Trump got into the Oval Office by hating our last president. Now that he doesn’t have Obama or Hillary, he’s set his sights on four congresswomen of color—especially Rep. Ilhan Omar. Will it backfire?
If there’s one thing we know about Donald Trump, it’s that he needs an enemy to function. Trump’s attack on progressive congresswomen of color Ayanna Pressley, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib (dubbed, semi-obnoxiously, “The Squad”) has been exhaustively parsed all week long. The substance of his message—he told them to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came”; his attacks on Omar, in particular, have been horrific, with Trump spreading the lie that Omar committed incest with her brother and leading whole crowds in chants of “send her back”—was undeniably racist. It was also, undeniably, the same message he’s been sending throughout his entire political career. This is the man whose first entry into the political arena was as the celebrity voice of the “birther” movement, claiming Obama had been born outside of the United States solely on the basis that Obama was black. Three years into his presidency, are we surprised that he thinks non-white people aren’t American?
But Trump’s obsession with Obama reveals another aspect of his politics, something he learned early, and the rest of us forget at our peril: In order to sell himself as a white knight, Trump needs to create a dragon. He always needs an enemy, a rival, someone else he can point to and say “that’s what’s wrong.” It is, as many have noted, a tactic he probably learned from reality TV. Contestant rivalries create drama, and drama equates to air time, and air time equates to success. Donald Trump is a guy who became president more or less entirely on the basis of hating our last president. He needed Obama—just as, during the 2016 election, he needed Hillary Clinton to be the loathed, loathsome “nasty woman” he could promise to lock up or take down to size. “Send her back” is not a sequel to “lock her up,” it’s a gritty reboot—newer, splashier, and with birther-style racism grafted on to appeal to the base that latched on to Trump in his Obama-baiting glory days. Trump operates on the politics of the takedown. His enmities are the only reason he exists.
White-nationalist politics fuel Trump’s power in the abstract, too. He is, in particular, able to invoke the mere idea of “immigrants” as a faceless, violent, chaotic force coming to kill your white children and steal your jobs and reduce your property values and so on and so forth. But they work better when he can pin all his favorite racist and/or sexist tropes to a real person, someone who actually embodies the forces of change that he fears and wants other white Americans to fear as well. During the Obama administration, it was Obama; during the Hillary Clinton campaign, it was Hillary Clinton. Now, in the run-up to the 2020 election, it’s the Squad. By invoking his supporters’ fears of “communism,” or—more bluntly—Brown and Black women with platforms and opinions, he hopes to make himself look like a guardian at the gates, holding back a tide of sheer multiracial anarchy.
The amount of hatred he’s pointed at these women says something about the changing nature of power in this country, and within the Democratic Party. Trump is not aiming the heavy artillery at Joe Biden, the current 2020 frontrunner — because Joe Biden is an old white man like himself, granted, but also because Joe Biden doesn’t scare people the way these women do. Biden represents the transfer of power from one white man to another. He represents the continuation of the system as it exists. The Squad means something more. These are not just four random young women of color. They are four progressive women of color who are currently the center of energy within the Democratic Party, and the members most likely to determine its future.
Within a few short months, Ocasio-Cortez, in particular, has managed to become her party’s most visible face. Though that job has come with a metric tonnage of Fox News hatred, she nonetheless leads the public conversation on what Democrats should stand for, easily outstripping a lot of long-standing Congresspeople in prominence and clout. Tlaib, Pressley, and Omar are not media superstars in the same way (no one is) but they too have also become icons for progressives and lightning rods for everyone else. (Well before this latest round of attacks, Trump had implicitly and accused Tlaib of having “tremendous hatred of Israel and the Jewish people.”) They’re all young, and given the generational nature of the divide between their politics and those of elders like Nancy Pelosi, it’s not hard to see that their priorities are likely to become the Democratic mainstream.
Which is to say: Trump is working harder on demeaning the Squad than attacking Joe Biden because he understands he’s not running against Joe Biden—he’s running against these four women, and the future they represent. No matter who becomes president in the next election, the real threat to Trump and Trumpism is the idea that progressive or radical women of color might come to determine how the country works. Trump’s appeal (and please, feel free to imagine a literally infinite amount of scare quotes around the word “appeal”) is his promise to stave off the future these women represent. To make the pitch for himself, he has to define himself against them. But, by so doing, he’s essentially conceding that the Squad are the most important politicians of our moment.
For several Democrats, acknowledging this state of play will require changes. The Squad was targeted by fellow Democrats before the president ever took aim; senior Democratic officials have been making anti-AOC tweets and sending around top-secret polls designed to “prove” her unpopularity, as if our government were nothing but one long, beige-toned remake of Mean Girls. This is probably why Trump went in on them; he profits from intra-party division, and, bullies being bullies, he probably found it more exciting to pick on women he thought were especially vulnerable. Aside from whether it’s okay for white people to leave women of color undefended from racist attacks (nope) cooperating in the character assassination of the Squad is just stupid strategy. Trump will do his best to tie the general election to these women’s names and faces. He will treat them as if they are the nominees. We need to treat them as if they are the nominees as well—get behind them publicly, support them to the utmost extent possible, and, if there’s a genuine conflict worth hashing out, deal with that conflict in such a manner that Trump won’t be able to tweet about it to his 62 million followers.
What Trump understands—even if Democrats do not—is that the Squad are the politicians most likely to bring about his downfall. They may do it in the short term, by energizing voters against him in the 2020 elections. They will almost certainly do it in the long term, by enacting a gradual, generational change that will cause his name and legacy to crumble. The world Trump wants really can’t exist as long as these four women are accorded any power in it. Nothing lasts forever. People die; ideologies die; administrations end. The presidencies of 72-year-old white men with 41 percent approval ratings, historically, end pretty quickly, and without much dignity. When Trump looks at these women, he sees his end. We had better start seeing it as well, and valuing it for what it’s worth.
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