When House Rep. Ilhan Omar’s comments about the Israel lobby took over the news cycle earlier this year, they struck some as innocuously accurate, others as impolitic, while for others they were outrageous and inflammatory. Omar apologized for any offense and pledged to be more diplomatic. End of story, right?
Of course not. The rabidly anti-Semitic comments that Omar never made — along with the equally fictitious Jew hatred of her allies in the so-called Squad — have swiftly become a load-bearing myth in US politics, holding up the starry heavens alongside troop-spitting hippies, death panels, and welfare queens.
At a rally in North Carolina last week, President Trump made hatred for Omar deliciously righteous by accusing her of vile anti-Semitism. He also falsely claimed she married her brother for immigration fraud and supports al-Qaeda, leading to “send her back” chants from the assembled mob.
For Republicans wishing to distance themselves from the ugliest side of the MAGA crowd, Omar’s anti-Semitism, however fictional, is an indispensable opportunity for triangulation. Yes, the “send her back” chant may have been a mistake, they said, but on the other hand, this Muslim woman and her young coven of leftist women of color are anti-Semites. We can’t allow one to let us lose sight of the other.
One senses the Democratic Party’s moderate leadership is mapping similar maneuvers. Yes, House Democrats passed a resolution last week condemning Trump’s demonization of “the Squad.” But today, the House is fast-tracking a resolution opposing the growing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign (aimed at Israel’s ongoing subjugation of the West Bank and Gaza). This is a both a useful Democratic move to not be out-anti-anti-Semitism’ed by the GOP, and a way to curry favor with a key slice of the party’s elite donor base, for whom, according to the New York Times, military and diplomatic support for Israel is a high priority. Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib have announced their opposition to today’s resolution, which has almost 350 cosponsors on both sides of the aisle, and will easily pass.
The fiction of Omar’s anti-Jewish bigotry also provides something sturdy for media pooh-bahs to lean on. Hours before Trump’s obscene rally, CNN’s Jake Tapper tweeted an accusation of Omar’s anti-Semitism, made by an anonymous House Democrat, as straight-reported fact. (Tapper also sloppily tarred Omar’s fellow left-wing “Squad” member Tlaib with the same scuzzy brush.)
Questions of accuracy aside, the smear helps shore up the foundation of one of the most precious assets held by a certain kind of media talking head: their claim to objectivity. With so much horror on the American right these days, there’s a desperate need for the occasional fair-and-balanced lashing out against the left. Some stories are too good not to be true.
Omar’s fictitious anti-Semitism is hardly the only myth that has become a structural supporting beam, propping up our discourse. American political culture is a crowded bestiary of folkloric creatures that, despite not being real, bring order and meaning — if not truth — to our common life.
One such pillar is the welfare queen, a favorite talking point of Ronald Reagan and so many conservatives since. Is public benefits fraud 100% fictional? Of course not — just ask Florida GOP Sen. Rick Scott — and any program, public or private, that can be ripped off will be. But this un-scandalous reality is less potent than the enraging myth of the champagne-guzzling welfare queen. In fact, it’s hard to imagine the Reagan revolution without this mythical woman, who for decades has stood as a beneficent fertility goddess over the fortunes of right-wing politicians.
The visual of US troops returning from Vietnam only to be spat on by ungrateful hippies is more central to this country’s understanding of the Vietnam War than the Gulf of Tonkin incident. It’s also, according to the careful work of historians, mostly if not entirely fictitious — an urban legend turned into a revanchist creed.
It keeps going. Widespread voter fraud! Immigrants getting special public benefits! Our federal government blowing 28% of its annual budget on foreign aid to undeserving foreigners! These are the fantasy boogeymen that outrage and delight so much of the nation. One might think that dispelling these threats to our body politic would spread feelings of relief and happiness, and one would mostly be wrong. Debunking this stuff, no matter how gently, can easily get a reaction like that from taking away a child’s candy. Try it next Thanksgiving and see!
Why is our political discourse such a teeming cantina of folkloric beasties? It’s true that these fictions meet a psychological need, but it’s not as if they just spring up innocently from some national collective unconscious. Our load-bearing myths are usually political constructs, buttressing the structures of inequality and domination we live under.
That’s nothing new: As historian David Nirenberg has shown, the anti-Semitic tropes of 14th-century Europe were less the spontaneous folk expression of bigoted yokels and more the carefully cultivated product of elites in the church and nobility, deployed to shore up their authority and power.
Today you’ll similarly find elite fingerprints all over the falsehoods that structure so much our politics. The racist myth of birtherism, after all, was led and constantly oxygenated by an Ivy League–educated Manhattanite with an inherited real estate fortune. A new generation of stone-cold homicidal “super predators” was a folk devil cooked up by a University of Pennsylvania sociologist and brandished by political elites up to and including Hillary Clinton. Saddam Hussein’s mythical (but no less indispensable!) weapons of mass destruction had an excellent Ivy League pedigree.
While these political myths don’t help us deal with our problems in any reasonable way, they are of course still doing all kinds of work. They release endorphins — a salt lick of self-pity, the sugar rush of vindicated resentment — ambient anesthetics to dull real pain. These myths, especially the scary-spooky ones, are generally more comforting to our egos than the brute unattractiveness of large chunks of our history and collective present. As I was recently reminded by the floats at a 4th of July parade, plenty of Americans make believe that Washington’s invasions of South Vietnam and Iraq were an instance of “protecting freedom” or “defending America.” Wackadoodle stuff, but it goes down a lot smoother than the truth.
So expect Ilhan Omar’s fictitious anti-Semitism to be debunked again and again. But dispelling this myth and others like it will require much deeper structural repairs.
A tweet by CNN’s Jake Tapper containing complaints by unnamed House Democrats against Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib was sent hours before a rally where President Trump attacked Omar. An earlier version of this article misstated the time the tweet was sent.
Chase Madar is the author of The Passion of Chelsea Manning: The Story Behind the Wikileaks Whistleblower. He teaches law at New York–area universities and prisons.