Last Friday, the president of the United States waged war on the First Amendment unlike anything I’ve witnessed. It gets more twisted because Trump’s weapon of choice was an abuse of the First Amendment.
It’s the sort of thing we saw happen in the Balkans during the 1990’s and read about happening in the Soviet Union. It resembled the rhetoric of dying authoritarianism I remember seeing in Poland, ironically, while I was taking a course on human rights. We saw it when Andrew Breitbart “edited” a speech by Shirley Sherrod to the point of distorting the content and intent of her words.
But, this is the first time in my recollection that a president incited hatred against a member of Congress. Personal attacks yes, spin yes. But this video was one long deception. Everything from the mischaracterization of CAIR, to the way Omar’s comments were taken out of context was intended to incite hatred, against Omar and her family. But it’s even more sinister than that because Trump used this video to expand on an Islamophobic narrative about Muslims and 9/11 that he has been exploiting for years. And more broadly, he used it to expand on his desperate attempt to portray the Democratic Party as Anti-Jewish.
Before we go any further, this is the same Donald Trump who described the white supremacists in Charlottesville as “very fine people”. He is the same Donald Trump who has used anti-Semitism tropes on more than one occasion and whose party had several neo-Nazi candidates in 2018. Jews don’t need the likes of Donald Trump to tell us who our friends are, or which party is sympathetic to us.
You may have heard about “the video” Donald Trump tweeted that interspersed extracts of a speech by Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar with the horrific images of 9/11 in a manner that portrayed Omar as insufficiently outraged. The fact that Trump was willing to exploit 9/11 already says volumes about his character but, there is no way he didn’t have some level of anticipation the video wouldn’t outrage his volatile base.
Here is the unedited version of Omar’s speech:
The specific sentence that Trump used to manipulate public opinion was:
“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.”
Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler walks us through the anatomy of contemporary propaganda techniques that were used to target Congresswoman Omar for death threats and abuses that Trump has long conditioned his supporters to engage in against anyone who questions his power, his authority or his warped perception of reality.
Omar’s speech became a thing because a self-described Imam of peace in Australia tweeted, “Ilhan Omar mentons 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.”
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.
— Imam Mohamad Tawhidi (@Imamofpeace) April 9, 2019
He got several facts wrong. CAIR is an civil rights group, founded in 1994 and modeled to be like the ADL. It is not a terrorist organization and any suggestion that it is really amounts to an attack on the civil liberties of people whose rights the organization was established to protect.
That got retweeted by Republican member of Congress Dan Crenshaw who added the following comment, just to get those peace juices flowing:
“First Member of Congress to ever describe terrorists who killed thousands of Americans on 9/11 as “some people who did something”.
First Member of Congress to ever describe terrorists who killed thousands of Americans on 9/11 as “some people who did something”.
— Dan Crenshaw (@DanCrenshawTX) April 9, 2019
And the rest, as they say, is history. Like most of Trump’s scams, he did succeed in inspiring his base. The death threats against Omar have increased since Trump released the video.
I’ll be the first to admit that, while the comment Trump excited his base about was taken out of context, the Congresswomen did, I think, make some offensive comments in the past.
Omar’s speech may upset and offend, but it is protected speech. This makes Trump’s attempt to “inspire” his followers to terrorize Congresswoman Omar all the more disturbing, especially given some of his other activities last week – like offering a bribe to officials to break the law.
And while it is true that Trump is attacking the freshman class of representatives, especially women of color, that isn’t his endgame.
Ilhan Omar serves a dual purpose to Donald Trump. Throughout his political career, Donald Trump exploited people’s fears and hatred of Muslims. By taking Omar’s speech out of context in the name of presenting her as insufficiently respectful of the horror of 9/11, Trump abused the First Amendment.
In reality, this was as much Trump waging war on the First Amendment. True, Omar isn’t the most sympathetic character. She offends Islamophobes by her very being, as a Muslim woman of color. This is the latest in a string of controversial remarks, including some that have been characterized as anti-Semitic. Hoping to distract from the latest in many years of racist comments by Steve King, Republicans welcome the opportunity to use Omar to drag Democrats down in the xenophobic muck with them.
While this is awful enough, the concern goes beyond Trump stoking the fires of Islamophobia. By attacking Omar as he did, the way he did, Trump is exhibiting yet another aspect of authoritarianism. Namely, the idea that he and he alone decides who “deserves” civil rights like the right to free speech and who doesn’t.
Trump is counting on us being less concerned about Omar’s civil liberties by painting her as an unsympathetic character. Ironically, he uses an over-inclusion fallacy to justify taking rights away from a person and a group he has portrayed as unsympathetic. In short, Trump is using deceit to incite hatred.
As Greg Sargent observed on the Plum Line:
As Peter Beinart argues, Omar is urging American Muslims to be citizens, that is, to be politically active in resisting discrimination and in their defense of their rights as Americans.
I want to take this a step further and argue that it’s this idea that Trump and his allies really object to. Crenshaw, oozing a slimy trail of bad faith and phony sanctimony, claims the charge of incitement is meant to “silence” critics of Omar.
Omar’s life is at greater risk, as are the lives of her young children, because of Donald Trump’s tweet than it was before that tweet.
Perhaps for Trump this is all about distracting attention from the redacted version of the Mueller Report, which is expected to be released on Thursday.
It’s Congresswoman Omar and her young family who woke up to increased security because of the increased death threats inspired by Donald Trump.
Speaker Pelosi assessed the situation as dire enough to warrant increased security for the Congresswoman and her family. Speaker Pelosi urged the president to take the tweet down, given that the president is not supposed to threaten American citizens, including his critics and members of Congress who are in the opposing party. But, the excitability of people Trump incites with his Islamophobic rhetoric is another factor.
The Islamophobic component of Trump’s motive to tweet that propaganda video is supported by Trump’s rhetoric over the years and his policies – including his Muslim ban.
I’ll concede that there’s a speculative component to my assertion that Trump is using Omar to wage war on the First Amendment. But if we look at the examples of growing authoritarianism, it begins with taking rights away from unsympathetic people and groups and expands until the only people with rights are the dictator and to a lesser degree his family.
It means reacting to Trump’s actions will not be enough to stop our descent into tyranny. We must get ahead of his actions to have any hope of stopping him.