By Jamelle Bouie
April 16, 2019
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
That dynamic has been on clear display for
the past few days, as the president of the United States leads a campaign of racist
demagoguery against Representative 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 last month at a fund-raiser 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
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 in the United States, including harassment and racial
profiling by federal law enforcement.
The way Representative Omar’s address made
its way to President Trump is emblematic of how inflammatory ideas and rhetoric
are transmitted from individual 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
Representative 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 Thursday front page
showing a photo from 9/11 — the moment the second plane crashed into the World
Trade Centre — with the headline, “Here’s Your Something.”
On Friday, 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 re-tweeted
an account that called Omar a “sick monster.”
The president continued his attacks on
Monday, 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 Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. “The disgusting and dangerous attacks
against her must end.”
Likewise, Senator 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 that Muslim Americans should be required to register with the
government and 41 percent said that Muslim-American civic groups should be
infiltrated by 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 neighbours 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, Representative 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.
Donald Trump has simply brought this rhetoric
to the bully pulpit of the American presidency. He has taken everything
coursing through the last 20 years of Republican politics and made it explicit.
It now has an official seal of approval. 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.
The difference between the pre-Trump era
and the present, in other words, isn’t the substance of belief but its
expression — and the force of the venom, contempt and hatred behind it.
Jamelle Bouie became a New York Times Opinion columnist in 2019. Before
that he was the chief political correspondent for Slate magazine. He is based
in Charlottesville, Va., and Washington.