The Washington Post on Tuesday published a story about Chad Loder, a cybersecurity expert and CEO of the company Habitu8, which trains companies on how to deal with cyber threats. Like many Americans, Loder bore witness to the vitriol targeting Ilhan Omar, the freshman U.S. congresswoman from Minneapolis, that exploded last week after Republicans accused her of trivializing the 9/11 terrorist attacks. (While discussing the costs borne by Muslims generally due to the actions of a few extremists, Omar described the attacks as “some people did something.”) Loder decided to perform an experiment: Using Twitter’s search feature, he input the handles of Omar’s two accounts and added terms like “rope,” “bullet,” “noose,” and “hanged,” along with phrases like “I hope someone” and “someone needs to.” The exercise yielded what he said were “hundreds” of direct threats against the congresswoman, and many more indirect ones. “[Some] random person somewhere who’s just on the edge of a mental breakdown will see [the inciting tweets from GOP leaders] and they’ll take matters into their own hands,” Loder worried.
Tragedy has not yet struck, but these posts are part of a larger pattern: Prior to last week’s wave, the FBI arrested a man in New York who threatened to “put a bullet in [Omar’s] fucking skull.” The agency announced in early March that it was investigating graffiti scrawled in a Twin Cities bathroom stall that read “Assassinate Ilhan Omar” in Sharpie ink. The congresswoman’s name also appeared alongside several others — including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s — on a hit list compiled by Christopher Paul Hasson, a U.S. Coast Guard lieutenant and self-described white nationalist who, until his arrest in February, was stockpiling firearms and ammunition in preparation for a large-scale massacre of civilians.
The political response to the latest threats has been partisan. Republicans have mostly declined to condemn them, while the replies from Democrats have ranged from the unequivocally supportive — in the case of progressives like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders — to the somewhat tepid, from more center-left figures like Kirsten Gillibrand and Amy Klobuchar. All seem to agree, though, that the GOP tweets were dangerous and put Omar at risk — especially President Trump’s, which intercut footage of her remarks with footage of the Twin Towers in flames. This conclusion seems especially true given how people like Cesar Sayoc and Robert Bowers have used the president’s verbal salvos and conspiracy theories as pretexts for their own terroristic behavior.
Yet in the midst of it all, the Atlantic’s David Frum saw fit to pose a question he deemed of special import at the time: How might Omar’s remarks and her fellow Democrats’ support impact the party’s performance in upcoming elections?
Frum’s answer — which he outlines in his latest piece, “Democrats Are Falling Into the Ilhan Omar Trap” — is that by defending Omar against the right-wing onslaught, the Democrats have backed themselves into a corner. “That one tweet succeeded to perfection,” wrote the former George W. Bush speechwriter, referring to Trump’s video. “Trump wishes to make Omar the face of the Democratic Party heading into the 2020 elections — and now he has provoked Democrats to comply.” Frum went on to describe the congresswoman’s so-called “recklessness” as a liability for a party that “[wants] to win national elections and govern the country.” He insisted that the GOP’s characterization of her remarks about Islamophobia was correct — that she was, in effect, exonerating the 9/11 hijackers. He deployed the now-standard canard that Omar speaks disparagingly about Jews, even though a more precise assessment is that she speaks disparagingly about the Israeli government and its American lobbyists, sometimes in terms that could be interpreted as anti-Semitic. And he listed as further evidence of iniquity Omar’s personal affiliations that he deems radical — namely, that her co-headliner at a fundraising event, Hassan Shibly, has condemned Israel as an “[enemy] of God and humanity” for its brutal treatment of Palestinians, and is the lawyer for Hoda Muthana, an American woman who married an ISIS fighter and pledged allegiance to the terrorist group. (In other words: a lawyer who does his job.)
Nevermind that a week during which the congresswoman is facing death threats and inflammatory rhetoric from the president is an odd time for Frum to catalogue why he thinks she is toxic. His analysis also illustrates one of the worst impulses of political journalism: Its tendency to measure amorality among politicians in terms of how it impacts the horse race, rather than whether it is socially dangerous or conveys something more troubling about American society. (He’s being praised for it, regardless.) This approach does not define all of Frum’s work. His 2017 essay, “How to Build an Autocracy,” delved lucidly into how Trump’s election could erode American democracy. Yet that perspective seems to have abandoned him here. Readers are left instead with an ill-conceived and poorly timed argument that gives a pollster’s answer to a moral question. (Frum’s lone concession to the horror of Omar’s predicament comes toward the end, when he writes in passing that she “has been a target of extremist criticism, some of it verging on incitement.”)
It is especially interesting that Frum spills so little ink assessing the significance of a major political party going out of its way to mischaracterize Omar’s remarks in order to make her a target for potential violence, considering the pratfalls that dot his own career. A not-insignificant share of Frum’s punditry has been devoted to making reckless comments, claims, and arguments for which he was compelled to apologize. He was a fervent supporter of the Iraq War, which commenced under false pretenses and resulted in the deaths of nearly half a million people. He later expressed regret for it. In 2011, he wrote a column at CNN about his newfound support for marriage equality, titled “I was wrong about same-sex marriage.” And in 2014, he wrote a grudging apology at the Atlantic for tweeting allegations that a photo of two brothers, crying and covered in blood, at a hospital in Gaza after an Israeli airstrike killed their father, was inauthentic. Though his instinct to apologize is laudable, the hawkish verve and disdain for civil rights that marked his errors were neither minor nor ambiguous. Yet he seems uninterested in extending to Omar the same generosity that has allowed him to remain employed and relevant despite his mistakes. (The congresswoman, it is worth noting, has also apologized for her use of anti-Semitic tropes.)
Even if one concedes that Frum’s thesis is an appropriate one to try proving right now, the graver mistake, rather than defend Omar, would be for Democrats to let Republican characterizations dictate their electoral strategy. The GOP is the party, after all, for which President Obama was a Kenya-born socialist, and for which the Democrats — the party of “open borders” and “crime” — are “executing” babies after they are born. Clearly, there are few limits to how far Republicans will go to mischaracterize Democratic positions, including by lying. This does not mean that Democratic leaders are not nervous anyway. Speaker Pelosi has sought repeatedly to compel Omar’s silence on fraught subjects like Israel and, more generally, been dismissive of the influence held by progressive freshmen like Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The obvious impulse is to cast these women as marginal and their ideas as aspirational in a party that is more moderate than they are — a clear play, to Frum’s point, for voters who might be wavering on whom to support in 2020. This approach has rankled progressive Democrats, and confirms a longstanding critique of the party, which is that by letting Republicans set the terms of the debate, Democrats are cowed into sacrificing progressive principles and appearing weak.
But more broadly, they also risk alienating the very voters whom they need to show up in 2020 and in elections to come, and who comprise the party’s current and future base: young people and nonwhites, especially nonwhite women. “The Democratic Party can’t run away from the fight regarding Ilhan Omar, because she represents the country,” Justice Democrats communications director Waleed Shahid told the New York Times on Tuesday. “In the story between Make America Great Again or the new America we are becoming, she is a pivotal character.” Tlaib echoed his concerns: “They put us in photos when they want to show our party is diverse,” the Michigan congresswoman, who is Palestinian-American, wrote on Twitter. “However, when we ask to be at the table, or speak up about issues that impact who we are, what we fight for, and why we ran in the first place, we are ignored.”
It is a risk that Pelosi seems willing to take. And it may prove to be pragmatic toward a 2020 victory — or not — but it is certainly not principled. As for whether all Democrats will be penalized henceforth for everything controversial that Omar says, that depends on a public reading of their response to the Republican Party’s onslaught that prefers letting it go unanswered to condemning it unequivocally. It is possible that a plurality of Americans find this desirable. And it is abundantly clear where David Frum stands on the subject. But if the supportive response from people like Sanders, Warren, and others does end up costing the party votes down the road, then the real problem is much bigger than winning or losing elections.