Few aspire to fame more deliberately than a politician. When you choose to run for office, you know exactly what you’re getting yourself into. Please, you’re saying to the national media, scrutinize everything I’ve said and done in my entire life—right now, all at once. In seconds, CNN is on the horn with your tenth-grade trig teacher. But in today’s fractured political landscape, fame is inseparable from infamy, and with a legion of fans come just as many hot-blooded Americans convinced that you’re an enemy of the state. We asked politicians from both sides of the aisle to describe their public lives during this charming time in our nation’s history.
2020欧洲杯积分Ilhan Omar is the representative from Minnesota’s Fifth District and a series of firsts: the first Somali-American member of Congress, one of the first two Muslim congresswomen, the first woman to wear a hijab on the House floor. She’s also a member of The Squad. All this has attracted plenty of attention for a first-term congresswoman. Sometimes, the scrutiny is merited, as when Omar apologized for playing on anti-Semitic tropes while criticizing the outsize influence of the pro-Israel lobby in American politics. More often, though, it depends on conspiracy theories and innuendo, including from the President of the United States. Trump has targeted Omar repeatedly, and each time he does, Omar’s office sees a spike in death threats. Along the way, of course, she’s also built a platform to fight on the issues she cares about.
ESQ: Are you surprised at how “The Squad” took off as a term after Rep. Ocasio-Cortez first used it on Instagram? Fox News recently tried to make a “Conservative Squad” happen.
IO: It’s fascinating, and a little high schoolish. For us, we like to laugh at it. But there are a lot of people who take it seriously, who’ve tried to get their own little cliques. It’s just weird, because we’re adults who were each voted into office by hundreds of thousands of people. The idea that you would, in a serious and deliberative way, think about what your clique’s name should be? And that it’ll automatically give you a space to inspire? It says a lot about this need to try to duplicate anything that is noticed.
We don’t have the influence we have because we’re called the Squad. We don’t raise the amount of political campaign funds we do because we’re called the Squad. And people know our name not just because we’re the Squad. Some of the public and the media pundits have decided that we must have somehow deliberately put this together. No. We are a group of female legislators who happen to have an agenda that is for the people, and it’s about boldly pushing for that. And it’s nothing more than that. To think that copying the model you think the Squad has will make you resonate is quite pathetic. See, I have strong feelings about those. . . . If they were a group of millennials, I would be like, “That’s cute.”
ESQ: Has the scrutiny changed how you live?
IO: I have not transformed. I’m still the kind of person that goes home after the day is finished, that hangs out with the people I normally would if I didn’t have this particular life. My friends, my associations, my interests—none of those things have really shifted. We joke about how a lot of people know my name and think they actually know who I am.
ESQ: Is it fair to say there’s a gap between your public image and who you really are?
IO: 2020欧洲杯积分What I do find fascinating, and a little bit entertaining, is the perception that people have of who you’re supposed to be when they meet you and interact with you, and how often people will actually express what they thought and how you’re different. The more your notoriety grows, the more that people like to think of you as something bigger than you actually are. And so my appearance to people is very different than what they imagine, because I think the size and scope of my voice and power doesn’t really match the very tiny person I am. So the first thing somebody will say is, “Oh my God, you’re so small.”
You know, constituents are surprised that when we’re in our home districts, we don’t walk around with the kind of support that we have in D.C. People are often shocked that I am at the grocery store, or I’m dropping my kids off at school, because they expect my life to mimic the image they have of the life I’m leading. The more your notoriety grows, the more that people think of you as something bigger than you actually are. When they meet you, people will actually express what they thought before and how you’re different. The size of my voice doesn’t really match the very tiny person I am, so the first thing somebody will say is “Oh my God, you’re so small.”
ESQ: You grew up Muslim in America, and faced suspicion from people who didn’t know you and assumed things about you. Did that prepare you at all for your life now?
IO: I think it’s the reason I continue to smile, amidst all of the craziness that is being a unicorn in Congress. Because even growing up, I was always very different than what people would imagine me to be. In a very conservative, patriarchal culture, as a child I grew up in a feminist, liberal home. So a lot of my childhood friends were always surprised in the way I showed up in public and it didn’t really match what they expected for a daughter that was being raised by only men.
Coming to the United States at a young age and being an immigrant and refugee, Muslim and black—I think there were a lot of stereotypes and expectations that people had, that really were not completely aligned with who I was and how I showed up every day. I’m really comfortable in who I am and not bothered by the mischaracterization. I really don’t have a desire to constantly explain or defend my identities to people. There are a lot of natural tendencies that people have when they are in a room where they’re presented as the minority, whether it is the only woman in a group of male friends, or you know, the black person in a group of white friends. You constantly want to say, Well, my people do this. This is the reason why we... and all of that stuff. And I never really have a desire to explain to people how my identities are different than theirs. We’re all humans, and I deserve respect regardless of whether I’m a minority or not.
ESQ: Was there a specific moment when you realized that you were going to be subjected to a new level of scrutiny along with the new power of your platform?
IO: I think I got that shock out of the way when I was in the [Minnesota] statehouse, when I won my election. It was historic. I defeated a 44-year incumbent. I was the first Somali woman to hold a seat in Minnesota and the first person in [any statehouse in] the country to wear a hijab. And so, a month after I was on the cover of Time.
2020欧洲杯积分At the time I didn’t really realize how much my media and social media presence had grown, because I wasn’t looking every day and monitoring. I posted something about an incident I’d had with this cab driver, and it just completely went wild. And I remember having a conversation with my father and he was like, “You don’t really have ten thousand friends.” A whole group of people are tuned into everything you say and do. And it is both a positive, a tool you can use for positive things, but it’s also something that can be very frustrating and daunting to think about all the time. Because I’m a very relaxed person. I like to joke around.
A version of this interview appears in the March issue of Esquire.