Trump, Pelosi, and the Squad Are Fighting Over Who Belongs in Government
Who can govern? Every American election poses this question. Formally, the question is, who will represent the people best? But the underlying question is, invariably, who belongs in government? Can a Catholic be President? Can a black man? A white woman? A man with no government experience? A gay man? A philanderer? A man accused of making unwanted advances toward women? A man who has gleefully acknowledged forcing himself on women? A woman of color? A Muslim? Does an immigrant belong in Congress? The 2016 election of Donald Trump, and the 2018 midterms, which brought several outlier members to Congress, reinflamed these questions.
There is nothing normal, right, or natural about these questions. The concept of democracy rests on the premise that any citizen is a potential member of government. The ancient Athenian choice of sortition—the selection of government by lottery—was based on the understanding that elections would inevitably favor the aristocracy, and in a democracy the government should be a mirror of the governed. The American system has proved the Athenians right. Access to our electoral system is determined by the candidates’ ability to attract financial contributions. The contest itself is rigged in favor of the white, the highly educated, and the privileged—those who reproduce the class, race, and style of their predecessors. Most often, when the contest admits a candidate of marked difference, it is because all other criteria have been met. Pete Buttigieg, a gay man who has constructed a conventional political path complete with a Harvard degree, military service, and a white-picket-fence marriage, is a case in point. Trump, on the other hand, is an aberration on the face of it, and his election began a renegotiation of our understanding of who belongs in government. It is in this context that we should read a week’s worth of comments on the four congresswomen known as the Squad: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, of New York; Ilhan Omar, of Minnesota; Ayanna Pressley, of Massachusetts; and Rashida Tlaib, of Michigan.
This chapter began with a piece by the Times columnist Maureen Dowd, which led with the observation that Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are similar. “Neither one drinks, yet they have family vineyards. They both love big bowls of ice cream. Their last names are—depending on the shade of the state—curse words,” Dowd wrote. She breezily observed that both have been compared to Mussolini and both are “devilishly good at trolling—usually one another.” These are, by the standards of the day, positive attributes: the profile was a glowing one, the portrait of a woman who can work the system and, perhaps, Trump himself.
What attracted attention to the piece was Pelosi’s comment on the Squad, issued as a reprimand for their refusal to vote for a bipartisan bill that expanded funding for immigration authorities by $4.6 billion without any specific requirement for changing the handling of asylum seekers, many of whom are now held in abhorrent conditions. “All these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world,” Pelosi told Dowd. “But they didn’t have any following. They’re four people and that’s how many votes they got.” The Squad were among ninety-five Democrats to vote against the bill. Pelosi, of course, understands that the four congresswomen represent the constituencies who elected them—a large, albeit difficult to measure, number of Americans who cannot reconcile themselves to the strategy of supporting an immoral piece of legislation because it’s the best available option in current political conditions. But, in Pelosi’s view, this break with Party discipline is a kind of betrayal, which is the opposite of belonging. If the women refuse to play by the rules of the system, Pelosi was in effect saying, then they do not belong in the system.
On Wednesday, the Washington Post reported that Pelosi’s comments to Dowd were part of a systematic effort to isolate the four congresswomen. The piece quoted Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley, and Tlaib describing their efforts to cope with Pelosi’s public criticisms. The women talked about being demoralized and confused by the Speaker’s comments, but the quote that attracted the most attention was an ellipsis-filled one from Ocasio-Cortez: “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.” Ocasio-Cortez seemed to be responding to Pelosi’s implicit message: You do not belong.
Trump heard that message, too. As is his way, he proceeded to make the implicit explicit. On Sunday, he tweeted, in three installments, “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. Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how . . . it is done. These places need your help badly, you can’t leave fast enough. I’m sure that Nancy Pelosi would be very happy to quickly work out free travel arrangements!”
The U.S. government works in its ways, the President was saying, reiterating Pelosi’s message but also underscoring that this government has assimilated him. The women of the Squad, however, are outsiders to the process. In fact, he claimed, they are outsiders to this country. This is Trump’s reflexive reaction to people of color and immigrants, and the message that never seems to fail with his base, but it also amplified Pelosi’s earlier message: these women do not belong. On Monday, speaking to reporters at the White House, Trump reiterated this message. “As far as I’m concerned, if you hate our country, if you’re not happy here, you can leave,” he said. “If you’re not happy in the U.S., if you’re complaining all the time, you can leave. You can leave right now.”
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The media have once again fallen into a Trumpian rhetorical trap. Much of the coverage has focussed on whether his comments were racist—as though the racism of these tweets, and this President, were a matter of debate. CNN has pointed out that Trump was “falsely implying they weren’t natural-born American citizens”—as though this mattered. In fact, one doesn’t have to be a natural-born citizen to be a member of Congress, and, more important, one doesn’t have to be any kind of citizen to have an opinion about the U.S. government. As another terrible day in American politics was ending, the implied consensus was that Trump—liar, obstructor of justice, con man, and credibly accused rapist—belongs in government, but the jury is still out on Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, Tlaib, and Pressley.
In the early evening on Monday, the Squad held a press conference during which Omar and Tlaib called for impeachment. “I have not made impeachment central to my election or my tenure,” Omar said. “It is time for us to stop allowing this President to make a mockery of this country.” The only two Muslim women to have been elected to Congress, one of them a refugee, are asking for an explicit answer to the question of who belongs in government.