Ilhan Omar Is Learning The Wrong Lesson From The Trump Era
All those insults and vulgarities and rants and racisms piled up to produce a historically bad president. They mattered. And it's a dynamic the new generation of progressive leaders should learn from.
“AIPAC!” Rep. Ilhan Omar tweeted this weekend in response to a question about who, in her understanding of the situation, pays American politicians to support Israel. That went down about as well as you would expect.
It was an exclamation-pointed assertion that infuriated her opponents and had nominal allies smacking their foreheads. And the response the tweet provoked convinced Omar’s supporters once more that the whole rotten establishment was against them.
In other words, the situation was classically Trumpy.
It was also the latest example of someone learning exactly the wrong lesson from the Trump era. You could describe that lesson as “lol, nothing matters,” the great and false online shorthand of our time.
Like most news cycle-hogging Trump tweets, Omar’s confused a very real policy dynamic for a purely transactional idea about money buying power, rooted in some very ugly racial “tropes,” as we now call them. But the tweet got people talking, and it was impossible to talk about Omar’s tweet without talking about the underlying claim, thus bringing an entire argument to the front and center of a very angry news cycle. How much does AIPAC really shape American attitudes toward Israel? Who will denounce Omar? Whose lack of denunciation will reveal some new level of cowardice or crypto-prejudice? Who can stand alongside those who stand alongside her?
We’re less than 24 hours in and the whole thing is already a deeply Trumpian cycle of bad tweets, outraged reactions, and counter-outrages. But the unusual innovation is that Donald Trump had nothing to do with it. Instead, the protagonist is one of a new crop of Democrats who are very online and love taking the fight to their opponents and riling up their base. They are the opposite of Trump in almost every conceivable way — a young, racially diverse crew of self-made progressives. But they have a weakness, and it’s as clear on days like today as it has been for months: They’ve been badly misled by the supposed success of Donald Trump.
Watching the rise and eventual victory of an unashamed asshole who says the worst things, never apologizes, and always doubles down, has led many to the conclusion that the assholery didn’t matter. What consequences has Trump experienced for being, broadly speaking, the worst? He took over a political party and became president.
If lol nothing matters, as Trump’s rise might lead you to believe, then the conclusions are fairly straightforward.
First, you should take the gloves off when going after your opponents — shit-talk them however you like and some of it will stick; the rest will be forgotten.
Second, if they or their supporters complain about it, whatever: Your supporters don’t care about the other side’s hurt feelings, and the other side doesn’t actually care if you apologize, contextualize, or walk back what you said — they’ll just consider it a victory and continue hating you just as much (Omar’s unambiguous apology released Monday will be a good test of how well this thesis holds up).
Finally, none of these mini-cycles of outrage actually matter — when push comes to shove, politics is a zero-sum game and your supporters aren’t going to switch sides or back down or let the other side win. They’ll stick by you no matter what. Nothing matters.
It’s all very tempting — and totally wrong.
Because the real lesson of the Trump presidency is that everything matters — all those insults and vulgarities and rants and racisms, they’ve all piled up to produce the most unpopular and unsuccessful president in modern history. The sugar highs that Donald Trump gets from a cruel taunt or a racist jab haven’t translated into anything even imitating a functional presidency. He isn’t defying gravity, he’s doing exactly the opposite: He’s like a black hole of failure, pure gravitational collapse, an object so weighed down by darkness that nothing can escape. It all mattered.
No progressive, of course, says they want to emulate Trump, whom they rightly see as the embodiment of almost everything bad in the world. And Omar’s quick apology, which came after her words were denounced by Democratic leaders, shows how she and her party have yet to reach the heights of shamelessness currently on display in Trump Inc. But it’s easy to see where they’re taking the wrong lessons from the Trump era, and Omar’s bad Israel tweet is just one example.
Another was the bizarre — and very Trumpy — sight of an adviser to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez explaining on live TV that lines from a Green New Deal fact sheet sent to reporters by her office were in fact from a kind of false-flag FAQ doctored up by her opponents to make her look bad. It wasn’t just that the attempt to spin through the situation looked comical and amateurish. It was also that the the fact sheet, quickly deleted from Ocasio-Cortez’s website, was full of strange details that few of her allies seemed to have any knowledge of, leading to days of unforced errors following the rollout of a hugely ambitious policy agenda.
You know who else committed so many unforced errors that their presidency swiftly crashed into a mountain? Donald Trump. And there was a time, perhaps in early 2017, when you could trick yourself into thinking those unforced errors didn’t matter: the Republican Party and its mega-donors lined up behind him, evangelical leaders hailed him as a God-fearing family man, the stock market went full MAGA.
But with the federal government now days away from shutting down for the second time in three weeks — in large part due to his inability to negotiate his way out of a paper bag — now is a good time to look upon his works and despair. Lol, everything matters.