, 2019

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Why Trump won’t stop talking about Ilhan Omar

It’s still common to hear analysts speak of the “Trumpification” of the Republican Party — the extent to which it has adopted the attitude and ethos of the sitting president.

But this phrasing assumes discontinuity between past and present, as if there weren’t antecedents to Donald Trump in the recent Republican past. The actual relationship between Trump and the Republican Party is more psychological. Trump is the Republican id personified, driven to express the impulses and desires of conservative politics in their basest form.

That dynamic has been on clear display this month, as the president of the United States leads a campaign of racist demagoguery against Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, a Somali-American Democrat and one of the first Muslim women elected to Congress.

The pretext for this attack was Omar’s remarks at a fundraiser for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Omar talked about several issues but her major theme was prejudice against Muslim Americans.

“Here’s the truth,” she said. “For far too long we have lived with the discomfort of being a second-class citizen. Frankly, I’m tired of it. And every single Muslim in this country should be tired of it. CAIR was founded after 9/11 because they recognized that some people did something and that all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties.”

CAIR was actually founded in 1994, but Omar’s point is clear: A small group of Muslims committed the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, but many Americans blamed Islam itself. Muslims quickly became targets of fear, disdain and demagogic political rhetoric. A 2004 report from the American Civil Liberties Union showed widespread attacks on the civil rights of Muslims, including harassment and racial profiling by federal law enforcement.

The way Omar’s address made its way to Trump is emblematic of how inflammatory ideas and rhetoric are transmitted from lawmakers and conservative media to the national stage. Omar spoke in public — Fox News even streamed it for its audience. But it wasn’t a controversy until it reached the ears of Rep. Dan Crenshaw of Texas, a Republican who took the snippet on 9/11 and framed it as something disrespectful. “First Member of Congress to ever describe terrorists who killed thousands of Americans on 9/11 as ‘some people who did something,’ ” Crenshaw said on Twitter. “Unbelievable.”

With that, the wider world of conservative media pounced. “You have to wonder if she’s an American first,” declared Brian Kilmeade, one of the hosts of “Fox & Friends” on Fox News. The Rupert Murdoch-owned New York Post took it a step further with a front page showing a photo from 9/11 with the headline, “Here’s Your Something.”

Then Trump stepped into the fray with a video. Footage from the Sept. 11 attacks is edited together with Omar saying “Some people did something” to create the impression of dismissive contempt for the dead. Trump captioned the video “WE WILL NEVER FORGET!” He later retweeted an account that called Omar a “sick monster.”

The president continued his attacks, attempting to disparage House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the process. “Before Nancy, who has lost all control of Congress and is getting nothing done, decides to defend her leader, Rep. Omar, she should look at the anti-Semitic, anti-Israel and ungrateful U.S. HATE statements Omar has made,” he said on Twitter. “She is out of control, except for her control of Nancy!”

Crenshaw may have sparked these attacks, but the president’s intervention has escalated the situation to something potentially dangerous, which is why — after a slow start — Democrats have begun to condemn the president’s actions, defending Omar by name.

“Ilhan Omar is a leader with strength and courage. She won’t back down to Trump’s racism and hate, and neither will we,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. “The disgusting and dangerous attacks against her must end.”

Likewise, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts accused Trump of “inciting violence against a sitting congresswoman — and an entire group of Americans based on their religion.” That, of course, is the idea. Trump believes he benefits from the passions and anger stirred by racist demagoguery.

It is easy to tie these attacks to Trump’s history of anti-Muslim rhetoric. But anti-Muslim prejudice was common in Republican politics before he stepped on the political stage with his “birther” charges against President Barack Obama.

It was an important force among Republican voters — in one 2004 poll, for example, about 40 percent of self-identified Republicans said Muslim Americans should be required to register with the government. Well before Obama was a household name and Trump a political figure, a 2006 Gallup poll found wide anti-Muslim prejudice “with Republicans ascribing more negative political and religious qualities to Muslims, and being more opposed to having Muslims as neighbors than are Democrats and independents.”

It was an important force in conservative media. Conservative radio and television hosts frequently conflated all Muslims with the actions of extremists. In one 2006 segment on his radio show, Glenn Beck warned that if “good Muslims” aren’t “the first ones in the recruitment office lining up to shoot the bad Muslims in the head,” then “human beings” might be forced into “putting up razor wire and putting you on one side of it.”

And it found traffic with Republican politicians. After Keith Ellison became the first Muslim elected to Congress in 2006, Rep. Virgil Goode of Virginia wrote a letter to voters in his district stating his fear that “in the next century we will have many more Muslims in the United States if we do not adopt the strict immigration policies that I believe are necessary to preserve the values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America and to prevent our resources from being swamped.” Anti-Muslim prejudice surfaced throughout the 2008 presidential campaign.

Trump has simply brought this rhetoric to the bully pulpit of the presidency. He has taken everything coursing through the past 20 years of Republican politics and made it explicit. And if Omar is a target, it has little to do with what she said and everything to do with who she is: A black Muslim woman — and an immigrant — whose very person disrupts the exclusionary ideal of a white Christian America.

Jamelle Bouie is a columnist for The New York Times.