Two Women on the Verge of a Party Takedown
American political superstars Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez made political history last November. The two political neophytes trounced the establishment’s sure fire bets in long shot bids for national office. Big name talk show hosts, Madison Avenue glossies, hipster blogs, podcasts, pundits, and political gadflies are all clamoring for a piece of Omar and AOC’s indisputable, incandescent, irresistible charisma — along with entre to their social media empires. But can the power of new celebrity bend the Democratic Party? DIE WELTWOCHE pulls back the curtain to find out.
Like meteors hurtling to Earth from the vast cosmic unknown, two new politicians have crashed the Washington status quo and are threatening to vaporize the political establishment. Congresswomen Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez of New York are igniting heated debate over their uncompromising progressive politics.
Omar, the first Somali-American to be elected to national office, is confounding Democratic party leaders with her aggressive, and many say anti-Semitic, views bashing Israel and its American defenders. The most recent controversy swirls around her highly criticized reference to the traumatic 9-11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington as “some people did something.” The New York Post immediately blasted Omar’s remarks on its front page with a photo of the Twin Towers engulfed in flames headlined, “Here's your something... 2,977 people dead by terrorism.”
Ocasio Cortez, or “AOC” as she and her legions of fans dub her, vigorously defends Omar. She is also pushing a “Green New Deal” — a radical global warming action plan that seeks to transform American life, including ending airplane transport, fossil fuel extraction, and malodorous bovine gases all in the next ten years. Mindful that AOC’s Millennial embrace of the Democratic Socialist label jeopardizes the traditional Democratic party’s viability with centrist voters, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has dismissed AOC’s global warming “moonshot” as “the green dream or whatever they call it. Nobody knows what it is. But they’re for it, right?”
President Trump, ever vigilant for foils to taunt and enemies to troll, is zeroing in on the shiny, new renegades. He’s working to cast them as the “real” faces of the Democratic party. The original master disrupter, Trump knows a rich political target when he sees it. And in Omar and AOC, he has two.
Back in 2016, before the glare of national stardom, Ilhan Omar was a young mother of three seeking to represent marginalized voices in the Minnesota state capital. “Time for Ilhan,” a newly released political documentary by director Norah Shapiro, lovingly chronicles the community organizer’s fledgling foray into electoral politics. The Hollywood Reporter enthuses that the soft focus hagiography “feels like manna from heaven for liberals and progressives who have been in a state of despair since the last  presidential election.”
The film opens with a wintery shot of a modest, Minneapolis suburban, beige stucco and red trimmed home. Thick snow blankets the front yard, and sounds of contented domesticity burble within. It then cuts to interior shots of stuffed animals, a primer on Islam on a cluttered bookshelf next to an action figure and cupcake wrappers. The camera finally settles on the candidate for the Minnesota state legislature as she braids her youngest daughter’s long, silky curls.
“My mom is president!” Ilwad delightedly squeals.
“What makes me president?” an amused Omar purrs.
Ilwad pauses a beat. “You take care of your kids!”
Smiling, Omar says to her precocious, pre-school aged daughter (and one suspects to the camera just off to the side), “Let me tell you a story. You know, when I was little like you, my sisters would cut off my hair and make me bald all the time. You know why? Because I didn’t have a mommy, and no one had the patience to do this crazy business.”
In that small, gentle, congenial living room vignette, the viewer learns that not only is the Somali-born refugee a doting mother who, as a child, suffered devastating tragedy and loss, she is a shrewd politician who knows how to frame a moment for maximum effect — a skill that will ultimately take her all the way to United States Congress.
Phyllis Kahn, the longest serving woman in American electoral politics, who Omar goes on to spectacularly defeat in the 2016 local race, tells Die Weltwoche, “She has a compelling life story, and she speaks very well if you ever see her on something like the Daily Show.” Kahn, a Feminist pioneer with a Yale University Ph.D. in biophysics, was first elected to the Minnesota legislature in 1972 and proceeded to win all of her races for the next 44 years. She recalls her final match up against Omar. “One of the things I said during the campaign was, ‘She’s younger than me. She’s prettier than me, and she appears to be nicer than me because she agrees with anything anyone ever says to her.’ And that was considered a sexist comment. I don’t understand how it could be sexist when it’s true.”
Fast forward to the 2018 mid-term elections. Omar sweeps her Congressional district with 78.2% of the vote to become the first black woman to represent Minnesota on Capitol Hill and one of only two Muslim women elected to the halls of Congress. Her rise from abject poverty in a Kenyan refugee camp, having fled the Somali civil war, to the center of American power on the swell of Minnesota pride is what former Vice President Joe Biden might call, “storybook, man.”
Meanwhile, across the country, in Bronx, New York City, another petite, telegenic, sharp witted woman of color (also partial to fire engine red lipstick) challenges a long time Democratic party incumbent. In a stunning primary upset, 28-year-old AOC defeats twenty year Congressional veteran Joe Crowley to become the youngest woman ever elected to Congress.
It is a race that “until the very last moment, no one thought was winnable,” Michael Tobman, a former aide to New York’s United States Senator Charles Schumer, explains to me. Crowley was a classic, political machine power broker “who made city council speakers, and judges, and more legislators than we have fingers and toes to count.”
Carrying aloft the torch of Democratic Socialism, AOC’s improbable victory inspires countless magazine covers, fawning television profiles, and millions of social media fans. Her first speech on the floor of the House of Representatives becomes the most watched video in the history of the official Congressional broadcast service. Netflix snatches up an AOC documentary at Sundance for a breathtaking $10 million confident that millions will tune in.
Reveling in her new celebrity, AOC sends out a cheeky tweet to a hapless Twitter critic using a line from the “Watchmen” graphic novel: “To quote Alan Moore: None of you understand. I’m not locked up in here with YOU. You’re locked up in here with ME. [Crying laughter emoji]”. Her fans go wild.
AOC is an undisputed master of Millennial Twitter-speak. To the delight of her online audience, she regularly “owns” detractors with ripostes like her tweet breezily dismissing former US senator and vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman who dared publicly question her political savvy. In a mere seven characters, the congresswoman kneecaps the elder statesman, snarking, “Who dis?”
Her social media followers eat up her every virtual morsel. And she feeds them a constant live stream of personal Instagram videos and Twitter deep thoughts documenting her inner and outermost struggles. She recently invited viewers to watch her attempt to build IKEA furniture in her empty, luxury, downtown Washington apartment — but not without delivering a passionate sermon on the “hatred” and “cruelty” of Trump allegedly drugging illegal immigrant children at the southern border with psychotropic drugs.
Religious imagery often bubbles up when speaking of the IKEA progressive and her self-described “girl squad.” Kahn describes the “worshipful attachment” to Omar “from young people” who propelled Omar’s first, historic victory in 2016. Tobman casually refers to AOC’s “acolytes.” James Rhodes, writing for the hipster, what’s hot right now, culture magazine Paste, promises that, “The moment that you accept that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez is cooler than Barack Obama is the day you begin to truly live. It is the exact moment your progressive soul stops dying.” Worshipful, indeed. Even the staid and starchy New Yorker magazine is dazzled by “How Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Allies Supplanted the Obama Generation.” The highbrow, literary weekly approvingly quotes a twenty-something AOC environmental adviser who insists, “It sounds like hyperbole, but we are fighting to preserve life as we know it.” AOC, herself, paints an apocalyptic hellscape of the very near future if her grand, green new vision does not immediately become the bible of all American national policy.
But beneath the public adulation, party resentment is brewing. Some party members are starting to feel uncomfortably trapped in Omar and AOC’s graphic novel world. The two, fiery freshman — who Tobman describes as “absolutely convinced of their righteousness” — are threatening to fracture the national party.
The Green New Deal “is a perfect example of what frustrates longer serving legislators and activists and committed issue advocates so much,” Tobman sighs. “If the issue benefits from [AOC’s] attention, and the issue benefits from her energy, that’s great. But let’s not pretend that other people haven’t been talking about this for a long time.”
Pelosi’s own frustration is spilling into public view. Two weeks ago, during an interview on CBS News’ flagship broadcast “60 Minutes,” an obviously exasperated Pelosi slapped down the interviewer’s suggestion that AOC and her cohorts comprise “a wing” of the Democratic party. Through a clenched smile, she snapped, “That's, like, five people.”
Then, last week, during a trip to the U.K., the San Francisco Democrat took direct aim. Speaking to the London School of Economics, the 79-year-old party leader explained, “When we won this election, it wasn’t in districts like mine or Alexandria’s” — conspicuously using AOC’s first name rather than an honorific. “This glass of water would win with a ‘D’ next to its name in those districts.”
Pelosi’s second in command, Maryland Congressman Steny Hoyer, also appears to be losing patience with the party’s new Instagram and Twitter stars. Last month, at a hotly anticipated and widely attended, bi-partisan conference in Washington hosted by AIPAC (Israel advocacy group that Omar has specifically condemned), the twenty term congressman pointedly noted that there are 62 new members of the House, “not three.”
His remarks are widely interpreted as a stinging rebuke of Omar who, in February, tweeted that support for Israel is “all about the Benjamins, baby” — a hip hop reference to one hundred dollar bills that seemed to imply that nefarious Jewish money is buying off American public officials. A few weeks later, at a political coffee klatch at a Washington book store, Omar insisted that advocates for the Jewish state “push for allegiance to a foreign country” — another attack that, to many observers, summoned the ancient slur of Jewish dual loyalty.
Kahn, the child of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, is not surprised by Omar’s outbursts. She warned in 2016 that she suspected Omar harbors anti-Semitic impulses. Kahn recounts an incident at a Minneapolis polling station during the 2014 local election where a Somali-American election judge was allegedly instructing voters in Somali that one voting line was for “our Somali brother” and the other for “the old Jewish lady,” meaning Kahn. The Star Tribune reported at the time that a Somali-American Kahn supporter submitted an affidavit accusing Omar — then, a city council aide — of “shouting instructions” to the election judge at the polling station. Kahn’s campaign filed a formal complaint. Omar denied the allegations.
More recently, Omar has raised the eyebrows of local community leaders for her apparent about face on the anti-Israel “Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions” (BDS) movement. During a primary debate last August, the candidate told a Jewish audience that BDS was “not helpful in getting that two-state solution.” But only days after winning election, her office told the website MuslimGirl.com that Omar did, in fact, support the punitive measures.
The rabbi of the Minneapolis synagogue where Omar made her original, benign, campaign trail remarks says, “She’s either misrepresenting or misunderstanding... [T]his starts her tenure off on the wrong foot.”
Between Omar’s inflammatory foreign policy pronouncements and AOC’s neo-Socialist fervor, the Democratic party and its moderate members risk being dragged off of a political cliff. As one congressman anonymously complained to the New York Post, progressive purity is “wrong and shows a lack of understanding for moderate leaning districts... Our districts don’t look like theirs, and if we’re going to keep the majority, we have to protect these moderate seats.” In February, Missouri Congressman Emanuel Cleaver fired a warning shot to AOC and her band of revolutionaries hopped up on media hype. The Congressional Black Caucus member told Politico, “I’m sure Ms. Cortez means well, but there’s almost an outstanding rule: Don’t attack your own people. We just don’t need sniping in our Democratic caucus.”
Tobman — who honed his political instincts under the tutelage of Schumer, one of the most powerful and canny politicians in the country — warns that Omar and AOC need to be “careful about believing their own press.” After years in the New York and national political trenches, Tobman observes, “It becomes an echo chamber of affirmation separate and disconnected from larger conversations about the direction of the party and the direction of the country.” But despite the rumblings of their disgruntled foot soldiers, Democratic party leaders seem powerless to pull in the reins.
Back home in Minnesota, Kahn reveals to Die Weltwoche that, “There are a couple of Somali guys who keep calling me and want my help in helping get rid of her.” According to Kahn, they are searching for a candidate to field against Omar in Minnesota’s 2020 Democratic primaries. “They don’t like what she’s doing to their reputations” as Muslim Americans.
Dr. Qanta Ahmed, a New York-based physician and prolific opinion journalist, shares their concern. A member of the Council on Foreign Relations, Ahmed has penned a series of passionate denunciations of Omar’s headline grabbing political musings. Ahmed tells Die Weltwoche that as an American Muslim and staunch supporter of the Jewish state, she feels honor bound to speak up. “I couldn’t ignore it any longer because most Americans do not know a Muslim person in the United States, whether a citizen or a migrant. And here she is, in the first two weeks of being in the Congress, expressing vituperative anti-Semitism.” Ahmed firmly believes that, “When you’re in Congress, you’re just an American serving everybody else. Your religion is immaterial.”
What is very much material, however, is the $830,000 in campaign donations Omar has raised in just the first three months since her November victory — more than even the ubiquitous AOC.
Two weeks ago, on a late night talk show, Omar was asked by the besotted host if she and her compatriots should lower their profile and temper their language for the sake of party comity. With an easy smile, Omar deftly reached into the identity politics rhetorical toolbox and replied, “Women have been told to go slow and not be seen and not be heard for many years. [Pelosi] wouldn’t have made it to where she is if she did. And it’s certainly the case for minority women… We are not there to be quiet. We are not there to be invisible. We are there to... make good trouble.”
As AOC has informed fellow Democrats and anyone else who doubts the inevitable triumph of the new Democratic Socialist revolution, “I am the boss!”