At the end of a week when much of Capitol Hill’s attention was focused on divisions in the Democratic Party, it was the Republican lawmakers who split over a key vote. After Democratic leaders expanded a resolution that initially focused on condemning anti-Semitism — which many saw as targeting Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) — to a broader one condemning “anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, racism, and other forms of bigotry,” 23 Republicans voted against the measure. On Sunday’s “Meet the Press,” the most senior Republican to vote no, Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.), tried to defend the vote — and failed.
Cheney told host Chuck Todd, “I decided to vote against it because I think it was really clearly an effort to actually protect Ilhan Omar, to cover up her bigotry and anti-Semitism by refusing to name her.” Cheney went on to add that “the kind of anti-Semitism that you’re seeing now from Ilhan Omar and that has been supported by her colleagues is the kind of anti-Semitism that really has the ability to creep in and become normalized in our discourse. And we have an absolute obligation not to let that happen.”
In a vacuum, Cheney’s argument may make sense, though holding a vote on a resolution is an odd method for a “coverup.” But more importantly, it’s not clear how adding language condemning Islamophobia waters down condemnation of anti-Semitism. Both are forms of prejudice based on the religious beliefs of the target. Both Islamophobic and anti-Semitic attacks are on the rise. And both types of bigotry are in danger of being normalized — thanks in no small part to Cheney’s fellow Republicans.
Last fall, current House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) accused George Soros, Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg (all Jewish or of Jewish descent) of trying to “buy” the midterm elections, and Republicans including Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa) have amplified conspiracy theories that Soros has paid leftist protesters. Charges such as these invoke old and ugly anti-Semitic tropes that suggest that Jews use money to secretly exert control over the political process. Meanwhile, the Republican president speculates about closing mosques to fight terrorism; Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) pals around with anti-Muslim nationalists in Europe; and Fox News hosts imply that Islam is a destructive force and that Omar’s decision to wear a hijab signals secret and sinister anti-constitutional views rather than a choice to exercise her constitutionally protected freedom of religion.
On Sunday, Cheney and Todd both referred to bringing up McCarthy and others as mere “whatboutism.” But they missed an important distinction. Democrats pointing to King, McCarthy and others as an excuse full stop would be whataboutism. But it’s perfectly legitimate to point to them as evidence that, just maybe, the GOP scramble to condemn Democrats this week isn’t really about principled opposition to anti-Semitism. Yes, Cheney has recently begun to criticize King, even suggesting he should resign. But she was nowhere to be found long after he had crossed the same lines before, such as when he tweeted that “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” Nor has she criticized the legions of Iowa GOP leaders for supporting King’s reelection year after year.
Cheney’s stance is unsustainable, given her own record. Todd’s last question on the topic prompted a response from her that showed just how untenable her position is. “Do you feel comfortable that President Trump’s done enough to tamp down this right-wing fringe anti-Semitism that’s been rising up?” Todd asked.
Cheney refused to answer — even though the president responded to neo-Nazis chanting “Jews will not replace us” by saying there were "very fine people on both sides,” even though he repeatedly uses the term “globalist” despite its well-documented anti-Semitic associations, and even though he has fueled anti-Soros conspiracy theories. As long as Republicans duck criticism of the president’s words, their denunciations of others will always ring hollow.