Ilhan Omar has a target on her back. Or so her supporters claim when her habitually reckless rhetoric becomes the subject of criticism. Following the congresswoman’s remarks about the September 11th attacks—which she described as “some people” doing “something,” the primary effect of which was to mobilize the American public to support the oppression of law-abiding Muslims—anyone who publicized the callowness of those comments was accused of inciting violence. Those who labored under the mistaken impression that this was an honest display of concern for the representative’s safety born of a desire to avoid further inflaming political tensions was disabused of that notion on Tuesday evening.
On Tuesday, Rep. Joaquin Castro, chairman of his brother Julian Castro’s presidential campaign, tweeted an image featuring the names and employers of 44 of his district’s more influential donors to Donald Trump’s campaign. Not bundlers or millionaires; private individuals who contributed the maximum allowed by federal law per candidate, per election cycle: a whopping $2,800. Some were local business owners; others were simply listed as retirees or homemakers. Some on the list were even contributors to Castro’s campaigns, but they found no salvation in the indulgence they thought they’d purchased.
“Their contributions are fueling a campaign of hate that labels Hispanic immigrants as ‘invaders,’” Castro alleged. By this thinking, these private individuals were materially supporting racism and, by extension, the terroristic violence that occurred over the weekend. At least some Democrats who were once so concerned about the prospect of inciting violence against Rep. Omar thought Castro’s missive was a public service. “They don’t like it when you name their donors,” wrote Rep. Rashida Tlaib. “The public needs to know who funds racism.”
Individual contributions to candidates and campaigns are, indeed, public information available to all who are dedicated enough to comb through the Federal Election Commission’s database. But given the national uproar that followed the publication of a New York Times headline that failed to spell out the subtext rendering Donald Trump’s call for “unity vs. racism” suspect, it’s hard to imagine that Democratic dismissals of the threat implicit in Castro’s actions are offered in good faith.
This is not the first time that donors have been targeted for intimidation, nor are Democrats the sole offenders. But the effect of these efforts to call out and shame individuals for practicing their First Amendment rights is so predictable that it cannot be distinguished from intent. In 2009, for example, a gay rights organization published the names and addresses of Californians who supported a 2008 ballot initiative outlawing same-sex marriage. The results were chilling:
In one instance, a supporter found a flier in his neighborhood calling him a bigot and listing his employer. In another, white powder was sent to a Mormon temple and a facility run by the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic group, which contributed more than $1 million in support of Proposition 8. Other supporters, including the director of the Los Angeles Film Festival, Richard Raddon, have been forced to resign because of their backing of the measure, while some businesses have been boycotted because of Proposition 8.
Democrats know the effect that irresponsible rhetoric can have on disturbed individuals who are uniquely susceptible to suggestion. The party’s 2020 field isn’t shy about blaming the president for contributing to the radicalization of people who are inclined toward violence. They have a valid point. Democrats who decline to temper their rhetoric in observance of their responsibilities as lawmakers can also inspire the unstable to commit acts of politicized violence. The threat posed by excessive political rhetoric is real and demonstrable.
Castro’s attack on Trump donors in his district inadvertently makes a strong argument in favor of “dark money”—a practice against which Democrats frequently rail but a practice that’s utilized even more than their Republican opponents in 2018. The landmark 1958 Supreme Court decision in NAACP v. Alabama found that state-issued subpoenas for the group’s records, including its membership and donor lists, represented an assault on civil rights. This foundational ruling has served as the basis on which charitable organizations and social-welfare groups have successfully argued in favor of anonymity ever since.
In the interest of transparency and accountability, these protections do not apply to candidates. Until now, the argument raised by critics of America’s Byzantine labyrinth of financial disclosure rules has been that they anonymize wealthy interests and prevent Americans from having a full understanding of who is influencing the political process. Castro’s maneuver deals a fatal blow to that argument. By shining a spotlight on small-dollar donors and implying strongly that their contributions represent a moral failing that puts minority lives in jeopardy, the congressman redefined the rules of engagement. Republicans will respond in kind, and yet another conventionally private aspect of American life will be nationalized.
If Democrats truly believed that this delicate moment in American political life had the capacity to spiral out of control, they would regard Castro’s irresponsible actions with the same disdain they reserve for Republicans who single out private individuals and businesses. Their silence suggests that they don’t, which raises the question: Is Trump’s rhetoric really beyond the pale, or is he just not agitating for the kind of social instability Democrats like?