Trump’s attacks on Ilhan Omar are an exercise in thinly-veiled political opportunism

It is clear the president just wants to drive a wedge into the Democratic party as the 2020 election campaign begins.

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Even for Trump, the president’s recent attacks on Ilhan Omar have been appalling. On Friday, in what amounted to a nadir of American discourse even by the subterranean standards of the Trump era, the president posted a video to Twitter interspersing video of a speech by Omar with footage of the 9/11 attack.

The video – which brought to the national level a similarly disgusting poster, also linking Omar to 9/11, which was displayed in the West Virginia legislature in March – had an immediate effect. Omar, who is one of the first Muslim women ever elected to Congress – has been subjected to a surge in death threats over the weekend, many of them credible, and many directly referencing the president’s video. The US Capitol Police have had to be called in to increase protection for Omar.

On Monday, Trump continued his attacks, attempting to frame the Democratic caucus as being overtaken by Omar. He tweeted: “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. She is out of control, except for her control of Nancy!”

Of course, it is obvious to any impartial observer that Trump doesn’t really care about anti-Semitism. Exhibit one: he defended the neo-Nazi marchers in Charlottesville in 2017 – who chanted “Jews shall not replace us” as they paraded with torches in a rally that saw a counter-protester, Heather Heyer, murdered – saying there were “fine people … on both sides.”

As if that alone wasn’t enough, the president has regularly peddled in anti-Semitic tropes, such as when he told a meeting of Jewish Republicans in 2016 “you’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money” and added, as if it would help matters, “Is there anyone in this room who doesn’t negotiate deals? Probably more than any room I’ve ever spoken.” He regularly conflates support for the Israeli government with support for American Jews, all while tolerating the proliferation of rabid anti-Semitism among his social media supporters, who often send torrents of abuse to Jewish journalists.

Given all that, his attacks on Omar are utterly transparent political opportunism: an opportunity to peddle the anti-Islamism which has been core to Trump’s political message from the very beginning of his campaign under the thinnest of veils of faux-concern for Jews.

As Maggie Haberman points out in the New York Times, it is no coincidence that Trump is returning to the core themes that exercise his base just as the 2020 presidential campaign is starting to spin up again. As one of the first Muslim women ever elected to Congress, Omar presents, for Trump, a perfect target to attempt to drive an identitarian wedge into the Democratic party.

Will it work? That’s a difficult question to answer. Certainly, the tactic has already been successful in activating Trump’s already-Islamophobic base. Sure, Omar is not always as careful with her language as she could be; and the Democratic party has already shown, when it censored her for remarks she made about the pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC that the Republicans attacked as anti-Semitic, that it is vulnerable to this kind of wedge-attack approach.

But in banking on making her a household name, Trump is relying on the Democrats to fracture; if they hold the line, Omar could become a cause celebre, demonstrating the president and the Republican party’s rank hypocrisy in decrying “identity politics” while engaging in such a nakedly identitarian assault. Anyone who truly cares about anti-Semitism should be able to see the president’s attacks for exactly what they are.

Nicky Woolf is the editor of New Statesman America. He has formerly written for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.