Rep. Ilhan Omar Faces Backlash and an Unwelcoming Democratic Party

Sean Gannon

Few recent politicians have had a more controversial first term than Representative Ilhan Omar. The Muslim Democrat from Minnesota faces pushback over past and recent comments on Israel and the Sept. 11 attacks, finding herself a central target of President Trump’s reelection campaign and a contentious figure in the Israel-friendly Democratic Party.

After tweeting that American politicians’ support for Israel is “all about the Benjamins,” (referencing the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC) and later insinuating American Jews’ dual loyalty to the Israeli state, many observers felt the Congresswoman had fallen to well-worn anti-semitic tropes. More recently, Omar took heat for a line in a speech that defended a Muslim civil rights advocacy group, saying it was founded after Sept. 11 “because they recognized that some people did something and that all of us [Muslims] were starting to lose access to our civil liberties.” Critics claimed she trivialized the attacks with her flippant language, and President Trump tweeted a video that juxtaposed Omar’s words with footage of the falling towers.

Illustration by Megan Waldau

The video was not the lone retort from President Trump, who has repeatedly used Twitter to criticize the Somali-American Representative for “anti-semitic” and “anti-American” rhetoric. Rina Cakrani and Joe Jolley, junior and senior Politics majors at Whitman, think it’s clear why Omar has become one of the president’s favorite targets.

“[Omar] embodies everything that [Trump’s] against — she’s Muslim, she’s an immigrant, she’s a woman, she’s black,” Cakrani said. “I think [Trump] really knows his base, and knows what they want to hear.”

Jolley also thinks that Omar — an uber-progressive politician and the first to wear a hijab in Congress — is facing the expected backlash.

“She’s been pretty outspoken in pushing the Democratic Party leftwards, and I think that sees a lot of backlash. And all of that is hugely amplified by the fact that she’s a black Muslim,” he said. Jolley, who organizes with the Democratic Socialists in town, thinks Omar’s identity and politics makes her a focal point for hard-right antipathy. “She very clearly provides a foil, a caricature, to focus reactionary right-wing political energy,” Jolley said. 

David Frum, a staff writer for The Atlantic, thinks that by purposely hyping up Omar’s influence in the Party — like calling Omar Nancy Pelosi’s “leader” in a tweet — Trump is trying to paint the Democratic Party with Omar’s controversial words.

“It cannot be pleasant for Omar’s colleagues to have to wonder and worry what that next remark will be — knowing that Donald Trump and his Twitter feed will be waiting to blame all Democrats for the provocations of one,” Frum wrote in an article.  

Trying to backup Omar against Trump without endorsing her comments on Israel, establishment Democrats and presidential candidates have been notably coy in their support for the divisive Congresswoman.

“I’m still not seeing support from the center of the Democratic Party,” Jolley said. And after a Florida man was arrested for threatening to kill Omar, among various death threats, Jolley hasn’t seen enough candidates fully support Omar, leading him to call their response “really bad, dangerously bad.” Jolley expects Omar to continue to voice her opinions, putting her at odds with more pro-Israel parts of the Democratic Party while enticing right-wing hate.

But what has gotten Omar in trouble — her propensity to offer her unabashed opinion — is also what has earned her a large and loyal following, and an impressive fundraising haul of nearly $1 million from small-dollar donors. Cakrani is one of many members in the Party who supports Rep. Omar, and feels this quality is an asset.

“I like that she’s open about her beliefs — that she’s outspoken,” Cakrani said. “She says what she thinks.”