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Bad Faith All Around

And a little hypocrisy for good measure.
April 17, 2019
Bad Faith All Around
(Photo illustration by Hannah Yoest / photos: GettyImages / Gage Skidmore)

Apparently this was the outrage we needed: a weekend of lighting bonfires of memes about Ilhan Omar and 9/11. It is almost as if we needed something to fill time in the blankish interlude between the Barr letter and the actual Mueller Report.  

By normal historical standards, reports that the president had promised pardons to immigration officials who broke the law would be a bone-rattling scandal that would shake any other presidency. But in this one, it’s just another news cycle, an extension of the humdrum outrages about immigration, sanctuary cities, the decapitation of the Department of Homeland Security, and other now routine-seeming kerfuffles of the Trump era.

What we reached for instead was the outrage crack, because nothing beats the visceral rush of using the burning towers of the World Trade center to score political points.

And since we deserve it, we found ourselves in the midst of a controversy described by  David French as a moment “of nearly record-level hypocrisy and absurdity.”

In the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf wrote that Omar, a first year congresswoman from Minnesota, had fallen victim to what he called the “outrage exhibitionists” over her comment that “some people did something” on 9/11.  

But, in turn, Democrats and their allies took the bait, conflating political attacks with incitements to violence and falling back on a reflexive identity politics to defend Omar. The hysteria of their rhetoric was counterpoised to the bad faith of some of her critics.

Some background.

Omar spoke more than a month ago to a meeting of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. This is what she said:

“For far too long we have lived with the discomfort of being a second-class citizen and, 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. “ [Emphasis added.]

Friedersdorf argues that Omar’s meaning should have been clear: “Many Muslims felt collectively blamed for something that was indisputably perpetrated by a tiny fraction of their co-religionists and marshaled new resources to protect their civil rights in response. (CAIR was actually founded in the 1990s, but expanded significantly after 9/11.)”

Michael Smerconish suggests that Omar could have said something like this:

CAIR doubled in size after 9/11 because they recognized that in the aftermath of the most despicable and heinous terrorist attack on our country perpetrated by radical Islam, law abiding, peace loving Muslims were losing access to our civil liberties.

Of course, that is not what she actually said.

But as Friedersdorf notes, her speech was covered live and generated little controversy at the time. But “[t]hen, this month, an Australian imam stripped one of her remarks from its context and tweeted, ‘Ilhan Omar mentions 9/11 and does not consider it a terrorist attack on the USA by terrorists, instead she refers to it as ‘Some people did something,’ then she goes on to justify the establishment of a terrorist organization (CAIR) on US soil.’”

This was obviously a gross mischaracterization of her actual words (and CAIR is not a terrorist organization), but Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) retweeted the charge, commenting:  “First Member of Congress to ever describe terrorists who killed thousands of Americans on 9/11 as ‘some people who did something,’ Unbelievable.”

And we were off. The controversy escalated quickly, moving from Crenshaw’s tweet to the cover of the New York Post, to Fox News, to the inevitable Trump tweet, which featured graphic and chilling video footage of the falling towers along with Omar’s comment. (You can go find it yourself if you’re curious.)

Friedersdorf acknowledges that Omar’s language was “an inartful locution on an emotionally fraught topic,” but accused Crenshaw of “opportunistically drawing attention to an unintentionally problematic word choice, like an ‘SJW’ filing a frivolous complaint about a microaggression.” Writes Friedersdorf:

Civic conversation in America is dysfunctional in part because we have so many such outrage exhibitionists. These folks strip inartfully phrased remarks of context, ignoring the speaker’s intentions and imputing the least charitable possible meaning. This sets them up to display umbrage with the ostentation of a peacock.

So the key question here is whether or not Omar deserved the benefit of the doubt: Was her language merely flip and inartful? Or deeply offensive and insensitive?

French argues that “charitable readings of statements should be our default” but that “there are public voices who’ve forfeited the benefit of the doubt. Like Iowa’s racist congressman Steve King, Omar is one of those people. It’s her responsibility to be clear about what she means.”

Indeed, Omar’s penchant for extremist rhetoric and anti-Semitic tropes has made her a toxic political commodity. In 2012, Omar tweeted that “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.” She has more recently implied that Jews have dual loyalties to Israel, and, although she has apologized, her contrition often seems feeble, tentative, and short-lived.

In a rational political universe, we would focus on legitimate criticism of her various remarks, but Fox News’ Judge Jeanine set the tone for some of the critiques of the freshman congresswoman back in March, when she pointed to the fact that Omar wears a hijab and said: “Is her adherence to this Islamic doctrine indicative of her adherence to Sharia law which in itself is antithetical to the United States constitution?” Fox News condemned her comments and suspended her from the air, but Trump quickly came to her defense, tweeting from the White House, “Bring back [Judge Jeanine] Pirro.”

So what happened this weekend was as inevitable as it was awful. Trump cannot resist an opportunity to insert himself into an emotional, divisive, volatile situation, with the added bonus that he could play upon fears of terrorism, while once again raising doubts about the patriotism and American identity of his opponents. Trump has never mastered the art of statecraft, but he knows how to shape and prod a Grievance Movement; Trump understands it needs a focus, an image, and preferably a face. And from Trump’s point of view Ihlan Omar is perfect beyond imagining.

The result was a tasteless, demagogic, and emotionally manipulative tweet that used a national tragedy to take a shot against a partisan foe. That was bad enough. But as French notes, the response to Trump’s tweet was itself “an avalanche of hysteria and hypocrisy.”

The Democratic counterpunch has been to cast Omar as a victim and the criticism of her as an “incitement” to violence. By the weekend, the Omar-as-threatened-victim narrative had spread throughout the Democratic ranks.

Beto O’Rourke declared: “This is an incitement to violence against Congresswoman Omar, against our fellow Americans who happen to be Muslim. This is part and parcel of what we’ve seen from an administration that has described Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals.”

To be sure, Trump clearly wants to stir up anger against the freshman congresswoman. But does political criticism – even tasteless and demagogic criticism – really amount to incitement to violence? This attempt to equate unpleasant speech with violence, is of course, familiar to anyone who has watched as SJWs on college campuses have conflated opinions with threats to safety, by claiming that the presence of offensive speakers makes them feel “unsafe.” This not only strengthens their status as victims, but also creates a rationale for treating speech as something dangerous to be condemned, regulated, and contained, rather than simply refuted.

The larger problem with this sort of thing should also be obvious. If criticism constitutes a threat, then what about the often over-the-top criticism of Trump and other Republicans by the Resistance? Or does only some criticism constitute “incitement”? How far do we want to take this line? Or is it hypocrisy all the way down?

An even more ominous development for Democrats is the growing pressure to make defending Omar a litmus test of wokeness.

“Black folks are watching. Muslim folks are watching. Brown folks are watching,’’ warned Jennifer Epps-Addison, the co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy “And we’re making our decisions about who to support in real time. When your sister is being attacked, you can’t wait to get the politics right.”

For Democrats, this a dangerous trap. As David Frum notes:

Trump wishes to make Omar the face of the Democratic Party heading into the 2020 elections—and now he has provoked Democrats to comply….

Democrats are now stuck with responsibility for the reckless things the representative from Minnesota says, not only about Jews, but about other issues, too…

After Trump’s tweeted attack, Omar will become even more internally uncriticizable and unmanageable, without becoming any more careful or responsible.

So expect all of this to keep getting worse.

Charlie Sykes

Charlie Sykes is a founder and editor-at-large of The Bulwark and the author of How the Right Lost Its Mind. He is also the host of The Bulwark Podcast and an MSNBC contributor.