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To Protect Ilhan Omar, We Must Beat Back the March of Fascism

Last night’s rally drove home just how dire the situation has become, not simply for Omar, but for us all.

Rep. Ilhan Omar conducts a news conference in the Capitol Visitor Center responding to negative comments by President Trump that were directed at freshmen House Democrats on Monday, July 15, 2019.

I woke up this morning feeling afraid for Ilhan Omar.

Last night, a mob of Trump fans rallied around the idea of disposing of Omar, chanting, “Send her back! Send her back!” and calling her a traitor. In the wake of criticism, Trump has attempted to distance himself from the chant, but the language deployed by his supporters inarguably echoes Trump’s own racist vitriol. The frenzied words of Trump’s supporters are haunting in their own right, but those words are also representative of the disturbing cultural shift we have experienced under this administration.

Since Trump took office, I have been afraid for us all. The actions his administration has taken against marginalized people, in concert with the machinations of other Republicans, have been as destructive as they are depraved.

Under Trump, Republicans have disenfranchised Native people, terrorized undocumented people both physically and psychologically, unleashed heightened voter suppression and state violence against Black people, treated pregnant people as mere incubators that dare not defy their purpose, and stripped away the rights of trans people. And all of this has happened amid a slow-motion apocalypse that Trump hastens every day with his attacks on the Earth.

We have adapted to these conditions, because if we did not find a way to navigate these waking nightmares, we would be unable to function. So we shuffle through our dystopia each day, increasingly numb but still aching and furious that the Democratic Party has repeatedly failed to strike back at a demagogue who is dragging us all toward oblivion. The corporate media has adopted a similar posture to that of Democratic leadership by using tepid language that merely alludes to Trump’s racism, rather than calling it by its name.

But there has been a bright spot for some of us, amid all this terror and destruction: Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar and Ayanna Pressley, four freshman congresswomen who have been dubbed “the Squad,” by both fans and detractors, have shown that they are ready not only to fight Trump, but also to dismantle the neoliberal framework that preceded him. They have offered us a vision of what opposition to Trump could look like, and it looks like hope.

The Squad poses a threat not only to the president, but also to establishment Democrats. Leaders of the Democratic machine watched with dismay as longstanding Democratic members of Congress lost their seats to these women, whom they clearly view as impudent upstarts. Nancy Pelosi has repeatedly lashed out at the group and sought to minimize their significance. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has gone so far as to adopt a policy that blacklists vendors who opt to work with future primary challengers, in an effort to shore up the establishment against progressive candidates who might follow in the Squad’s footsteps.

It was only a matter of time before Trump ramped up his efforts to unleash mob violence against the Squad.

Of the four progressive congresswomen, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar have been the right’s favorite targets. Both have received death threats in the past as a result of hateful, false characterizations deployed by Fox News pundits, the president and other Republicans. In April, a man who had made threats against Ilhan Omar was arrested with illegal firearms and over 1,000 bullets in his possession. The man had previously called Omar’s office and asked a staffer, “Do you work for the Muslim Brotherhood? Why are you working for her, she’s a fucking terrorist.” The man then bluntly threatened Omar’s life, saying, “I’ll put a bullet in her fucking skull.” That same month, Omar said she had experienced a spike in death threats due to Trump’s claims that Omar had minimized the 9/11 attacks. “I have experienced an increase in direct threats on my life — many directly referencing or replying to the President’s video,” Omar said in a statement.

More recently, Trump has escalated his efforts to associate Omar with terrorism, falsely claiming that she praised al Qaeda — the group responsible for the largest act of terrorism ever comitted against the United States. Public devastation around 9/11 left Americans so vulnerable to manipulation that the majority of the country supported the invasion of Iraq.

If Americans can be duped into supporting the murder of hundreds of thousands of people, due to an injury those people had not inflicted, it is not a stretch to assume that a lone Trump supporter could be moved to attack a woman whom Trump has repeatedly associated with terrorism, and even the 9/11 attacks themselves.

Trump has depicted Omar as an enemy of the United States who has infiltrated the halls of Congress. Meanwhile, Tucker Carlson has described her as “living proof that the way we practice immigration has become dangerous to this country.” Carlson declared that Omar, who immigrated to the U.S. as part of a child resettlement program after escaping the civil war in Somalia, is “a living fire alarm” — a harbinger of just how dangerous immigration has become.

Carlson also stated that Omar’s “undisguised contempt” for the United States served as evidence that (implicitly white) Americans “aren’t self-confident enough to make [immigrants] assimilate, so [the immigrants] never feel fully American.” This white nationalist rhetoric positions immigrants as not being real Americans. Moreover, by connecting Omar’s history as a child refugee with the supposed danger she poses to the U.S., Carlson is also offering an underlying justification for Trump’s treatment of migrant children. After all, Omar was accepted as a child refugee, and now, in some Trump supporters’ estimation, poses an existential threat to the country.

All of this vitriol has created an environment in which many of us have long feared for Omar’s life. Trump’s supporters have already taken part in acts of violence, with one going so far as to send bombs to Trump’s political enemies and detractors. But last night’s rally drove home just how dire the situation has become, not simply for Omar, but for us all.

After a series of racist attacks on the Squad — which most Republicans predictably refused to condemn — Trump again attacked Omar in remarks he made to the press, saying “There’s a lot of talk about the fact that she was married to her brother.” The ludicrous claim that Omar married her brother to skirt immigration laws is a longstanding right-wing conspiracy that Trump casually brought to his presidential pulpit, as though it were a potentially valid accusation worthy of investigation. Then, last night, we saw the highly combustible energy of Trump’s fandom as they seemingly called for the deportation of Omar — a U.S. citizen — crying, “Send her back! Send her back!”

Watching this unfold, I was reminded of the words of political scientist and historian Robert Paxton — words I think of often when I try to draw a mental map of just how far gone we are under Trump.

Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victim-hood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.

For the last three years, those words have haunted me because I have seen the slow crawl and, at times, the hastening of their manifestation. At Trump’s rallies, we see the feverish preoccupation with decline and victimhood that Paxton described, as well as a compensatory cult “of unity, energy, and purity.” As militants and fascist gangs attack leftists in the streets, as police are given a free hand to commit violence, as ICE and Border Patrol agents are applauded by the president for forcing children and families into cold, cramped cages with concrete floors, and as children die in those conditions, I can’t help but see the uneasy alliance between nationalist militants and traditional elites that Paxton speaks of.

As Shane Burley, the author of Fascism Today, told Truthout after the rally:

Street attacks have only increased since Trump was elected, and moments of racist rhetoric always results in street-level attacks. Entire organizations, like the Proud Boys, are based around sanctifying the street attack against marginalized groups and anyone who opposes them. While this used to be the territory of neo-Nazi skinhead gangs, it has moved into the broader Trumpian sphere and is now used as a way to enforce Islamophobic, anti-immigrant, transphobic and other types of bigoted worldviews.

As police collude with and even publicly bump fists with white nationalists like the Proud Boys, the overlap between state violence and the violence of white nationalist militants has gone from implicit to explicit. With migrants continuously forced into camps that are reminiscent of so many past horrors, we have also seen the abandonment of any pretext of human rights.

When I think of Paxton’s words about the abandonment of liberties, I can’t help but think of Georgia’s last gubernatorial election. When Brian Kemp so blatantly stole the election from Stacey Abrams, we got a glimpse at how blunt things could become at the national level. Kemp made and broke the rules that ensured his victory. There was barely any pretense that his victory was genuine. And he got away with it. A model for what he did now exists.

With Mitch McConnell killing election security bills and anti-Black voter suppression tactics netting victories, it’s no surprise that Republicans in Florida have been brazen enough to level poll taxes in order to prevent people who have served time for felonies from voting, despite the will of the people. With one in 13 Black Americans unable to vote due to felony disenfranchisement, the objective couldn’t be plainer. Republicans are determined to strip away the democratic liberties of those who might remove them.

There are, of course, many ways that a government lurching toward fascism can strip away democratic liberties. In some of these cases, we still have legal redress. But we have seen this president on the brink of doing what he wants, courts be damned, more than once, I think, and his followers want him to overreach. Every time Trump has attempted to exceed the scope of his presidential powers, his fans have cheered him on. Without any ethical restraints, how long will our remaining legal restraints hold? Between a conservative-leaning Supreme Court and a president with no regard for the law, I worry daily about what’s to come.

As for the redemptive violence and internal cleansing that Paxton speaks of, Trump’s attacks on the Squad, and Omar in particular, are emblematic of a larger cultural phenomenon. When Trump’s supporters call Omar a traitor, they are calling her a traitor to a social order that they believe would restore them to their mythical greatness. They see Trump as offering them that transformation. He assures them that that their bigotries are valid. He tells them they have, in fact, been robbed of their rightful place in a social and racial hierarchy. Trump directs his supporters’ rage toward scapegoats like Omar, a Black Muslim congresswoman toward whom they may simultaneously channel their Islamophobia, their anti-Blackness, and their contempt for marginalized people who “invade” the halls of power to assert more authority than they see themselves as having. In this way Omar becomes an emblem of what they are being told must be destroyed for the sake of their own greatness.

When I think about what the next leap in a fascist progression would look like, political assassinations strike me as one of the more ominous thresholds we could cross. So even as I experience intensified fears for Ilhan Omar’s safety, I also fear for all of us to a greater degree than I did only a day ago. The violence that Trumpism is unthinkably menacing against her could catalyze an evil that could envelop us all.

We must protect Ilhan Omar for the sake of decency, for the sake of our freedom, and for the sake of resisting the evils of fascism.

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