At a news conference Tuesday, Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., played a tape of a death threat from an unnamed caller. "You f------ Muslim piece of s---. You jihadist. We know what you are. You're a f------ traitor. You will not live much longer," the man who left the voicemail said.
The disturbing message was a reminder of the heightened risks Omar faces as a prominent Somali American and Muslim lawmaker. It also indicated the stakes of her feud with right-wing firebrand Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., after video surfaced of her seemingly jokingly describing Omar as a terrorist.
Boebert called Omar, ostensibly to mend things, but ultimately used the call as an arena for another attack.
The continuing fallout from the video — which has included a rancorous phone call between Boebert and Omar and other Republicans clashing over whether Boebert is in the right — has revealed that Boebert’s comments were far from an offhand joke. Instead, they represent yet another volley in the right’s increasingly brazen white nationalist culture wars in the post-Trump era.
At an event in her district last week, Boebert described an encounter with Omar — which Omar said is fabricated — as “not my first ‘Jihad Squad’ moment”:
I was getting into an elevator with one of my staffers. … We’re leaving the Capitol, and we’re going back to my office, and we get an elevator, and I see a Capitol Police officer running, hurriedly, to the elevator. I see fret all over his face, and he’s reaching, and the door’s shutting, like I can’t open it, like what’s happening. I look to my left, and there she is: Ilhan Omar. And I said, "Well, she doesn’t have a backpack. We should be fine." So we only had one floor to go. ... I said, "Oh look, the Jihad Squad decided show up for work today."
After significant blowback, Boebert issued a dubious apology — in which she apologized not for using bigoted language about a colleague, but for the act of potentially offending people. It’s an oft-used tactic that puts the burden on those who take offense rather than the offender, and dodges the substantive question of the meaning and consequences of her language about a sitting member of Congress who is already constantly targeted with threats based on her ethnicity and religion. As MSNBC columnist Dean Obeidallah noted, the apology — which was tweeted from her congressional account and not her personal account, where she has far more followers — was very much on brand given her reactionary rhetoric on immigration.
Remarkably, things have gotten worse since then.
Boebert called Omar on the phone, ostensibly to mend things, but ultimately used the call as an arena for another attack. During the call, Boebert, by her own account, responded to Omar’s demand for a public apology by demanding Omar apologize for her "anti-American, antisemitic, anti-police rhetoric." After some back and forth, Omar hung up on Boebert and issued a statement expressing frustration that Boebert refused to back down from her position. Boebert said in a video statement that “rejecting an apology and hanging up on someone is cancel culture 101 and a pillar of the Democrat party.” (Both accounts of the call are quite similar, it should be noted.)
So to recap, Boebert responded to calls for a fuller apology with an accusation that the very person she disparaged should apologize for, among other things, “anti-American” views. It should be quite obvious that Boebert did not approach the call with much contrition. Instead, she apparently saw an opportunity to advance her racialized nationalist rhetoric — consider what it means to imply a fellow lawmaker in your country secretly hates the very republic they’re working for — then use it as fodder for another round of social media controversy. Boebert’s desperation to use the call as a launch pad for attention is perhaps most evident in her nonsensical rhetoric on cancel culture: Even the most ardent cancel culture obsessives are not known for equating hanging up the phone on someone with cancellation.
Other developments have underscored the weight of Boebert’s comments. Another video emerged of Boebert telling a slightly different version of the story about Omar at a Staten Island, New York, dinner in September, highlighting how Boebert leans on the idea of Omar being a terrorist as a reliable laugh line for conservative audiences. And when Rep. Nancy Mace, a freshman Republican from South Carolina, said on CNN that Boebert had failed to “lower the temperature” with her comments about Omar, Trump-loving Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., lashed out by calling Mace “the trash in the GOP Conference” in a tweet.
What’s emerging from all this is that Boebert's initial comments weren't merely a thoughtless and cheap attempt to get laughs with a racist joke. Instead, Boebert and her colleagues see this as fertile territory for culture wars over what the GOP should stand for.
During his presidency, we constantly saw Donald Trump use jokes or the excuse that he was kidding as a vehicle for mainstreaming toxic ideas about race, gender and violence. We recently saw the GOP decide that Rep. Paul Gosar animated video depicting him killing a Democratic colleague was mostly harmless fun. Now we’re seeing Boebert use the veneer of comedy to express wildly inappropriate comments about a colleague and as a springboard for commenting on political correctness and cancel culture.
But jokes can have serious consequences. As Johns Hopkins University political scientist Lilliana Mason told me recently, these kinds of comments are not taken as mere comedy by some constituents, and they erode norms against violence among people already predisposed toward violence. More worrying still is the reality that some on the right almost certainly know that.