Another day, another tirade
Democrat establishment joins Trump in attacking the ‘squad’ as a ‘bunch of communists’, reports Peter Moody
This time, it was kicked off a little under two weeks ago with a series of tweets from Donald Trump aimed at “‘Progressive’ Democrat Congresswomen”, exhorting them to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came”, rather than involving themselves in US politics.1
While they were not named, it was not a far leap to assume that the targets of this screed were the four first-term members of Congress now known as “the Squad” - Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan - who have made names for themselves both individually and as a group by representing the ostensibly insurgent, progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Indeed, a significant section of reporting on the original tweets and reactions to them ended up focusing on ‘the Squad’ - after fact-checking Trump’s words it was noted that three out of the four were born in the US, and all four are American citizens. While Omar was born in Somalia, she became a US citizen after her family moved here in the early 1990s.
In a somewhat surprising display of backbone, some media outlets and the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives chose to recognise some of the subtext behind the false statements about national origin, and came out to decry Trump’s tweets as racist, with the House even passing a (non-binding) resolution which explicitly noted and condemned “Trump’s racist comments that have legitimised and increased fear and hatred of new Americans and people of colour”.2 This is rather a minor act in the grand scheme of things, but one which seems at least slightly refreshing, compared to the recent cycle of outrage about potential Russian collusion with the Trump campaign, not to mention the vote to unconditionally fund the detention of newly-arriving immigrants and asylum-seekers.
However, even this mild rebuke saw stonewalling attempts by Republicans, who argued that the resolution was against the rules of decorum for the chamber, because it called into question the motives of the president. Four Republicans in the House did end up voting for it, but by and large the reaction has ranged from blandly defending the president to attacking either the Squad or the Democrats in general even more fiercely.
One interesting response came the day after Trump’s original tweets from South Carolina Republican senator Lindsey Graham in an interview on Fox News. Graham, previously thought of as a ‘moderate’ or ‘reasonable’ Republican earlier in his political career, who had been very wary of Trump during the 2016 presidential election campaign, has since remade himself as a staunch Trump ally (now much of Graham’s criticism seems to be focused on the fact that Trump is less willing to bomb Iran or North Korea than he would like). As such, condemning the tweets was still a step too far for this Trump critic-turned-sycophant, but he did say that he would advise the president to “knock it down a notch” on his rhetoric, and focus on the policies that the Squad supposedly professed rather than their citizenship status or national origin.
On this point, Graham did not lay out much in terms of specifics on what he thought those policies were, but he did roll out the now-typical argument that the Squad were in favour of completely open borders, along with free healthcare for “illegal immigrants” (presumably as a consequence of a universal health insurance system which would provide free-at-point-of-use healthcare for all US residents, regardless of citizenship status, although again detail was not given). More generally, though, Graham lambasted the Squad - mentioning Ocasio-Cortez specifically - as “a bunch of communists”, who are “anti-Semitic” and “anti-America”.3 The president, for his part, appeared to find this line of attack rather appealing, quoting it approvingly in tweets later in the week, as well as firing off additional rhetoric about how the US will never become a socialist or communist country.
It would be wrong to argue that the nativist rhetoric is merely a cover for anti-communist politics. Certainly, at least for the time being, more people are being immediately put in danger by the words and actions of the administration around immigration. With the inhumane conditions that detained asylum-seekers have been subject to, the opportunistic attacks against people perceived to not be sufficiently American (read: white), and the fear that immigrant communities in the US are currently experiencing due to the repeated announcements of stepped-up enforcement of deportation orders across the country, the anti-immigrant side of the attack is quite real.
But the anti-communist side is similarly real, and in some sense may be more dangerous in the long term, because it is a line that the Democrats appear to be more than happy to take up too - if perhaps in a slightly more muted way. After all, while House speaker Nancy Pelosi is willing enough to condemn the anti-immigrant rhetoric coming from the president (even though she appears to have no trouble continuing to support the institutions that perpetuate much of the harm done to migrants), she and other leading Democrats - including current presidential primary front-runner Joe Biden, as well as several of the minor also-rans - are more than eager to point out the supposed marginality of proposals such as Medicare for All or the Green New Deal. These are largely the policies that Trump, together with various Republican lawmakers and conservative commentators, refer to when they bother to give any substance to the label of “communist” they throw on Ocasio-Cortez, Omar and the others.
The Democrats’ relationship to their left flank (which historically has included American expressions of working class or social democratic politics, after earlier efforts at forming independent working class parties were either coopted or smashed) is, at its core, largely one of containment. By claiming to speak for the ‘left’ in US politics, the Democrats can keep enough sections of the organised working class in a position that is at best ‘last among equals’ with the factions of capital in its coalition, and at the same time decry independent challengers to its left as being splitters and spoilers. With the left properly subordinated, the Democrats can proceed to ignore them as much as possible - to the benefit of the factions of capital and aspirational classes they much prefer to represent.
It is not a fool-proof strategy, however, as the left wing of the Democratic Party sometimes gets the notion that it should have a bigger seat at the table, or possibly even set the agenda completely. In this way, Democrat leaders are as happy to use similar ammunition against the Squad as Trump. So, while the racism of Trump and the Republicans should not be dismissed as empty rhetoric or a cover for other politics, the Democrat establishment is more than willing to focus on the racism if it means they do not have to address other issues - particularly if it helps them play the ‘respectable’ role in politics, while at the same time shutting down their left flank.