In August 2017, three men from rural Illinois—members of one of our country’s numerous heavily armed and rather poorly regulated “militias”—drove to Bloomington, Minnesota, just south of Minneapolis, to plant an IED in the Dar al-Farooq Islamic Center. Following their arrest, two of the men admitted their guilt. They had set out from Illinois, they said, determined to scare Muslims into leaving the United States.
The story barely made a ripple in the political press, focused, as it was, on the already routine chaos of Donald Trump’s Washington—the president was engaged in a complicated beef with Senator Richard Blumenthal; Mike Pence was supposedly setting up a “shadow campaign” for 2020; North Korea was maybe going to nuke us. All this squalid executive-branch rancor left the right free to spin the incident before the facts were known. (Shortly after the bombing, Sebastian Gorka, the Breitbart editor turned White House foreign policy adviser, suggested on MSNBC that the attack had been a false flag “propagated by the left.”) The “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville would happen a week later, forcing still another news cycle devoted to the president’s response, or nonresponse, to right-wing political violence.
This summer, Trump took aim, on Twitter, at Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, who, he said, “originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all).”
“Why,” he asked, “don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came?”
As the fact-checkers noted in their analyses of Trump’s newest “New Low,” only Omar was born in another country. For once, the president took the Pinocchios to heart: He homed in on Omar in a diatribe at a rally in Greenville, North Carolina, a few days later, running through a litany of generically Islamophobic claims until the enthused crowd began chanting, for 13 uninterrupted seconds, “send her back.”
This has now become a familiar refrain—in July, Trump called Representative Elijah Cummings’s Baltimore district a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” and told him to go back there more frequently—but the Greenville rally marked a key shift in that conversation. A political press that had thus far treated Omar mainly as a kook, a naïf, or an extremist suddenly seemed a little nervous. The rally earned comparisons to Nuremberg, though mainly because of the commentariat’s poor grasp of history. (Our own country has had its share of dangerous nativist hysteria, even in Omar’s Minnesota. In 1917, the state legislature created the “Minnesota Commission of Public Safety” to attack Wobblies and Germans, two groups widely suspected of seditious tendencies. The next year, a German farmer was kidnapped and tortured by a mob, before they dumped him in South Dakota and threatened to kill him if he returned. Had the Trump family settled there, rather than in New York City, they could easily have faced such attacks.)
In their fixation on the minutiae of the episode—like the number of seconds the chant lasted and whether or not Ivanka later pushed Trump to condemn the chants—the pundit class lost sight of the actual, easy-to-follow narrative. Omar is a refugee, a Muslim, and a young woman. The dominant political force in this country is fueled by its dedication to patriarchy, its resentment of the young, and its intense fear of demographic change, personified by immigrants in general and refugees in particular. Donald Trump won his party’s nomination because he managed to outdo each of his rivals in the ferocity and unreasonableness of his opposition to the party’s various hated classes. In 2015, nearly every Republican presidential candidate opposed allowing Muslim refugees from Syria into the United States. Establishment wimps like Jeb Bush framed their stance as only wanting to allow Christian refugees into the country, but Trump didn’t even try to give his reactionary proposals a humanitarian gloss. He simply announced he’d ban every Muslim in the world from entering the country, and register and track the ones already here. “In 20 years, I have not heard such intolerance and hatred from political leaders in this society,” Nihad Awad, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told The Guardian at the time.
Much of the press and the political establishment sees Trump’s racism as something he injected into a fundamentally good system, rather than some existent force he merely tapped into—either because they prefer to see it this way, or because they are morally or financially invested in believing in America’s essential innocence. That’s the only way to make sense, to take just one example, of CNN’s Chris Cillizza’s comically blinkered announcement on Twitter after the entire Republican Party lined up to defend the president’s conduct: “Every day, I am struck by how radically the GOP has changed from 2015 to today.” You see, pundits like Cillizza had believed that the Tea Party goons in tricornered hats were mad about the debt-to-GDP ratio, even though those goons actually spent most of their time shrieking about sharia law.
One lesson of the Bloomington mosque attack, now mostly forgotten outside Minnesota’s Somali Muslim community, is that it matters a great deal who notices your community, and why. Would three dimwits from hours away have selected that particular destination had they not been provided a figurative map to the community by right-wing blogs spinning paranoid fantasies endorsed by the actual president of the United States?
I was raised in Minneapolis, and went to school with countless kids whose family stories resembled Omar’s. Most of them arrived after the Twin Cities had already become home for thousands of Oromo people from Ethiopia, and thousands of Hmong people from Laos. The state currently boasts the nation’s largest refugee population per capita.
These Minnesota refugee communities exist in a strange kind of quantum superposition: Invisible to the Beltway journalists who imagine (and frequently give voice to the imagined needs and desires of) a monolithically white Midwest, they also exist as a terrifying caricature in the minds of the people who consume conservative media. Your average Meet the Press panel member could probably tell you next to nothing about the country’s largest Somali community, in the heart of the much-venerated heartland. The average American consumer of right-wing media could probably tell you a thousand false things about it. Republican politicians know precisely how to exploit this selective ignorance. When a senator rails against “elite cosmopolitans,” he knows the longtime political reporter will think, Upper East Side snobs, while another audience thinks of George Soros conspiring with the United Nations to turn Minnesota brown. As the intensity of anti-Muslim and anti-refugee rhetoric has increased on the right, the nonpartisan press has mainly concerned itself with how that rhetoric affects white turnout, not how it affects communities like Omar’s. And when the next worst thing happens, they’ll all ask How We Got Here in the manner of a tipsy student awakening on the last stop of an unfamiliar subway line.