The Ilhan Omar quote Trump bastardized came from her conversation with John Nichols, who joins us to look at US history for inspiration and understanding
MARC STEINER Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Good to have you with us.
Donald Trump’s recent attacks on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, and Ilhan Omar were not only racist, but in his subsequent tweets and diatribes in North Carolina, when I watched the news clips, when I saw news clips from the 30s, are dangerously reminiscent of people like Adolf Hitler and Mussolini. For us to ignore this, we do at our own peril. Maybe I’m taking it too far. We’ll find out in this conversation.
Our political analyst today is someone who sees much of this in his writing for The Nation and other things he’s done. He wrote an incredible piece in The Nation on Ilhan Omar. We’re talking about John Nichols who is The Nation’s National Affairs Correspondent, host of the podcast “Next Left” for The Nation, author of Horsemen of the Trumpocalypse: A Field Guide to the Most Dangerous People in America and co-author with Bob McChesney of People Get Ready: The Fight Against a Jobless Economy and a Citizenless Democracy. I can never get that word right, but John, welcome. Good to have you with us.
JOHN NICHOLS I think you did pretty well on “Trumpocalypse.”
MARC STEINER [laughs] It’s the “citizenless.”
JOHN NICHOLS [laughs] It’s the word for our times. Yes, yes.
MARC STEINER So it’s interesting, the two pieces you wrote in The Nation most recently about Donald Trump and racism and what is going on there. And then your conversation with Ilhan Omar and your defense of her, I think were really important and I want to talk about what you think that really is and what this means. Let me begin. I think there is a piece from Donald Trump where he accuses Ilhan Omar of hating Americans.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP Representative Ilhan Omar, [crowd boos] she looks down with contempt on the hard-working Americans, saying that “ignorance is pervasive in many parts of this country.” [crowd boos and murmurs].
MARC STEINER And then, in “Next Life” when you interviewed Ilhan Omar— as you said, your premiere guest, your first guest on your podcast— she had this to say.
CONGRESSWOMAN ILHAN OMAR And so, the only leverage you have is that you are part of this contract and you can be part of the negotiations in how many people get settled in your state. And so, it is not that they might not be knowledgeable about this, but they use it as a tool to stir up hate and division. And ignorance really is pervasive in many parts of this country. And as someone who was raised by educators, I really like to inform people about things that they might be ignorant to— willingly or unwillingly.
MARC STEINER How you can parse out one small phrase from a more lengthy answer, trying to explain a situation in Minnesota that gets contorted into this now diatribe against Ilhan Omar and the rest.
JOHN NICHOLS Well, it’s a fascinating circumstance. And I have covered Donald Trump for a very long time and seeing again and again how he distorts things and how he, you know, frankly turns an innocent statement into something that sounds very nefarious or very dangerous, but I’ve never been in the middle of it myself, so it’s kind of a fascinating circumstance this time. When I heard him say that, I knew that it had come from our interview and I was struck by the fact that it was so directly opposite of what she was talking about. She wasn’t attacking working-class Americans. She wasn’t criticizing working-class Americans. Her statement— and it’s part of a much longer discussion— had to do with politicians who seek to play on the complexity and frankly the lack of knowledge that all of us have as regards to the intricacies of immigration and refugee law, seek to play on that in order to create fear and to promote racist and frankly xenophobic thinking.
And the interesting thing was that if you listen to what she’s saying, she is saying that she wants to bring information to the process. She wants to dialogue with people. The broader context of our interview was fascinating because she talked again and again about times where she’s approached Republicans on the floor and had good conversation with them, where she’s worked with people across lines of partisanship and ideology. And so, far from condemning or attacking people she might disagree with, what Ilhan Omar was doing in our conversation was talking about how to break through the spin, how to break through the divisiveness. And for the president to turn it in the way that he did is to my mind a deeply troubling thing. Now, you make comparisons to folks in—
MARC STEINER I did.
JOHN NICHOLS Yeah. In Europe and things of that nature. I don’t necessarily go there. I will go to a long and unfortunate history within the United States of demonization of immigrants, demonization of people of color, and things that have been done—If you go back and you look at some of the rhetoric of the 1910s and 1920s in this country, and again if you look at some of what was said in the 1950s and 1960s, you see very similar patterns. And I don’t think that Ilhan Omar necessarily compares in every way to everyone throughout that history, but I do think that she is in this case a victim of something that has been very much a part of the American experience. And the attempt to make the immigrant the newcomer to the country seem to be dangerous, seem to be threatening, simply because that person may disagree with you politically. And that juxtaposition is a really unsettling and troubling one because what it suggests is something that concerned Abraham Lincoln.
Abraham Lincoln talked a lot about the notion that people who had come recently— in his time: Irish immigrants, German immigrants— once they had come to this country to become part of this country, he argued that they were part of an extended conversation that went back to the founding of the republic, went back to the Declaration of Independence. And Lincoln went out of his way to say that newcomers were no less a part of that conversation, had no less a place in that conversation than the descendants of the founders. It was a very important message. And Trump seems to be openly at war with that notion, openly at war with the idea that someone who maybe came to this country 20 years ago or 30 years ago, is somehow less free to criticize the country than the rest of us, than those of us who may have deeper roots or more history. Boy, when we get into that game, we really do divide this country in the ugliest and most dangerous of ways.
MARC STEINER Well, I want to come back to two things you said. I do want to come back to the earlier thing about Mussolini and Hitler and I understand what you’re saying. I want to play in a minute here this piece from Trump that ends up in this chant and talk a bit about that. You know, I think what the difference perhaps now, John, is that we are in a world post the Civil Rights Movement, post the growth of the union movement, post the time of when we ended segregation, and a new group of— I’m going to call them— white nationalists in part have taken over the executive branch, are running rampant through our system, tearing down things. Every regulation that protects workers and the environment is just being torn asunder. And the rhetoric is fearsome against people of color and fearsome against immigrants and it’s reached fever pitch. The difference now it seems to me though is that after that long struggle, these folks are in power. And that seems to be very different than some previous moments in our history when that really wasn’t the case completely.
JOHN NICHOLS Well, look, I would caution you again to go back to some of our history. And I’ll talk about two things here. Number one, in 1924 when Robert M. La Follette ran for President of the United States with support from activists in the NAACP, W.E.B. Dubois, and others. When La Follette ran, one of the reasons that he got such traction was because the Ku Klux Klan had become so very dominant within both the Democratic and the Republican parties at their conventions. And this is an important thing to understand. I think we reflect on our own history sometimes so casually and sometimes without a lot of perspective, that we forget we had times in this country within the last century where the Ku Klux Klan was a major force not merely marching in the streets of cities, but in our politics, influencing our politics.
And again, I would suggest to you that in the early 1950s, during the height of the Red Scare, yes, that was a targeting of people who were accused of being communists or fellow travelers. But there was also so much targeting of the Civil Rights Movement, of labor organizations in that. So there’s a long history in this country of people being in power and demonizing immigrants, people of color, those who raise political challenges. So that’s one part of it, Marc, and the only other part I would suggest to you is—I’m finishing a book now on Henry Wallace who was Franklin Roosevelt’s Vice President, and in 1944, 75 years ago, Henry Wallace wrote a— I think 43′ or 44’— wrote an essay for The New York Times on what he referred to as “American fascism.”
And it’s an interesting thing that at that time, in the midst of World War II, Wallace said that it was important to understand that there could be an American fascism, that it would be very different from a lot of European fascism. It wouldn’t take the same form. And yet, it would have [inaudible] the core concern, and that is a division of people along lines of race and class and ethnicity and national origin. And that divisiveness would be used to empower economic elites. Now this is Wallace writing in the 1940s, and I really invite you. If you go back and read Henry Wallace’s essay from that time, it sounds an awfully lot like now.
MARC STEINER No, and it does.
JOHN NICHOLS So all I’ll tell you is the historical roots are there.
MARC STEINER No, no. The historic roots are there and I want to play this clip here. You know, one of things I said to you before we went on the air and I’ve said to numerous times over the years, John, is one of the reasons I love talking with you is because I can sometimes get [grunts] and get really negative saying, “this is like 1877.” And then, John, you bring up [laughs] Henry Wallace and the fight with La Follette. It’s good, which I love. That’s good. Thank you.
JOHN NICHOLS No, it’s in 1924 and 1944. Yeah. It’s a long historical discussion.
MARC STEINER So, but let’s take a quick. Before we run, let’s take a quick listen to Trump at this rally talk about Ilhan Omar and the chant that comes after this.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP When you see the four Congresswomen—Oh, isn’t that lovely? [crowd boos] Representative Ilhan Omar. [crowd boos] Omar has a history of launching vicious anti-Semitic screeds. [crowd chants “Send her back!”]
MARC STEINER All right. So. Father Coughlin, you can leave [inaudible] and laugh for a minute. [laughs] But what I see here is a dangerous sign. I mean, this is—What you’re talking about, Wallace’s essay, I know that essay you’re talking about. And we are living in a time of a huge divide in this country and it’s driven by this fear. And that fear drives what he just did in that crowd. That’s a danger zone.
JOHN NICHOLS Yeah. Oh, I think it is. And again, this notion of “send her back” or “send him back” or “send them back” is hardly new. And it’s one that we have heard at various times in our history, and we’ve heard it used in various ways. Sometimes it is used against immigrants. One of the important things to remember is that during the Red Scare, the first Red Scare of 1919-1920, and then the second Red Scare of the 1950s. In each of those cases, there was a massive targeting of immigrants and of immigrant groups that—And the interesting thing was, these were people who had come to America, who had become citizens, who were fully part of the American experiment, and yet were suddenly targeted. Why were they targeted? Because they believed in the full promise of the Constitution, their First Amendment, their Bill of Rights.
They believed they could speak up on issues, and speak out, and disagree with the government, or disagree with those in power, that they could organize unions, and they could organize civil rights groups. And these immigrants were attacked for their outspokenness, for their full embrace of the best promise of the American experiment— that we all have a voice in this discourse. And that’s what I think we’re seeing now. And I think we have to be, we have to be very focused on that. I think we have to be very conscious of it because it is important not to lose sight of what Donald Trump is really, in many ways, trying to do here. It’s a two—I think it’s a two-step thing. Number one, it is of course to demonize, to otherize the immigrant. Even in this case, people who aren’t immigrants, people who have deep roots in this country. Remember, Ilhan Omar’s been in this country for decades. And the other three members of Congress that he references were born in this country.
MARC STEINER Right.
JOHN NICHOLS And so, this is first off, sort of, an assault on immigrants. But then much more deeply, an assault on in this case women of color. And finally, finally, an assault on dissenters, an assault on those who disagree with Donald Trump, and even in some cases with their own party. And to my mind, that is—We really ought not lose sight of that. We ought not lose sight of that first off because it’s what’s happening in my view, but also because this has deep roots in America, in the American struggle, and we have beaten this before. We have taken this on, and we have said no, that is not, that is not what America is about. And I really think it’s very vital that people do so again.
And I will remind you that when Joe McCarthy, a Republican, was doing things like this in the early 1950s, it was other Republicans like Margaret Chase Smith who stepped up and really shut him down, or at least challenged him on it. And I would ask you the question, where are those Republicans today? They are needed today. They need to be stepping up in big numbers and saying, Donald Trump is wrong. And it was horrifying to me when the House of Representatives voted on condemning Donald Trump. Instead of, you know, taking that opportunity to step up and do as Margaret Chase Smith had did to say no, 98% of Republicans in the House voted not to condemn Trump. And that’s a, in many ways, to me an even more troubling thing than what Trump says.
MARC STEINER Well, I want to say, John, as we have to go now that it’s really always good to hear you because I think it’s important to have a, kind of, positive message in terms of where we take this fight and not allowing us to be “oh, woe is me” when looking at our history and our future. So John, thank you so much for all you do and your writing. And I look forward to your next book and talking to you sooner than that.
JOHN NICHOLS I’m honored to be with you, my friends. Good conversation.
MARC STEINER Take care. John Nichols, The National Correspondent for The Nation. And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you all for joining us. Take care.