President Donald Trump is scared. Though it has always been hard to ascertain what he knows and does not know, it appears he knows he is unpopular: he fired three of his five internal pollsters in June because of their dismal projections. The Republicans know this, too. But they have also no substantive policy agenda to present to the American people, only white rage and resentment, racism and xenophobia, all of which have culminated in the Trump administration’s spectacle of wanton cruelty along the southern border.
As the 2020 election campaign begins, Trump and the Republicans have not been coy about their strategy. They intend to foment hatred of “the other” among their predominantly white base, to weaponize false accusations of antisemitism against progressive politicians, to pour kerosene on the fires of the culture war and fight—against women’s rights, LGBT rights, reproductive rights—with renewed vigor.
Hence President Trump’s latest stream of racist invective on Twitter, this time directed at the group of four, first-year congresswomen—Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib—that some affectionately refer to as “The Squad.”
Trump tweeted that the four women of color should “go back” to “the totally broken and crime infested” countries they came from (all are American citizens and only Omar was born outside of the United States). Trump then doubled down on his attacks against them Monday morning following Senator Lindsey Graham’s appearance on Fox & Friends. “We all know that AOC and this crowd are a bunch of Communists, they hate Israel, they hate our own Country,” the president tweeted, quoting Graham. “They are Anti-Semitic, they are Anti-America, we don’t need to know anything about them personally, talk about their policies.”
And yet it is precisely their policies that have Trump and the Republicans worked up into a frothy lather. The members of the Squad, in stark contrast not only to the Republicans but to the rest of the Democrats, have championed boldly progressive policy proposals—from the Green New Deal to Medicare for All to student debt cancellation to abolishing ICE and the Department of Homeland Security to increasing the top marginal tax rate to 70 percent.
These proposals are popular, and not only among liberal Democrats, but across a wide swath of the American public. A poll conducted earlier this year found that 60 percent of independent voters supported Ocasio-Cortez’s 70 percent top tax-rate proposal, as did 45 percent of Republicans. Polls consistently show a clear majority of Americans back Medicare for All. Even as sweeping a proposal as the Green New Deal enjoys more support than opposition among likely voters, Obama-to-Trump voters, and moderates. There is an obvious desire for the kind of transformational politics that the members of “the Squad” have brought to Congress.
Indeed, while much of the media coverage of the various “Squad” members have focused on their identities, their appeal goes far beyond matters of representation. Of course, representation is important, and the Squad, comprised of women of color, represents not only important “firsts”—the first Muslim-American congresswomen, the youngest ever member of Congress, the first black female representative from Massachusetts. They represent what America looks like today far better than the pale, greying gerontocracy that rules the country. At forty-five, Pressley is the oldest member of “the Squad”; Nancy Pelosi, for comparison, is seventy-nine, and Trump, seventy-three.
But what distinguishes them as much as who they are is what they have done. After less than a year in office, the members of the Squad have greatly expanded the realm of political possibility in the United States. They have energized the Democratic Party base with a fighting progressivism, choosing open confrontation with the Republicans over the tepid triangulation that the Democrats have longed preferred—and which the party’s leadership mistakenly still does. They speak not in focus-grouped platitudes but with real passion and empathy for ordinary people’s pain. It is for this reason that they have succeeded in connecting with the wider public. It is why they dominate the news day after day. And it is why they drive Trump and the Republicans crazy. In the Squad—diverse, comparatively young, energetic and charismatic—Trump and the Republicans see their own impending political and literal obsolescence.
Faced with the prospect of multiracial social democracy that the members of the Squad represent, Trump and the Republicans are employing the same tactics to thwart progressive political change and sabotage redistributivist policies that defenders of the existing order have used throughout American history. They seek to sow distrust among the vulnerable and the marginalized, to divide working-class people of color and working-class white people, and, now, to pit Muslims and Jews against one another. Afraid of losing their grip on power, they have opted to instill fear and terror in the American public through both their rhetoric—the demonization of immigrants, the delegitimization of dissent—and their policies—ICE raids across U.S. cities and the initial steps toward a war with Iran. And in statehouses around the country, Republicans are working to guarantee white minority rule into perpetuity as the country’s demographics shift.
If there is a lesson from Trump’s most recent racist tirade, it is that between the Republicans’ xenophobic nationalism and the Squad’s multiracial social democracy, there is no longer a viable middle ground. In a show of rank pettiness and political irresponsibility, Democratic House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi lashed out at the Squad in an interview with the New York Times, and the official House Democrats Twitter account, controlled by corporate Democrat Hakeem Jeffries, fired off a vicious attack on Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff. These attempts by the centrist Democratic leadership to challenge the Squad’s progressive agenda only backfired, opening the door for Trump, whose sole natural talent may be trolling, to exploit the Democrats’ intra-party divisions. And yet by Monday, the Democrats’ leadership had lined up to defend Ocasio-Cortez and the other members of the Squad.
What this made clear is the fact that it is not Pelosi or Jeffries or Schumer who is leading the opposition to Trump but the Squad: four, first-year congresswomen who have presented a coherent, comprehensive alternative not only to the odious Republicans but to the feckless moderates within their own party. That there are so few members of the Squad, and that they are so easily identifiable, reflects the sorry state of the Democrats. But the Squad has also shown the power of an unabashedly progressive politics in style as well as substance. They are popular, so are their policies. And this has everyone who opposes them—from Trump and the Republicans to Pelosi and the centrist Democrats—terrified.
Joshua Leifer is an associate editor at Dissent.
This article first appeared in The Guardian. Read it here.