Nancy Pelosi’s Gift to Donald Trump

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Donald Trump’s vicious slams at “the squad”-- Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley—have been roundly condemned. Peter Baker began his coverage of last Sunday’s slam in The New York Times as follows: “President Trump woke up on Sunday morning, gazed out at the nation he leads, saw the dry kindling of race relations and decided to throw a match on it.” This is just, but not sufficient. It misses two deeper points: first, how extraordinary Nancy Pelosi’s previous attack on these women was and second, the way Trump’s remarks built on and deepened Pelosi’s attack, a tactic that is crucial to understanding how a minority Presidency is able to dominate. Let us first briefly recount the sequence of events and then consider these points.

Although there were preceding disagreements and conflicts, the present eruption dates from the four congresswomen’s negative vote on the Border Assistance Bill that addressed the border crisis largely through beefing up security and which the Senate Republicans offered to the Democrats on a take-it or leave it basis. In an adulatory interview with Maureen Dowd, which stressed the long-standing friendship of the two women, Pelosi opined, “All these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world, but they didn’t have any following. They’re four people, and that’s how many votes they got.” A few days later in a Washington Post interview, Ocasio-Cortez responded: “When these comments first started, I kind of thought that [Pelosi] was keeping the progressive flank at more of an arm's distance in order to protect more moderate members, which I understood-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.” This led to Trump’s now infamous tweet: “So interesting to see 'progressive' Democrat congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe… 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. Why don't they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came… you can't leave fast enough. I'm sure that Nancy Pelosi would be very happy to quickly work out free travel arrangements!”

Pelosi is the leader of the Democratic Caucus and the first job of any leader should be to protect their most vulnerable members. Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, Tlaib, and Pressley have had a bull’s eye painted on their backs for months. Ocasio-Cortez received so many death threats that the Capitol Police trained her staff to conduct risk assessments for everyone who comes through her office. Omar is a favored target for the ultra-Zionist right. Tucker Carlson, with three million followers, recently cited her as “living proof that the way we practice immigration has become dangerous to this country,” a charge that could easily be taken as an incitement to violence. Anyone who has ever been in a leadership position, including being a teacher, therapist or even parent, expects to be criticized by one’s charge, and knows not to respond. For Pelosi to have essentially joined a chorus of right-wingers, for whom these women are crazies, was completely irresponsible. Why then did she do it? Before attempting to answer this question, let us turn to Trump’s intervention.

All of us have spent the last several years attempting to understand how this man has been able to aggrandize so much personal power as well as redirect the direction of the country in profoundly negative ways. Seeing him grab the spotlight away from the Democrats in this moment can be immensely helpful. He operates like a feral beast able to sniff out weakness in his adversaries, as well as in his followers. Had the conflict between Pelosi and the squad been a simple “cat fight,” as white house counselor Kellyanne Conway called it, there would have been no weakness revealed. But for the designated leader of the House Democrats to set apart and target an already marginalized group showed that Pelosi was incapable of leading, at least at that moment. Trump grasped that. Once he saw Pelosi’s weakness he magnified it, like playing with an open wound, and he politicized it. In his remarks he takes the stance of "protecting" Pelosi, making himself look strong and paternal, while she is reduced to confused femininity. He says in effect Pelosi and he are the real Americans, and demands that Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, Pressley and Talib show their birth certificates. In effect, he claims to put into words what Pelosi is too intimidated, too “politically correct,” to say, namely that these women are racial aliens, not real Americans. That Pelosi immediately sought to disown herself from Trump’s remarks doesn’t change the matter. This is how all attacks on minorities work, by bleeding its poison into a supposedly moderate or centrist alternative.  Trump’s closing shot reveals his intention of joining Pelosi, while also suggesting that she is “corrupt,” another synonym for weak: “you can't leave fast enough. I'm sure that Nancy Pelosi would be very happy to quickly work out free travel arrangements!”

What we see here, then, is a perfect example of how Trump works. He performed similarly with Obama, with Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, with various foreign leaders and of course with Hillary Clinton, and he will attempt to win re-election on the same basis. The question is, why did Pelosi leave herself open to Trump? After all, her enemies did only muster four votes, while 231 Democrats voted against them. Several commentators have suggested that Pelosi’s remarks to Dowd were strategic but it is hard to see what her strategy could have been. To be sure, Trump’s continuing attacks on the squad are leading Pelosi and the Democrats to repudiate his racism, but the underlying problem of the Democratic Party’s willingness to protect its left remains.

My own approach, admittedly speculative, rests on understanding the different cultures of the two Parties. The Democrats, especially since the New Deal, era, have been the Party of upwardly mobile climbers, meritocrats and technocrats-- individuals who advance by pleasing their superiors, while generally leaving their communities behind, except in the superficial identity sense of gender or skin color. In that context, Democratic Party elites regularly demonstrate their “independence,” “moderation,” and “rationality” by condemning the Sister Souljahs or AOC’s of their party. The culture of the Republicans by contrast is entrepreneurial: the “self-made man.” This culture paved the way for Trump’s no holds barred approach, for which the left is not an embarrassment but an opportunity. This implies that the success of the Democrats in 2020 rests on choosing a candidate who understands that Trump (like the right that preceded him) derives his power from internal compromises among the Democrats, of which a failure to stand up for the most vulnerable is the most important.