Ilhan Omar is almost all the things Donald Trump has demonized and demeaned rolled into one person. Omar, for starters, is an outspoken woman. Clearly Trump, who has ridiculed the #MeToo movement, called women who accused him of sexual misconduct “liars,” just called Omarosa a “dog,” and defended men who were physically abusive to women like his former aide Rob Porter, doesn’t stand on the side of women who speak out.
Omar is also black and born in Africa, a place Trump has referred to as a “shithole.” Add to that, not only is she from Africa, Omar is from Somalia and is Muslim, meaning if she had been trying to come to America when Trump was president, his Muslim ban would have barred her, as Somalia is one of the seven countries on Trump’s list.
But on Tuesday, Omar did something historic. She won the Democratic nomination for Congress in Minnesota's heavily Democratic 5th district. That means come January, Trump will almost assuredly have to deal with this outspoken, hijab-wearing, very progressive, Muslim Somali refugee as a member of Congress. Ahh, karma.
Omar’s win, though, is far from the only historic victory we’ve seen this primary season. It seems almost every primary day another person from a community Trump has demonized or even discriminated against wins a Democratic nomination. For example, in Vermont on Tuesday, Democrats nominated the first openly transgender woman to be a major party’s gubernatorial nominee in Christine Hallquist. That victory is sweeter given that Trump is trying to ban transgender Americans from serving in our military.
But the story of the 36-year-old Omar may just be the most compelling. She was born in Somalia, but at eight years of age, a brutal civil war drove her family to flee. The Omars next found themselves living in a refugee camp in Kenya—you know, the place Trump claimed Obama was from. After four years struggling to survive in a Kenyan refugee camp, Omar became another entry in the American tale of immigrants coming to the country in the hopes of a better live as she moved in 1997 to Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Most refugees are focused on just surviving in America. As the son of a Palestinian immigrant father who was a refugee, I can attest to that first hand, as I watched my Dad work two and three jobs when I was a child in north Jersey simply to make ends meet.
But Omar did more than just focus on surviving. At 14, she became an interpreter for Somalis at the Democratic political events in Minneapolis where she first fell in love with American politics. She went on to serve the community in various roles, from vice president of the Minneapolis’s NAACP to senior policy aide for a Minneapolis City Council member.
Omar’s next step was to seek office, vying for a seat in the Minnesota House of Representatives. And here’s where, ironically enough, her and Trump’s paths not only crossed but have since become intertwined. Here they both were in 2016, a Somalian, Muslim refugee on the same ballot as a man who made demonizing Muslims, and especially Somalis, a cornerstone of his campaign.
In fact, just days before the November 2016 election, there was Trump in Omar’s very town serving up more fact-free fear-mongering about Somalis to his base, declaring: “Here in Minnesota, you’ve seen first-hand the problems caused with faulty refugee vetting, with very large numbers of Somali refugees coming into your state without your knowledge.” Trump then added, “Everybody’s reading about the disaster taking place in Minnesota.”
Both Omar and the anti-Muslim Trump won their respective elections. But their connection didn’t end there. Shortly after Trump was sworn in, he attempted to implement the first version of the Muslim ban that included Somalia. Omar, who had just recently been sworn in to her seat in the state legislature, was instrumental in organizing a rally of over 2,000 Minnesotans to oppose this bigoted ban.
And a few months ago, when Congressman Keith Ellison announced his intention to give up his congressional seat to run for Minnesota Attorney General, Omar jumped into the race for Congress in large part because of Trump. As Omar explained, the Trump administration’s “politics of fear” was her impetus to run for Congress.
Indeed, just this past weekend, Omar was forced to contend face to face with another Trump connection, this time in the form of a Trump loving anti-Muslim bigot who crashed her campaign event and accused Omar of being tied to terrorism. But neither Trump nor the hate-filled people he has emboldened could stop Omar.
Now Omar and Trump’s paths appear destined to cross again. But to be clear, Omar’s run wasn’t just about Trump. She is a true progressive, championing issues from Medicare for all to getting big money out of politics. That’s why she secured the endorsement of the leading progressive groups from MoveOn to Justice Democrats to the Twin Cities chapter of Bernie Sander’s Our Revolution. This helps explain why Omar’s race Tuesday wasn’t even close despite running against other former and current elected officials, with Omar winning with 48 percent of the vote, besting her nearest competitor by 18 percentage points.
Omar was also joined last weekend on the campaign trail by another Muslim American, Rashida Tlaib, who won the Democratic congressional nomination in Michigan’s 13th district last week and who is running unopposed in November. That means a veritable wave of Muslim women is coming to Congress in 2019! OK, it’s not a wave, it's still only two, but up until now there has not even been one.
How much of an impact Omar can have in Congress is anyone’s guess. But her victory, along with people like Tlaib and the other historic firsts in the recent Democratic party primaries, makes it clear that the Democratic Party truly reflects what America looks like today and will look like going forward. In contrast, the GOP increasingly looks more and more like Trump. It’s never been easier to see which party is on the right side of history.