It is the nature of our fragmented, siloed media ecosystem that entire controversies can arise and be resolved outside of the view of most people. Controversies centered on TV shows or sports or music, these rise and fall unseen by most Americans, like waves on the shore of Australia.
This happens in politics, too, of course, with controversies and allegations popping up within the universes inhabited by the left and the right without the other side being aware. So it is possible that you were not aware that Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) has once again been a target of outcry and attack for several days after a snippet of a speech she gave last week began circulating on right-wing social media.
Omar spoke last weekend at a Minneapolis event for Minnesota’s substantial Somali community, of which she is a member. The congresswoman — who was elected to the House in 2018 — came to the United States as a child refugee. Among her remarks on Jan. 27 were comments about internal political tensions in Somalia.
But they were offered in Somali, not English — meaning most Americans relied upon a translation to know what she said. In one video shared widely on social media by a popular right-wing account, Omar’s words were interpreted, in part, as: “The U.S. government will do what we want, nothing else. They must follow our orders. That is how we safeguard the interest of Somalia.”
In part, because Omar’s liberal politics and comments have long made her a target of the political right, snippets like that one quickly spread in the right-wing ecosystem. By Wednesday, House Majority Whip Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) called for her to resign and demanded that the House Ethics Committee investigate.
On Thursday morning, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) went further. She stood up on the House floor and gave notice that she intends to file a privileged resolution to censure “Rep. Ilhan Omar of Somali — I mean, Minnesota.” Her argument? That Omar “gave remarks at an event in Minneapolis in which she made treasonous statements” and that Somalis had asked her to act on behalf of the Somali government.
Later, Greene spoke to reporters in a hallway on Capitol Hill.
“It’s been an outrage that’s been shared all over social media. Many people have been calling our offices expressing their outrage that a United States member of Congress spoke and gave a speech telling people that she represents the interests of a foreign country in her role as a United States representative,” Greene claimed. “I mean, that’s literally treason! I would love to have her expelled. I’d love to have her deported!”
Spokesmen for Omar and Greene did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
It’s useful to point out that Omar’s reported statements aren’t treason, which requires that an American aid a foreign government with which the United States is at war.
It is also useful to point out that, as Omar has argued from the outset, the translation of her comments is misleading or inaccurate. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune and the Minnesota Reformer each had independent interpreters review Omar’s comments and each concluded that the version circulating on right-wing social media was inaccurate.
Here’s how the Star Tribune contrasted its translation with the one that was spread on the right.
Neither Emmer nor Greene could have interpreted Omar’s remarks themselves. In fact, Greene admitted that the impetus for her attack on Omar was not that she had reached a different conclusion about the comments than what Omar presented — the impetus was, instead, “outrage” that had spread on social media.
This isn’t surprising, given the source. Greene rose to prominence as an adherent of QAnon, someone deeply engaged in and responsive to even the most unmoored claims of the fringe-right internet. That she would seize on a viral social media argument as a reason to bring the punitive power of the House down on Omar is not surprising — particularly given Greene’s and the right’s past attacks on Omar’s loyalty to the United States.
We can’t ignore, though, that Greene went further, suggesting that because of these purported comments, Omar should be kicked out of the country. It’s an extreme comment from a person with a history of similar extremism, but it’s still noteworthy. Omar is an American citizen and has been for nearly a quarter-century. Yet Greene refuses to view her that way, instead suggesting a punishment almost exclusively applied to noncitizens.
Omar also is protected by the First Amendment. Applying government power to exile someone for their comments is very much at odds with that amendment’s intent.
Yet here we are. The censure motion is unlikely to go anywhere; Greene offers censure and impeachment resolutions all the time. But, particularly in a moment where the right is focused on the purported threat of immigrants to the country, it is worth identifying the extremism of an elected official demanding the removal of a citizen because they believed a dubious social media post.