Last week, House Republican Lauren Boebert told what she and her audience considered a very funny joke about Representative Ilhan Omar. The premise of the joke is that Muslims are terrorists. If you don’t think Muslims are terrorists, you won’t enjoy the joke. Boebert and her supporters cracked up. They also enjoyed her describing Omar as a member of the “Jihad Squad” so much that Boebert repeated it.
The good news is that, at least briefly, this appeared to cross a line. Boebert did not face a censure by her party’s leadership, but she did write an apology, or at least something close to one: “I apologize to anyone in the Muslim community I offended with my comment about Rep. Omar. I have reached out to her office to speak with her directly,” Boebert tweeted. “There are plenty of policy differences to focus on without this unnecessary distraction.”
This line sits somewhere between “I’m sorry if you were offended” and a genuine expression of remorse, but it was, at least, something. But when Boebert did speak to Omar, she seemed to have blown up whatever tiny measure of grace her apology contained.
Omar and Boebert have their own accounts of the conversation, neither of which diverges very much on the facts. According to Boebert, Omar asked her to make a public apology, whereupon Boebert demanded Omar apologize for her “anti-American, anti-Semitic, anti-police rhetoric.” Omar hung up. Boebert posted a video insisting anti-Muslim bigotry had nothing to do with the call. “This isn’t about religion,” she says. “It’s about the horrible, failed Democrat policies and anti-Americanism that I will call out each and every time I hear it.”
Boebert is trying to distract from her bigotry by changing the subject to Omar’s controversial beliefs and comments. But whatever offensive comments Omar has made in the past about Jews does not justify targeting her for her faith.
This sort of hackish whataboutism is an easy and familiar move — if you’ve done something you can’t defend, rally your followers by changing the subject to something bad the other side has done. Then, when the other side expresses outrage, complain about how you’re being attacked. By the end of the week, Boebert will probably be raising money off her bigotry.
The Republican Party could send a message about anti-Muslim bigotry if its leaders raised the cost of anti-Muslim racism so that it was a net negative rather than a net positive. But a party that did that would be a completely different kind of party than the one that exists.