Donald Trump’s attacks on Ilhan Omar are coming with greater frequency and greater vitriol as the 2020 election approaches. Last week, he devoted a substantial portion of a rally in Minnesota to vilifying the Democrat representative from the Twin Cities. He followed up this week with a racist rant in Pennsylvania.
It’s the latest manifestation of a pattern that over the past two years has seen the president label Omar “a disgrace to our country,” dismiss her as “an American-hating socialist,” and preside over a rally where his mention of the woman who left Somalia as a child refugee inspired his “cult-rally” zealots to chant, “Send her back! Send her back!”
The president’s fixation on Omar has always been characterized by racism, xenophobia, crude fearmongering, and outright lies. As the presidential election nears, however, it has taken on a more severe and desperate tone.
When Trump attacked Omar this week, he revealed something about the political calculus that animates his obsession with a dynamic political figure who upon her election two years ago announced, “Here in Minnesota, we don’t only welcome immigrants—we send them to Washington.” In Pennsylvania on Tuesday, Trump asked, “How about Omar of Minnesota? We’re going to win the state of Minnesota because of her, they say. She’s telling us how to run our country. How did you do where you came from? How’s your country doing? She’s going to tell us—she’s telling us how to run our country.”
To be clear, while Omar was born in Mogadishu, Somalia, she represents Minneapolis. Her country is the United States, and her constituents have elected her—repeatedly, and overwhelmingly—as a representative who is charged with determining how best to run our country. She has worked as a legislator and an activist to forge a vision for economic, social, and racial justice; protection of the planet; and a foreign policy that emphasizes peace and reconciliation rather than militarism and conflict. She has, as well, displayed political skills that mark her as an essential voice in our national discourse.
Omar has proven adept at parrying presidential attacks, as she did Tuesday night when she replied to Trump with a tweet that declared, “This is my country and I am a member of the House that impeached you. Secondly, I fled civil war when I was 8. An 8-year-old doesn’t run a country even though you run our country like one.”
Omar is on to the president. She recognizes that “Trump preys on fear. He spreads a disease of hate.”
That’s always been the case. But now he is doing so as a craven politician who is desperate to revive a sputtering reelection bid.
Note the line from Trump’s speech on Tuesday: “We’re going to win the state of Minnesota because of her, they say.”
Minnesota is a 2020 swing state. In 2016, Trump lost Minnesota by just 44,470 votes out of almost 3 million cast. That made it the sixth most closely contested state in the race between the Republican presidential nominee and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Since he assumed the presidency, Trump has lavished attention on Minnesota, in hopes of moving enough voters into the Republican column that he can win it in 2020.
To that end, the president has been whipping up what Omar decries as “cult-like rallies,” where he attacks not just the representative but the state’s large Somali America population as well. Last fall, the president traveled to Omar’s district to unleash an vile anti-immigrant diatribe. He has kept coming back to the state, most recently to the northern Minnesota city of Bemidji, where he delivered one of his most incendiary speeches of the 2020 campaign. In it, he claimed that “every family in Minnesota needs to know about sleepy Joe Biden’s plan to flood your state with an influx of refugees from Somalia and from other places all over the planet. That’s what’s happened, and you like Omar a lot, don’t you.”
The crowd jeered and hissed. Trump kept laying it on, spewing white supremacist code words, assuring his supporters that “you have good genes,” and warning that if Biden is elected, the Democrat will empower “extremists like Representative Ilhan Omar.”
But here’s the thing. The Minnesotans who know Omar the best like her—a lot. She won a crowded 2018 Democratic primary in Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District with 48 percent of the vote and then carried the general election that year with 78 percent. In this year’s Democratic primary, against a free-spending opponent whose campaign poured $4 million into the effort to displace her, Omar won with 58 percent of the vote—a 10-point bump from her previous primary. And no one thinks she’s in any kind of trouble this fall. Yet she is campaigning hard, with an eye toward boosting turnout for the presidential race.
It seems to be working. Despite all the president’s campaigning in Minnesota, and all of his xenophobic attacks on Omar and the Somali-American community, the Real Clear Politics average of recent polls has Biden leading 51.6–41.4. And a new ABC News/Washington Post poll put Biden at 57 percent to just 41 percent for Trump.
Trump’s ramped-up racism is fueled by his fear of losing Minnesota, says Omar. “What he knows is that the Democratic power in Minnesota runs through turnout in the 5th Congressional District and we are going to make sure not only that he does not win Minnesota but that he doesn’t get back to the White House.”