During a press conference on Wednesday, Ilhan Omar had the audacity to suggest that the psychological effects of fleeing war and spending several years living in a refugee camp as a child continued to affect her into adulthood. The Minneapolis Democrat — who inspires a visceral fury in her Republican colleagues matched perhaps only by that toward Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — greeted news of President Trump’s intensifying antagonism toward Iran, highlighted by a Friday drone strike that killed the country’s top military official, Qasem Soleimani, by saying, “I feel ill a little bit because of everything that is taking place, and I think every time I hear of conversations around war, I find myself being stricken with PTSD.” Post-traumatic stress disorder is what its name suggests: a psychological affliction stemming from trauma — whether caused by enduring war, sexual violence, or other such instigators of extreme stress and shock — and often characterized by loss of sleep and vivid recall of the traumatic experience. It’s not an unexpected reaction to the kind of circumstances that marked Omar’s early life — which included an exodus from war-torn Somalia at the age of 8 and four years living in a Kenya refugee camp before immigrating to the United States.
So it was with willful disregard for the actual range of PTSD experiences that one of Omar’s Republican colleagues, Representative Jim Banks of Indiana, derided her remarks on the basis that they were “offensive” to U.S. military veterans. “Rep. Ilhan Omar complained she’s ‘stricken with PTSD’ because of recent events in the Middle East,” Banks tweeted on Wednesday. “This is a disgrace and offensive to our nation’s veterans who really do have PTSD after putting their life on the line to keep America safe.” Aghast Twitter users flooded the representative’s mentions to correct him, but Banks has little genuine interest in whether Omar really has post-traumatic stress from her time as a war refugee. He has only a dogged commitment, shared by his Republican compatriots, to smearing Omar at any given opportunity as un-American and hostile to U.S. national-security interests. This allows him to cast a fairly uncontroversial claim from a person who fled war as compelling evidence that she doesn’t respect members of the military and wishes to minimize their pain — a claim equally in keeping with past GOP efforts to characterize Omar as a virulent anti-Semite and terrorist sympathizer.
These broadsides are at least partly attributable to the deep-seated Islamophobia that’s been an undercurrent of national politics for years, and informs the Republican Party’s specific national-security mandates — in the form of the Trump White House’s efforts to bar Muslim entry to the U.S. — and its antipathy toward Omar and, to a somewhat less strident degree, her lone fellow Muslim woman in Congress, Detroit’s Rashida Tlaib. But It’s also consistent with the GOP’s overarching instinct to hoard claims of victimhood. Surveys regularly demonstrate the extent to which white Republicans in particular — who comprise about 83 percent of the party’s base — believe discrimination against white Americans is comparable to that facing black people and Latinos. Republican members of Congress have recently co-opted the imagery of civil-rights protest to convey false optics of victimization, staging sit-ins and protests over the impeachment hearings on Capitol Hill to portray themselves as beleaguered guardians of executive integrity faced with a Democratic onslaught. President Trump and his allies routinely claim to be victims of all-out partisan warfare and political witch hunts. All belie that white Americans still constitute the majority of the country’s population and control all of its most powerful political, cultural, and financial institutions, and that Republicans control the White House, the Senate, a majority of state legislatures, and the U.S. Supreme Court.
It’s no surprise, then, that Banks’s notion of who might or might not have PTSD would be limited to people to whom he’s broadly sympathetic at the expense of one toward whom he’s opportunistically hostile. After all, if too many Americans have legitimate claims to such suffering, then the balance of who is considered worthy of extra political consideration — not to mention a tacit obligation from voters and legislators to deliver them justice — inevitably disfavors white people and Republicans. This is not an uncommon human impulse, but it’s achieved the status of a governing principle for the GOP. A similar understanding anchors the party’s rhetoric around who constitutes the “real America” or “American people” — namely white people, and particularly white people who vote Republican and don’t live on the coasts. In this light, the veracity of seemingly objective claims to suffering — like that of a war refugee — becomes dependent on the ideological leanings of those calling the shots. Banks’s was a hysterical reaction to Omar’s remarks about Trump’s provocations toward Iran. But it reflected, with perfect fidelity, his party’s long-running conception of who matters in America, and who does not.