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Why Ilhan Omar’s Latest Apology Fell Flat

February 12, 2019
Why Ilhan Omar’s Latest Apology Fell Flat
U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN). (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

For the second time in less than a month, Rep. Ilhan Omar is apologizing for an anti-Semitic tweet, but her statement indicates that she still doesn’t quite get it.

A few weeks ago, Omar apologized for a 2012 tweet in which she complained that “Israel has hypnotized the world,” feigning ignorance: “In all sincerity, it was after my CNN interview that I heard from Jewish orgs. that my use of the word ‘Hypnotize’ and the ugly sentiment it holds was offensive.”

And yet here’s what she tweeted Monday:

Omar’s remark was sufficiently odious – she’d be right at home with the likes of Pat Buchanan – that 17 House Democrats called for her to apologize with 24 hours, and two began collecting signatures on a letter encouraging Speaker Nancy Pelosi to denounce Omar and Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who is facing criticism herself for having written a column for Final Call, Louis Farrakhan’s publication, in 2006.

The first part of Omar’s apology was … pretty good.

It’s hard to imagine, given the abundance of trolls and cranks on social media, that Omar hasn’t at some point been singled out for mistreatment due to her skin color, place of birth, or religion, but invoking the victim card undercuts the apology. That wrong note, however, is insignificant compared to the second paragraph, which she should have omitted entirely:

At the same time, I reaffirm the problematic role of lobbyists in our politics, whether it be AIPAC, the NRA or the fossil fuel industry. It’s gone on too long and we must be willing to address it.

Perhaps Omar is genuinely worried about money in politics. But her choice of targets is curiously one-sided. The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers donated more than $30 million to politicians and advocacy groups in between 2017 and 2018, compared to AIPAC’s $20,015 in the same period. The two teachers unions spent over $9 million on lobbying in the last two years, well surpassing AIPAC’s $6.9 million. Planned Parenthood, meanwhile, directs its spending more on electioneering than lobbying. It spent almost $7 million in the 2018 election cycle, counting donations to individuals and groups, and almost $2.6 million in lobbying.

Or maybe there’s something uniquely corrosive about groups who give money to one’s opponents.

What’s telling is that Omar’s strategy resembles that of the disgraced Harvey Weinstein, who promised to use his wealth to combat the NRA as rape accusations were being hurled his way. It was a shallow ploy to resuscitate his reputation by choosing the right enemies.

The gamble was never going to pay off. By injecting politics into his apology, he cheapened it from the solemn reflections of a broken man to a mere PR strategy to get back on top.

It didn’t work well for Omar, either. The first part of her apology was good enough to warrant forgiveness. She revealed a little bit of her inner world and, in a flawed way, empathized with those she offended. She apologized not as a progressive or even as a politician, but as a person. She showed she was trying to improve.

And then she went right back to petty political angling. She wasn’t being educated or stepping back to think through criticism. She was just saying what she needed to say to get back in the good graces of her party.

We are in a moment where politicians often feel the need to handle their own social media. In that respect, Omar is much like President Trump, AOC, and others. For good or ill, we know what they really think. A casual retweet revealed Omar’s thinking in a way no stump speech or carefully edited press release ever could. So did her apology.

Benjamin Parker

Benjamin Parker is a senior editor at The Bulwark.