Donald Trump is seizing on what many Republicans believe is an opportunity to foster internal discord with Democrats amid a simmering feud between Nancy Pelosi and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
The latest headlines center around comments Pelosi made during a July 6 interview with Maureen Dowd. In a hopelessly tone-deaf remark, the speaker (the most powerful women ever elected to public office in the United States), derided “The Squad” in the most condescending way imaginable, in the process laying bare her own inadequacies as a public servant in the modern era of American politics.
“These people have their public whatever and their Twitter world”, Pelosi remarked. “They didn’t have any following. They’re four people and that’s how many votes they got”, she continued, referencing the recently-passed border bill.
“The Squad” is comprised of AOC, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, and it goes without saying that Pelosi’s remarks played right into their hands. Pelosi’s derisive reference to “these people” had clear racial overtones and even if it didn’t, referring to the “public whatever” and “their Twitter world” is a laughably out-of-touch characterization of voters and social media.
Pelosi, it would seem, embodies the aloof Washington establishment, so disconnected from those she serves that she sees them as the “public whatever”. (Pelosi, like every other member of Congress, works for the public.)
Her fumbling reference to a “Twitter world” makes the speaker seem like a stereotype – a cobweb-laden relic, haplessly fighting a two-front war against Progressives and Donald Trump, both of whom are the very definition of social media savvy.
“The Squad represents more than its members’ four singular votes in the House. To think otherwise significantly minimizes the influence of their national audience, including nearly 7 million Twitter followers, and their ability to capture the spotlight of traditional media”, former congresswoman Donna Edwards wrote for the Washington Post this week. “That’s not everything, but it’s not nothing”, she continued, adding that “while winning and maintaining a House majority requires legislative success on Capitol Hill, it also requires foot soldiers who can bring out the vote come Election Day”. Someone forgot to tell Pelosi, though. She seems oddly oblivious.
On Wednesday, the Post published an interview with AOC, which detailed a closed-door meeting during which Pelosi reportedly admonished her party in the fashion of a crime family matriarch. “You got a complaint? You come and talk to me about it. But do not tweet about our members and expect us to think that that is just okay”, Pelosi said.
AOC told the Post that Pelosi was targeting newcomers and, specifically, newcomers who also happen to be women of color.
“When these comments first started, I kind of thought that she was keeping the progressive flank at more of an arm’s distance in order to protect more moderate members, which I understood”, Ocasio-Cortez said. “But the persistent singling out… it got to a point where it was just outright disrespectful… the explicit singling out of newly elected women of color”.
Let’s face it: All pretensions to decorum and the rather obvious fact that Pelosi is not a racist aside, AOC is correct. Sophia Nelson spelled things out pretty succinctly in a recent column for USA Today:
No, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is not a racist. Yes, she has been an ally of women of color for her entire 31-year career in Congress.
I have seen her up close and personal, when she spoke at an event my Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority held last year in Washington, D.C. at the Library of Congress to honor a historic black woman. She is all in on black women’s advancement and policy issues. To argue otherwise would be untrue.
Yet freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez has it right — Speaker Pelosi is old guard. She does not like her new, high-profile women of color members nipping at her heels. She paid her dues. She worked her way up through the male dominated congressional system for decades to become the nation’s first female Speaker of the House.
The daughter of a powerful Baltimore Mayor, Pelosi was raised in the 1950s and came of age in the early 1960s. She remembers a time when women were like “Leave it to Beaver” or “Father Knows Best” moms, known for their pearls and perfectly coiffed hair.
There you go. And, to speak colloquially, that attitude ain’t gonna cut it in 2019. America has a president who has no qualms about denigrating war heroes from his own party (even after they’re dead) and suggesting sitting US senators offered him sexual favors for money. Moms from “Leave it to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best” (to employ Nelson’s reference) aren’t built for this environment. (And there’s something profoundly ironic about this considering it is that era that Trump has promised to “make great again”.)
We have long argued in these pages that Pelosi’s demonstrable disdain for AOC was a strategic error of potentially disastrous proportions. Shortly after the speaker shared the cover of Rolling Stone with AOC and Omar, Ocasio-Cortez delivered a scathing indictment of cynicism and political apathy while speaking at South by Southwest in March. Here is the clip:
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Democrats’ willingness to ostracize Omar for raising uncomfortable issues about the influence of the pro-Israel lobby and the tendency for moderates to adopt a condescending approach to the economic and environmental platform of Ocasio-Cortez, are indicative of an aversion to real change. That aversion isn’t pitched as such, of course. Rather, it’s justified by allusions to wha’s “realistic” or “feasible”, which is precisely the attitude that Ocasio-Cortez took to task at South by Southwest in front of a crowd that was larger than that drawn by Elizabeth Warren at the same event.
In a subsequent interview with Washington Post magazine, Pelosi unwittingly underscored the point. Here’s what she said:
So what I see, and I say this to them: I was you. I used to carry the [protest] signs pushing strollers. … And as an advocate, relentless, persistent, dissatisfied always. But when you cross over the threshold and come to Congress, you can bring those enthusiasms, those priorities, your knowledge, your vision, your plan. But you have to want to get results. You have to get results. Then, you were trying to impact others making decisions. Now you are that person.
That passage – and specifically the bit where Pelosi talks about getting “results” – sounds like she is again attempting to draw a distinction between activism and disaffection with the existing state of affairs and how one’s attitude with regard to being a “relentless, persistent, advocate” needs to be subjugated to the process by which “results” are obtained once one gets elected. That might be a tenable proposition if it were actually possible to obtain results, but when Congress is incapable of legislating (as it clearly is, or at least in the eyes of voters, who see nothing but gridlock when they look towards Capitol Hill), then what good does it do to abandon the fervent activism?
Democrats’ refusal to come out in full support of AOC, Omar and Tlaib in the face of controversy risks alienating the trio’s millions of followers, many of whom are, of course, voters. It also risks putting moderate Democrats, including Pelosi, in the same category as Donald Trump, however absurd and wholly unfair that would be.
This week, Trump jumped at the opportunity to defend Pelosi. “Cortez should treat Nancy Pelosi with respect”, the president said. “She should not be doing what she’s doing. And I’ll tell you something about Nancy Pelosi that you know better than I do. She is not a racist, OK? She is not a racist. For them to call her a racist is a disgrace”.
That, coming from a man who has gone out of his way to disrespect Pelosi whenever and wherever possible.
As usual, Trump reserved his most pointed criticism for Omar. “I’m looking at this Omar from Minnesota. And if one half of the things they’re saying about her are true, she shouldn’t even be in office”, he declared, in yet another dog-whistling exercise to his Islamophobic base.
In April, Trump posted a video on Twitter featuring a soundbite (taken out of context) from a speech Omar gave in March followed by graphic images of 9/11. The president’s tweet served to amplify a New York Post cover which featured the same quote juxtaposed with a still-shot of a plane combusting as it scythed through one of the Towers.
It wasn’t the first time Trump has taken aim at Omar. The president has variously accused her of being an anti-Semite (an ironic comment from a man who has faced withering criticism for his failures to condemn white nationalism and, in some cases, for failing to explicitly condemn actual neo-Nazis), a message conservative media have been keen to parrot. Trump also suggested that Omar “hates America” during a wild CPAC rant on March 2, prompting the crowd to shout her name.
On Sunday, Trump took it up another notch.
“So interesting to see ‘Progressive’ Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all), now loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run”, Trump tweeted.
And then, he told Omar to go back where she came from. Literally.
“Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came”, Trump said. “These places need your help badly, you can’t leave fast enough”.
If moderate Democrats (including and especially Pelosi) do not step up to decry this latest heinous broadside from the president, they will have lost any and all credibility they had left among progressive-leaning voters.
Trump’s Sunday morning tweets were an anti-immigrant, xenophobic tour de force that doubled as an implicit endorsement of Pelosi aimed at further splintering the Democratic party.
Trump concluded his remarks by encouraging Pelosi to buy Omar a plane ticket out of the country.
“I’m sure that Nancy Pelosi would be very happy to quickly work out free travel arrangements!”, the president quipped.
In response, the speaker issued yet another ostensibly stern, but inherently amorphous, statement. “When [Donald Trump] tells four American Congresswomen to go back to their countries, he reaffirms his plan to ‘Make America Great Again’ has always been about making America white again”, she said. “Our diversity is our strength and our unity is our power”.
Pelosi first issued the statement in “the Twitter world”.