American politics makes some extremely odd bedfellows. That’s worth keeping in mind when trying to understand why Donald Trump Twitter-trolled four progressive, first-term congresswomen of color – Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan – in his now-infamous “go back” tweet. Although Trump and “the Squad” (the collective nickname for the congresswomen) have venomously denounced each other, the reality is that they both want the same thing: to make the women the public face of the Democratic party. And their greatest obstacle is the Democratic House speaker, Nancy Pelosi.
The Squad have welcomed and sought out public attention because they want to use their celebrity to push the party to the left, just as the conservative movement pushed the Republican party to the right in decades past. They believe that this transformation not only will lead to progressive legislative victories, it will also win elections. As Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff, Saikat Chakrabarti, recently told the Washington Post:
“The whole theory of change for the current Democratic party is that to win this country we need to tack to the hypothetical middle. What I think that means is, you don’t take unnecessary risks, which translates to: you don’t really do anything. Whereas we’ve got a completely different theory of change, which is: you do the biggest, most badass thing you possibly can – and that’s going to excite people, and then they’re going to go vote.”
One implication of this approach, obviously, is that progressives should advance ambitious leftwing policies – like Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal, pulled directly from the demands of the Democratic Socialists of America – without negotiating or compromising with moderate Democrats, let alone Republicans. Another is that moderate Democrats who object to progressive policies have to be shamed and pressured into getting with the program – as Chakrabarti tried to do by comparing moderates to segregationists – or removed through primary election challenges from the left, as Ocasio-Cortez has threatened. These policies worked for the Tea Party on the Republican side, so the thinking goes, so why shouldn’t they work for progressives?
Yet another implication of this approach is that progressives shouldn’t attempt to win over swing voters – particularly white voters – but instead should maximize turnout from minorities, who lean Democratic by wide margins but typically don’t vote at the same rates as whites. The model here is Stacey Abrams, who in her 2018 Georgia gubernatorial campaign nearly became the first African American woman to be elected governor of any state, largely on the strength of her success in getting minorities to the polls and driving voter turnout to record highs. According to this theory, the rising prominence of Ocasio-Cortez and her cohort, who embody the Democrats’ growing diversity and progressivism, can excite minority turnout to such a level that the country’s move toward majority minority demographics finally translates to Democratic political dominance.
For all these reasons, progressives want the Squad to be the new face of the Democratic party. Pelosi, however, disagrees. The San Franciscan is a progressive herself but also an adept political calculator, who understands that Democrats regained the House in 2018 by running moderate candidates in Republican-held districts. She has skillfully held her caucus together so far by uniting them around policies with wide appeal and avoiding actions (such as pursuing Trump’s impeachment) that could split moderates and progressives. She fears that the majority making districts – and the Democratic House majority – will revert to Republican control if their college-educated, mostly suburban and mostly white swing voters who were repelled by Trump in 2018 turn out to be even more repelled by the Democrats’ most extreme members in 2020.
Pelosi is also well aware that while the Squad have an intense following among leftwing activists and on social media, overall they are some of the most unpopular politicians in America. A recent poll of swing district voters found that Ocasio-Cortez was recognized by nearly three-quarters of voters but viewed favorably by only 22%. Ocasio-Cortez’s self-proclaimed ideology of socialism was viewed favorably by only 18% of those surveyed – which still made it twice as popular as Omar, who was viewed favorably by only 9%. Those are toxic levels of unpopularity. Many Democrats worry that if the party becomes defined by the Squad, they could lose not only the House but the presidency.
The Squad make even better foils for Trump’s 'America first' approach than Pelosi ever did
Which of course is why Trump has every incentive to make the Squad his principal target, and to achieve maximum publicity by doing so in a calculatedly xenophobic and (at least) borderline racist way that’s guaranteed to provoke widespread condemnation. It verges on surreal to see Trump defending Pelosi – who has been demonized by Republicans since she first wielded the speaker’s gavel in 2007 – against supposed charges of racism by the Squad. But the Squad make even better foils for Trump’s “America first” approach than Pelosi ever did, given the broader range of rage buttons they push among many culturally conservative Americans. And the more media attention the Squad receives, according to many Republican strategists, the more Democratic presidential candidates will feel pressured into embracing progressive positions on issues such as open borders, abortion, racial reparations and healthcare for undocumented migrants that are unpopular with the overall electorate.
Trump’s attack on the Squad of course damaged the schemes of those Republican strategists who hope that, in an America where the Republican’s base of non-college-educated whites continues to shrink, the party might build a majority on racially and ethnically inclusive populism. But Trump’s major strategic error may have been to have strengthened Pelosi’s hand. Already Trump’s tweets seem to have restored Democratic unity behind Pelosi and reinforced her message that the party’s internal divisions are fodder for Trumpian mischief. The Congressional Black Caucus’ emphatic backing of Pelosi against the Squad may have taught them something about the limitations of identity politics and the realities of political power. But Trump’s intervention has also given Pelosi and Squad a golden opportunity to publicly reconcile without anyone losing face.
The fact that some of the usually supine Republicans in Congress spoke out against Trump’s slurring his opponents’ patriotism pointed out that many Americans – perhaps a majority – oppose his efforts to divide the country. It’s possible that Trump’s abdication of the role of unifier-in-chief may have handed it to Pelosi since, unlike Trump, she is visibly striving to find common ground among contending factions. Trump isn’t the first politician to have underestimated Pelosi, but in the long run it may cost him more than whatever he gains by attacking the Squad.
Geoffrey Kabaservice is the director of political studies at the Niskanen Center in Washington DC as well as the author of Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party