Liam O'Mara was the first candidate Blue America endorsed for the 2022 cycle. The southwest Riverside County super-progressive has decided-- tragically in my opinion-- to end his campaign. He had done incredibly well against corrupt Republican Ken Calvert in 2020 and was poised to win the seat next year. Now the dumber than bricks Democrats will have to find someone else to run against Calvert and start from scratch. Good luck with that.
Is This Who We Are?-- Thoughts on the Normalization of Hate, and on Leaving Politics
-by Liam O’Mara
My name is Liam O’Mara, and until recently I was the progressive Democratic candidate running in California’s inland 42nd district. Last week I called out a tweet by far-right commentator Candace Owens in a very inflammatory way, and apologizing for it and carrying on was not an option. My error in judgement is just too large, and I will not expect to be forgiven for this. My reasons for leaving politics, and the narratives around this episode, are fairly convoluted, and in the process of apologizing to any of you that I’ve let down or offended, I was asked to discuss them.
The short version of the incident is that Ms Owens chose the occasion of another mass shooting to attack #BlackLivesMatter and #AsianLivesMatter by asserting that black men are the most violent and commit the most shootings of both black men and Asians. The bogus crime statistics are bad enough, given they ignore all the context... like the fact that the black-white wealth gap has doubled since the 1960s, leaving crime more concentrated than before. But she ended her tweet with a reference to “clown world,” and this pushed me over the edge (more on that in a moment). I responded with “Yikes! You may’ve dropped this,” and posted an image of a Klan hood.
For the extreme insensitivity of that image, I apologize without reservation. I cannot know personally the pain which images of the Klan hood can inspire in many Americans, and its use was deeply problematic and wrong. My not thinking of that in the moment is an example both of the way white privilege can mask intentions and cause offence, and of how careless I can be sometimes. I won’t make excuses for it or defend it. And the context really doesn’t matter in the end-- that I used it at all is a problem. But I have been asked about the mistake, and I think that there are things we can learn how badly I messed up; possible conversations to be had so that things like this do not happen again and can be handled well if they do.
In my mind at the time of posting, that the mask was offensive was the whole point, as I'd hoped to draw attention to her offensively racist post by saying such nonsense belongs under a Klan hood, not out in the mainstream of American political discourse. The crime stats crap is straight-up recycled Klan rhetoric from the Jim Crow era, but adding “clown world” into the mix just amped up the offence. For any unfamiliar with far-right semiotics, Honkler is the “clown Pepe” meme and is a literal neonazi dog-whistle. (Honk Honkler = Heil Hitler, etc.).
When the right points to clown world, they are suggesting that the moral universe in which most of us exist is bogus, and that instead we should, like them, be upset by drag queens and transwomen, black crime and Latinx immigration. When we are not, because their arguments are reactionary nazi bullshit, they need a way to signal to each other and organize, and this is where the memes come in. This stuff is not posted ironically, and can’t be, when it is created to represent their views and is posted by people who believe this crap! And we have allowed these things to infiltrate the mainstream to an absurd degree, and if the Trump era can’t wake liberals up to the danger of that, I don’t know what can.
Was it impolitic to suggest that she is a white supremacist? Sure, absolutely. That doesn’t make it any less true, of course. When someone tells you who they are in their every act, you really ought to believe them. This is, after all, the person who defended Hitler’s nationalism and domestic politics, and said that if he’d just worked to “make Germany great” it would have been fine. Since that involved concentration camps for artists and musicians, socialists and trade unionists, Jews and Roma, and murdering the handicapped outright, to argue that Hitler’s only crime was seeking to conquer other countries is utterly beyond the pale.
Now apply those radically nationalist policies in the US, and what do you get? A vast media space filled with folks like Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham, Candace Owens and Charlie Kirk, Ben Shapiro and Dave Rubin, spouting reactionary propaganda and preaching hate. The American right has normalized far-right, antisemitic, nativist, white supremacist rhetoric, and it needs to be called out for what it is.
In my non-political life I have been a professor of history for the past dozen years. My teaching fields are the Middle East and Europe, but my discipline is intellectual and cultural history-- meaning, the history of ideas. In that capacity, one of my main areas of scholarly research are populist, nationalist, and neofascist movements, and for the last few years I have been studying the political psychology and rhetoric of far-right movements on-line.
These smaller groups are where it all gets going, really. A little at a time their views have slipped into Republican discourse, from aggressive defence of apartheid South Africa in the 1980s, to a new militia culture in the 1990s, to an obsession with immigration and Islam in the 2000s, to preoccupation with birth rates and resurrected antisemitic conspiracies in the 2010s. If you’ve seen Alex Jones preaching against the “globalists,” or heard Jordan Peterson decrying “postmodern neomarxism” or “cultural marxism,” you’ve been hearing recycled antisemitic propaganda. And we are losing every avenue to oppose it, by surrendering to their narratives again and again.
This is the hard part for me. Maybe it just means my destiny wasn’t to be a candidate. Maybe it means things have gotten too bad to find the needed reform by working within the system. Or maybe I’m just an arsehole, I don’t know. I certainly should not have addressed this matter as I did, and I am willing to admit I was in the wrong on it.
But I don’t want to stay silent, either, in the face of growing neofascist and white supremacist agitation, and if we can only respond in the most milquetoast and inoffensive ways, we have already lost.
Elections are won by exciting people and giving them a reason to get out there and vote. The GOP has expanded its coalition by drawing in the reactionaries. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party has worked hard to alienate the left, leaving people to stay home and frustrated, waiting for it all to collapse. If we can’t bring the fire, show what we believe, and get folks involved, we’re left preaching to the same smaller base of support.
Democrats used to hold about three-quarters of statehouses and we’re down to about a third of them. We lose seats every time because we cannot excite the left. And that simple fact is why the New Deal coalition died, and why our republic is dying with it. If we want to stop neofascism, we can’t do it as liberals or moderates – history is quite instructive there. Liberals have never been good at opposing fascism, and are more likely to adopt elements of its discourse. Look at how many Democrats will argue for a heavily policed border, for the drug war, for militarized police forces, for foreign intervention wars, and so on. Look at how many are willing to swallow the canard that “antifa are the real fascists.”
No, what we need is a strong left. We landed in the middle with the great domestic programmes of FDR, JFK, and LBJ because we still had a powerful left that was willing to shoot for the moon. When Roosevelt was elected we had a growing Marxist movement in the US calling for systemic change. Throughout the 1930s-1970s era we had far higher trade union membership and those unions were more radical. We had things like Students for a Democratic Society, the Black Panthers, the American Indian Movement, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. We had prominent national figures like Martin Luther King Jr coming out against militarism and capitalism. Without these hard pushes to the left we’d not have rolled out Social Security, Medicare, or the Voting Rights Act.
We’ve gotten more timid, and Democratic leaders these days are more likely to criticize the base for being too ambitious, to complain that something can’t pass so we need to let it go. But, come on, shooting for the moon is how we won those elections in the first place! It’s how social democracy dominated mid-twentieth century American politics. If you rally voters, you get the majorities you need for real change. And I refuse to surrender this country to the far right and its reactionary agenda.
When looking at the acceptable range of responses to neonazis and neofascists, I’m often drawn to Karl Popper’s famous Paradox of Tolerance – a society which tolerates intolerant acts and ideas is committing suicide and surrendering its own tolerance. If we pretend that vicious and repugnant ideas like those of Ms Owens are not dangerous, all we’re doing is placing ourselves in something like Weimar Germany. The liberals and left there focussed all their attention on fighting each other, dismissing the Nazis as too small to be a real threat.
And that infighting is why the far right spins narratives like this. Of course I, and Democrats as a whole, are “the real racists” to them-- the Democrats founded the Ku Klux Klan, donchaknow. The right needs to deflect from the reality of their own hateful rhetoric because people are not generally comfortable as the bad guy. This is something we see among neofascists all over the world-- Vladimir Putin, e.g., regularly calls his pro-democracy opponents fascists, while himself quoting from fascist thinkers like Ivan Ilyin.
Using the image of that Klan hood as I did was racially insensitive and intolerable. And I’m not going to defend the image or my decision to use it. I was wrong, and I resigned from politics over it. What I did was beyond insensitive, and no apology can erase the damage I did to friendships and to our campaigns in the region. There is no way to escape the fact that I did not consider in the moment how it could hurt people, or how much it played into the hands of the far right.
But I will scream to the rafters that we need to find some other way to get bolder and push back against these fascists. We give too many voters an impression of timidity and hypersensitivity to offence, and that keeps them from siding with us. I get that we are the principled party, but the right uses those principles against us, and forces us to swallow their narratives. That we do care, and should care, about offending people and about hypocrisy is again and again used to force out strong voices for change, and leaves us lying prostrate before the right wing electoral machine.
I wish we could find a way to worry less over perception and focus more on substance, though I can’t say I know how. I’m reminded of an old quip, that Republicans are arseholes but Democrats are bed- wetters. If we worry incessantly about shocking and offending people, and favour only the most inoffensive and tightly scripted candidates, we lose a powerful tool for rousing a sleeping population and moving us in a positive direction. After all, getting attention and shaking folks from their complacency is how you get change. Well-behaved people do not make history, and it might help us to remember that.
But regardless of all that, I wouldn’t consider fighting my cancellation over this-- not even for a minute. What I did crossed a line. I did not deserve the faith and support that I received as a politician; I let everyone down. I get both the perception issue and the pain that I caused. I took a racist tweet and I responded to it with an escalation that definitely makes me look racist, too. It shows plainly my own unconscious lack of understanding for the pain those images bring up.
So while, yes, it hurts that I will be remembered as a racist for badly speaking out against overt racism and neonazism, I am not willing to fight the matter. I got into politics because I wanted to go after Republicans, and no matter how we may disagree on some issues, the Democrats are not my enemy, and will never be my enemy. If some choose to see me as one, I’ll have to live with that, but I will not return the sentiment.
As it stands, I am being doxxed in my professional life, and have been receiving violent threats from angry men all over this country. Some of these show an almost astonishing lack of self-awareness. One especially twisted message from this morning asked me, “How are you going to chug musloid terrorist jizz and swing on BLM dicks with broken arms, Nazi?” Imagine being so deep into neonazi discourse that you’ll barf up racist invective like that, yet I’m the Nazi..?
If friends had placed bets about what could take down my campaign, I doubt this would have been on the list, but some kind of careless gaffe surely would have. Not only do I have a long history of being outspoken on the issues, but I’m hardly the perfectly sculpted and scripted and controlled politician. I am, after all, literally autistic, and while I am good much of the time about catching social cues and nuances, and watching for others’ perspective, I’m still prone to slip- ups, and have offended people before without meaning to do so. While this campaign didn’t go the way I’d hoped, I’m still amazed that I did this well as a long-haired, foul-mouthed leftist fire-brand for the working class.
I’m sorry to anyone who was hurt by what I did, or by how this came apart, and I am sorry for letting everyone down. I’ve been beating myself up about that non-stop, and I’m sorry that I couldn’t keep this going a few more years. I poured a lot of heart and effort into this, but I’m not cut out to be a politician, and my bluntness would surely get me in trouble eventually. This 2am tweet was a disaster and an epic blunder, and a terrible way to leave politics. I’ll have to live with that mistake.
At the end of the day, what I want is for images like the Klan hood to be relegated to the past. But while we don’t see all the cross-burnings and masked rallies any more, the reason for that is frankly terrifying-- it’s that they no longer need to hide who they are. Fear and hate have been normalized to such an extent in contemporary America that you can win the presidency on the back of nativist, antisemitic, and deeply racist imagery, and Trump remains the most popular president with the party since the birth of modern polling. The GOP has taken off its mask and shown what it is, and I guess what concerns me is... how do we fight that?
I know that we can do better as a society, and I do not want to contribute to our problems. But we really need to talk about what we can do about where we’re headed, and if we can’t work together in the face of this obscene hatred, I fear for the future. I’m sorry that I could not be a more positive force in this battle for the soul of America, but I remain hopeful that we can find a way forward together.
Yours in solidarity, Liam