Is the American dream for everyone? Just ask Ilhan Omar

Why Marjorie Taylor Greene gets a pass while others don’t

“What opinions do you have to have to be counted as American?” Ilhan Omar asked last week. Above, she conducts a television interview before Tuesday’s State of the Union. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
“What opinions do you have to have to be counted as American?” Ilhan Omar asked last week. Above, she conducts a television interview before Tuesday’s State of the Union. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted February 9, 2023 at 6:00am

Is American citizenship conditional? The country certainly will welcome the immigrant, the newcomer — “as long as.” And that list is long. As long as you don’t criticize. As long as you don’t make a mistake. As long as you fit a certain, undefined ideal of “American.”

Watching President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address to Congress on Tuesday night, I realized how much decorum matters only for some, and an impossible “perfection” is demanded for others who will never clear the bar.

A wild-eyed Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia can stand and point and yell, interrupting the president of the United States with her disrespect, and instead of feeling any shame for acting out, will probably replicate the moment to raise money from constituents and fans who love the show.

After all, it worked in 2009 for fellow Republican representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina, who no doubt earned extra points because the object of his ire was Barack Obama, the first Black president of the United States, a man who had to be “perfect.” That “You lie” has since been used against him doesn’t mean Wilson would change a thing.

While witnessing Greene’s act, I remembered the scene on the floor of the same Congress about a week ago, when Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota mounted a futile defense before Republicans, as predicted and promised, cast her out of its House Foreign Affairs Committee for words used to criticize policy on Israel, something she had quickly apologized for years ago.

The irony is that some of the same colleagues who ultimately voted against her — including Greene and the speaker of the House — had never felt the need to walk back their own comments, including a now deleted Kevin McCarthy tweet about Democratic donors trying to “buy” an election, employing the same trope members of the GOP and some Democrats had accused Omar of using.

Their Americanness would never be called into question.

In Omar’s presentation, I was struck by the riveting photo of herself as a child, staring straight ahead, both ready and unsure of what would come next after fleeing one war-torn country and spending years in a refugee camp in another.

That the little girl is now a congresswoman in the U.S. House of Representatives should be Exhibit No. 1 in the resilience of the American dream, the tale of someone starting out with little who has risen to the top.

But since the girl-turned-congresswoman is Ilhan Omar, a Black woman, a Muslim and born in Somalia, her story will always be suspect for some. Instead of seeing her global experience as something that could inform any debates on a committee devoted to exploring U.S. policy in the world, it has become a cudgel to threaten when she steps outside the boxes she is put into.

What has been the go-to command for politicians from Donald Trump to GOP Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas? They never hesitate to tell the woman who is as American as they are to “go back,” to “leave.” At the same time, they are insulting the voters she won over and the Americans she represents.

And when Trump targeted her, he also included American-born Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib, making clear that his test for being entitled to have a voice includes more than being born on U.S. soil.

"What opinions do you have to have to be counted as American?” Omar asked. “That is what this debate is about.”

Anyone viewing Biden’s speech had to be struck by the disconnect. It is Republicans who always complain of “angry” Americans trying to impose their will, but who never hesitate to not just display anger but revel in it.

Who is this “woke mob” Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders referred to in her rebuttal?

I have no idea what is “mob-like” about Americans asking for empathy for fellow citizens, for law enforcement dedicated to protecting and serving everyone in every neighborhood, for truth-telling in an inclusive history of our country, the last being something Sanders herself barred in one of her first acts as governor of a state with a lot of citizens who have been excluded. She banned the teaching of “critical race theory,” which has not been shown to have ever been taught in her state’s public schools but has become a convenient shorthand for any mention of race and racism in the study of a mythical American history.

It was Republicans in that congressional audience Tuesday night who seemed to find it darn near impossible to stand and clap for Biden’s defense of democracy and condemnation of the true “mob,” who tried to undermine it on Jan. 6, 2021.

If all those who broke windows and attacked police and tried to stop the vote-counting that day had looked like Ilhan Omar, does anyone doubt the reaction would have been quite different? Many Republicans have tried to wish away that day, showing contempt for the America they profess they are protecting from Ilhan Omar.

Despite talk of moving past the white-hot, divisive rhetoric of Donald Trump, the choice of his former press secretary to set their future with a speech that rivaled Trump’s scene of “American carnage” proves who matters in their America versus who can never complain and has to always explain.

Some, like Sanders, are obsessed with “woke fantasies.” Others strive for their own hopeful version of the American dream, where all may not agree but everyone definitely belongs.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. She is host of the CQ Roll Call “Equal Time with Mary C. Curtis” podcast. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.