The open secret of Donald Trump’s political success is that he is always in the news. He seems to live by P.T. Barnum’s rule that there is no such thing as bad publicity. When it comes to politics, Trump just might be right.
Two weeks ago, all Washington was gripped by the intergenerational conflict tearing apart the Democratic party. The feud pits the party establishment, led by the 79-year-old House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, against the ‘Squad’: first-term representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (29), Ilhan Omar (36), Rashida Tlaib (43), and Ayanna Pressley (45). Pelosi once dismissively referred to them as ‘four people’. Trump likes to call them the ‘Four Horsewomen of the Apocalypse’.
A sane person might think that Trump would let well enough alone as Pelosi and the Squad trade accusations of racism, sexism, ageism, and lack of devotion to the progressive cause. Instead, to Pelosi’s horror and everyone else’s bemusement, Trump leapt to Pelosi’s defence. In a rambling series of three tweets on July 14, Trump let loose:
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!
With this one tweetburst, Trump immediately shot back to the top of the news agenda, as cries of ‘racism’ rose from all quarters. Trump’s tweets were a response to House committee testimony from three of the Squad (Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, and Pressley) decrying conditions at US immigration detention facilities, and all four sponsoring a bill to defund the entire US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, which would have removed all controls on cross-border flows of people and goods. The Squad were the only four House members to vote in favor.
Trump’s tweets were certainly offensive – and clearly intended to offend. They were low-brow and mean-spirited. They were just as ‘unpresidential’ as the rest of the Trump presidency. And they showed that Trump doesn’t check his facts on Wikipedia before tweeting. But there’s nothing in them that is obviously racist, or that is implicitly racist, or that indicates that Trump sees the world in racial terms. Ironically, the ones who insist on dragging race into the issue are Trump’s opponents: Pelosi and the Squad.
As for the facts, Ilhan Omar really is from a ‘broken and crime infested place’; Mogadishu, Somalia. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, widely known as ‘AOC’, is from the Bronx, which might qualify too, but that’s presumably not what Trump had in mind. Her family hails originally from Puerto Rico. Rashida Tlaib is a Palestinian-American from Detroit, so she might qualify on both counts, though she herself was born in the United States. Ayanna Pressley is an African-American from Cincinnati via Chicago, so it’s not clear what she’s doing on the list, though she does share with the others a categorical opposition to immigration controls.
All four of the Squad identify themselves as ‘women of colour’. Now, colour is a subjective thing. In Puerto Rico, where AOC’s family comes from, local society is pervaded by a five-centuries-old racial hierarchy based on skin tone. Regardless of where AOC’s family may once have fit in that hierarchy, it is not obvious that all people of Puerto Rican heritage are ‘people of colour’. Similarly, Rashida Tlaib may have embraced the label ‘woman of colour’, but many Palestinians would vehemently reject it. One suspects that an Israeli who referred to Palestinians as ‘people of colour’ would be called a racist for doing so.
In the American context, the African immigrant Ilhan Omar and the African-American Ayanna Pressley would both be identified as ‘women of colour’ by just about everyone, though in Omar’s native Somalia her family might be described as ‘Arab’ instead. Like Puerto Rico, Somalia has a strong racial hierarchy characterised by discrimination against those perceived as having darker skin.
The Squad are free to self-identify as ‘women of colour’, but that doesn’t automatically turn all of their opponents into racists. Before the latest Trump twitterstorm broke out, it was actually Pelosi in the racism hot seat. In a high-profile interview in the Washington Post on July 10, Ocasio-Cortez said Pelosi was ‘outright disrespectful’ in her ‘explicit singling out of newly-elected women of colour’. She and her colleagues seem to believe that identifying as a woman of colour should immunise a politician against all criticism.
Admittedly, it wasn’t very nice of Trump to tell the Squad to ‘go back and help fix the totally broken and crime- infested places from which they came’, but politics is a tough game. It also wasn’t very nice of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to call Trump a ‘white supremacist’ with ‘a racist mind in your head, and a racist heart in your chest’; of Ilhan Omar to call Trump ‘blatantly racist’; of Rashida Tlaib to call Trump ‘disgusting and bigoted’; or of Ayanna Pressley to call Trump, well, just plain old ‘racist’. At least Trump didn’t mention anyone by name.
Pelosi, too, joined the chorus labeling Trump’s remarks as ‘racist’ in a speech on the floor of the House of Representatives, which, amusingly, led to a ruling that the Speaker herself was out of order, a ruling that effectively shut down the House for several hours. Apparently the House has stricter rules of decorum than Twitter or the Washington Post. Who knew?
A free society can’t have a colour bar on criticism, or even on offence. America’s Four Horsewomen of the Apocalypse seem to think that only a racist would criticise a self-identified person of colour. Many of their sympathisers around the world seem to agree with them. If they win this debate, expect a lot more people to discover that they are ‘of colour’ in the future. Colour is, after all, no longer in the eye of the beholder, but in the mind of the beheld.