Ilhan Omar arrives in Minnesota after Trump's attacks, July 2019. Photo: Lorie Shaull Ilhan Omar arrives in Minnesota after Trump's attacks, July 2019. Photo: Lorie Shaull

Trump’s appalling racist attacks on the four Congresswomen is just as much about their radical left wing politics, argues Kate O’Neil

On 14 July, Donald Trump launched another racist tirade into the Twittersphere, directing four congresswomen of colour to stop telling America ‘how our government is to be run’ and ‘go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came.’ The four, Alex Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib are members of a newly elected left-wing grouping in the Democratic Party that has identified itself as the ‘squad’.

The tweet sparked widespread outrage and fears of a surge in white nationalism, due to its assumption that the congresswomen are not real Americans, despite all being US citizens and all but one being born in the US. A Trump campaign rally in North Carolina last Wednesday heightened these fears, as attendees chanting ‘Send her back’ in unison reminded many of the American nativist movements of the 19th and early 20th centuries or even German fascism in the 1930s. Perhaps just as disconcerting was the unprincipled response of mainstream Republicans to the tweet. While many distanced themselves from Trump’smessage in the press, all but four Republicans in the House of Representatives refused to back a motion condemning the tweets as racist.

Why is the president pushing this message now? Is the US headed for a return to the racism of 100 years ago?

Trump has sown the seeds of racial division throughout his career, and his latest germs are of the usual variety. The tweet of 14 July was far from the first of Trump tweets to promote nasty racist tropes; his assertion that Mexican immigrants are rapists and criminals during his 2016 campaign was just as incendiary and despicable. Let us also not forget his rhetorical embrace of neo-fascists two years ago in Charlottesville, Virginia, when he declared there were ‘very fine people on both sides’ of a conflict between white supremacists and anti-racist protesters.

While Trump may encourage, surround himself with and win support from white supremacists, it would be hard to make the case he himself is a fascist ideologue. As a New Yorker article recently argued, his impetus is a calculated racism in which inflammatory remarks are made or withdrawn at any given moment for pragmatic purposes - to gain support, divide opponents or distract from bad press. As always, this tweet was a useful tool to fire up his racist base, and support for the president among Republicans increased by 5% in the following days.

But there is more to it than this. Trump reckons he can get away with his racist drivel in part because it is tied to socialist scaremongering, a form of attack many moderates feel uncomfortable openly opposing. Indeed, Trump’s demonisation of the ‘squad’ centres at least as much on the four congresswomen’s political radicalism as their national origin, variously labelling them ‘The Radical Left Congresswomen’ and ‘a bunch of Communists’ on Twitter.

Moreover, he is seeking to leverage existing divisions between the left and moderate liberal wings of the Democratic Party. Although the Democrats showed common resolve in their House vote condemning Trump’s tweets last Tuesday, the ‘squad’ have not towed the Democratic party line on a number of issues since joining Congress and have become a thorn in the side of Nancy Pelosi, the party leader in the House. At the end of June, the four congresswomen defied the party whip and were the only members of Congress to vote against more funding for security along the Mexican border. On Tuesday, Omar and Tlaibpresented a bill to Congress which would protect the right to boycott Israel, in opposition toa heavily Zionist Democratic leadership. Then, on Wednesday, a much broader swathe of left-liberal Democrats voted to impeach Trump, a move Pelosi has consistently argued against. Twitter jousting ensued.

Trump’s aides claim the purpose of his 14 July tweet was to ‘elevate’ the four congresswomen within the Democratic Party in order to depict the party as a whole as too far left for moderate voters in the 2020 election. Although Trump sent the tweet of his own volition, it did echo the thinking inside his re-election campaign. “All the Democrats are pushing socialist ideas that are terrible for America”, his campaign communications director recently stated. “They are all the same.” According to an anonymous House Democrat, this divide-and-conquer strategy seems to be working.

What the President has done is politically brilliant. Pelosi was trying to marginalize these folks, and the President has now identified the entire party with them.

In the run-up to the election, Pelosi and the mainstream Democrats want to return to business as usual in Washington. That means playing to the political centre and avoiding policies the ‘squad’ and other left-wing figures like Bernie Sanders support, such as single-payer healthcare, abolition of the Immigration and Enforcement Agency (ICE)and free college tuition. They argue that too much defence of the ‘squad’ is ‘taking the bait’ from Trump and is a diversion from the ‘bread-and-butter’ economic issues they assume voters care only about. A recent editorial in the New York Times spelt this out.

Trump wants to define all Democrats in terms of the squad, when they’re but a part of a diverse party and hardly its ideological proxies. So don’t let him. Don’t let all the other issues get muscled off the stage. If everyone’s talking about Omar, no one’s talking about health care or jobs: the stuff that actually turns elections and will turn this one.

It is the same ‘lesser evil’ argument progressives have always heard from the Democrats: put forward a moderate message and win the political centre to avoid four more years of horror. But the political centre only drifts further and further to the right the more left-wing movements and politicians like the Omar are side-lined. The truth is, the new left-wing Democrats, with their ‘Green New Deal’ and ‘Medicare for All’, have a far more coherent and popular ‘bread-and-butter’ message than moderate Democrats are willing to stand for. And while most Americans may not support their more radical positions on non-economic issues such as immigration, the arguments they have waged against family separation and child detention centres has helped to ensure the public remains highly critical of Trump’s immigration policy.

Whether nativist sentiments gain further ground will depend on the next moves of the anti-racist left. Trump’s base of support is still a minority of the US population. His approval rating is around 43%, and it has hovered consistently around that figure since the start of his presidency. 59% of Americans believed his tweet about the ‘squad’ was ‘un-American’ and 65% viewed telling minority Americans to ‘go home’ as racist. But his base is a sizable minority, and each boost of confidence he gives to the far right creates a more dangerous and tense environment for people of colour and left-wing activists. Capitol police have recently met with the ‘squad’ to discuss concerns about their physical safety, following the appearance of violent threats and depictions of the four congresswomen as jihadists on social media last week.

For the moment, the ‘squad’ are refusing to tone down their language or take a back seat. As Ayanna Pressley addressed Trump on Twitter this week:

THIS is what racism looks like. WE are what democracy looks like. And we’re not going anywhere. Except back to DC to fight for the families you marginalize and vilify every day.

They must continue to do so and receive the active support of those wishing to defeat not only Trump but his throwback brand of racism in 2020. Beyond this, if socialists and progressives want to break out of the two-party ‘lesser evilism’ impasse in politics, they will need to form an independent left-wing party sooner rather than later. The alternative is frightening.