The US Elections and the Diversity Dilemma

Ilhan Omar, one of the two first Muslim women elected to the U.S. Congress, presents herself as “the president’s nightmare.” But in a country crippled by inattention to the stunning rise of domestic terrorism and a self-described “nationalist” president, a hijab-wearing Muslim woman is like catnip to white supremacists.
Ilhan Omar and the Diversity Dilemma
Photo credit: Lorie Shaull (Flickr)

The election of Ilhan Omar, who joins Rashida Tlaib as the first Muslim women elected to the U.S. Congress, has been celebrated in media outlets across the U.S. and beyond. Omar defeated her Republican challenger, Jennifer Zielinski, in a landslide, receiving 78.2 percent of the vote to Zielinski’s 21.8 percent. On November 7, one day after her historic win, she told BBC: “People are choosing unity over division.”

This is certainly the general mood.

In the wake of disappointing losses like that of Beto O’Rourke in Texas and an increased Republican majority in the Senate, Democrats and their allies took to social media sites to remind their base that what they had just experienced truly was a “blue wave” and a repudiation of the president.

Many users also joked that Vice President Mike Pence, a Christian conservative, would bristle at the thought of swearing into office two Muslim women using a Quran. (He won’t. As President of the Senate, he does not swear in members of the House of Representatives — the House Speaker does.)

The sense of optimism surrounding the (still ongoing) results of the 2018 midterms is palpable, but more importantly, familiar.

Yes We Can

On November 3, 2008, America was also looking forward to a bright future. A biracial junior senator from Illinois, self-described as a “skinny kid with a funny name,” stood at a podium emblazoned with “Change We Need” and delivered his last campaign speech to an enraptured crowd in Virginia.

“I’ve come away with an unyielding belief,” said future president Barack Obama, “that if we only had a government that was as responsible as all of you, as compassionate as the American people, then there’s no obstacle we can’t overcome, there’s no destiny we cannot fulfill . . . . After decades of broken politics in Washington, eight years of failed policies from George Bush, 21 months of campaigning . . . we are less than one day away from bringing about change in America.”

Ilhan Omar and the Diversity Dilemma
Photo credit: Peter J. Souza

Effusive and relentless in his vision of elevated politics (he did, after all, author “The Audacity of Hope”), Obama added:

“Tomorrow, you can put an end to the politics that would divide a nation just to win an election . . . that asks us to fear at a time when we need to hope.”

The election of the first African-American president obviously represented a milestone in American politics. However, that is not how the whole country saw it.

Recruitment and Radicalization

The fuzzy feeling of accomplishment following the 2008 presidential election spilled over into inattention and carelessness regarding the political and social costs of having a black president. Nowhere is this more evident than in the abysmal Democratic voter turnout for the 2010 midterm elections, an electoral disaster from which Democrats are still reeling nearly a decade later.

In a blockbuster cover story for New York Times Magazine, Janet Reitman details this apathy by exploring America’s ongoing crisis with white domestic terrorism — an issue to which, solely by dint of his existence, Obama contributed greatly.

In 2007, when Capitol Police called senior intelligence analyst Daryl Johnson, who ran a small Homeland Security domestic-terrorism unit, about Obama’s run for president, they asked him about the implications:

“What do you think’s going to happen when the Ku Klux Klan and the neo-Nazis and other white supremacists get wind of this?” the officer asked.

Johnson didn’t skip a beat: “I think it’s going to be the perfect recruiting and radicalization tool for white supremacy.”

NYT Magazine also noted that the Southern Poverty Law Center stated that, in 2011, “the number of domestic hate groups in the United States had reached more than 1,000 for the first time” — for a very clear reason. In fact, many signature failures of the Obama presidency — not closing Guantanamo Bay, Republicans blocking Merrick Garland’s Supreme Court nomination, and even the ascension of Donald Trump — could justly be viewed as direct retribution from a nation uncomfortable with having a black president.

Amid the back-patting among Democrats on the results of the midterms, the question lingers: If those are the effects of a black, U.S.-born president (who was falsely labeled as a non-native Muslim by the current president), how will the nation respond to a Muslim, Somali refugee in the House of Representatives?

Opposition As Currency

Barack Obama is not the only kind of politician capable of releasing a veritable torrent of backlash. In the Atlantic article, “From Whitewater to Benghazi: A Clinton-Scandal Primer,” David A. Graham notes:

“No other American politicians — even ones as corrupt as Richard Nixon, or as hated by partisans as George W. Bush — have fostered the creation of a permanent multimillion-dollar cottage industry devoted to attacking them.”

There are differences, big and small, between fresh politicians like Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, and seasoned ones like Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama (not the least being the lack of a 24/7 Secret Service or Capitol Police detail — the Secret Service recently intercepted bombs mailed by a Trump supporter to Obama and Clinton).

But there is very little reason to believe that the president, who targets Pelosi, Clinton, and Obama in abusive Twitter rants on a near-daily basis, will not see a new opportunity in the diversity now flooding the halls of Congress. He may well transform the terms of minority representatives pushing progressive agendas into a referendum on the very concept of a multicultural America itself.

“I think it’s going to be the perfect recruiting and radicalization tool for white supremacy.”

Since the end of the Obama presidency and Hillary Clinton’s 2016 defeat, it is quickly becoming more difficult to identify a single Democratic leader reviled enough to unify the Republican base against a common enemy, especially given the lack of a clear frontrunner for a 2020 presidential bid. For the time being, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi seems like the obvious choice (Pelosi featured as a target in fully over a third of Republican congressional ads in 2018).

Regardless of the political relevance of these characters, part of President Trump’s staying power and cultural currency is opposition. Throughout his presidency — the hallmark of which has been thorough, lasting, and sometimes patently petty obstructionism to all actions and values embodied by Obama — President Trump has carefully carved out a space in the Washington ecosystem for an enemy like Omar to occupy.

Failing to take seriously the strength of opposition to diverse candidates or, as President Obama did in 2016, underestimating the severity of possible reprisals against their tenures, would be a colossal mistake for the Democratic Party to make, even as it continues to rack up stays and gains in the House and Senate.

In totality, rather than seeing diverse candidacies and wins (the young, women, LGBT, and people like Ilhan Omar) as cause for celebration, many Democratic voters are now gravitating towards candidates they consider less likely to be third rails in the political sphere, even if it means losing out on qualified minority ones.

The dilemma of diversity is that a single minority representative cannot be “the president’s nightmare,” because that is exactly what he wants. From the top come venomous tirades and rhetoric that convince supporters of the president like Cesar Sayoc to mail bombs to the president’s named foes. From the bottom comes a nearly endless string of racially-motivated incidents, including vandalism, assault, attempted murder, and murder.

Until a cohesive strategy emerges for decisively combatting the double-edged sword of diversity, candidates such as Ilhan Omar, and the voters who look like them, will continue to be in grave danger.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Inside Arabia’s editorial stance.