For a brief, shining moment, it appeared that the Democratic Party would have to come to grips with the identity-politics monster it had created. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez all but accused House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of bigotry and racism for criticizing her sharply leftward politics. That set the Democratic Party on fire with mutual accusations and recriminations — until Donald Trump decided to weigh in on it.
Ocasio-Cortez told The Washington Post last week that Pelosi's criticisms had gone beyond legitimate criticism of the frosh firebrand's positions or electoral strategy. "When those comments first started," Ocasio-Cortez declared, "I kind of thought that she 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," she continued, "it got to a point where it was just outright disrespectful... the explicit singling out of newly elected women of color."
Later, Ocasio-Cortez would claim that she didn't mean to call Pelosi racist, but that didn't convince anyone. Pelosi, in turn, accused Ocasio-Cortez and her allies of playing the race card rather than acknowledging that her chief of staff, Saikat Chakrabarti, also the co-founder of ultra-progressive group Justice Democrats, had in earlier comments compared Democratic moderates with segregationists. Congressional Black Caucus member Rep. Lacy Clay called both Ocasio-Cortez and Chakrabarti "ignorant beyond belief."
The civil war got even more heated as the week wore on. The House Democrats' official Twitter account accused Chakrabarti of "explicitly singling out a Native American woman of color" for a tweet criticizing Rep. Sharice Davids of Kansas. Rep. Ayanna Pressley (R-Mass.), a member of Ocasio-Cortez's "squad," upped the ante by suggesting that her fellow CBC members might be betraying their own race. "We don't need any more brown faces that don't want to be a brown voice," Pressley proclaimed at the Netroots Nation conference on Saturday. "We don't need any more black voices that don't want to be a black voice."
Those kinds accusations are usually reserved for attacks on conservatives, not Democrats. Republicans for the most part stayed out of the fray, abiding by the political wisdom of not interfering with an internecine fight among your opponents. It seemed that the moment that the right had long predicted on the Right had finally arrived — a meltdown over identity politics from the party that had long benefited from it.
And that's when Trump entered the fray. The president had attempted to goad the fight by siding with Nancy Pelosi on Friday, telling reporters that he knew Pelosi was no racist. When that didn't move the needle, Trump escalated by tweeting on Sunday that the four "squad" members "originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe," and that the four should "go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came."
To call this a tactical error is an understatement.
Instead of keeping the focus on the internecine Democratic fight, Trump's comment immediately suspended the Democratic civil war as all sides turned their rhetorical guns on the president. The mistaken assumption that all four women of color were not native-born Americans (only true of Rep. Ilhan Omar, originally from Somalia) made it easy to cast his comments as xenophobic, if not flat-out racist. Just when the national media had been hounding Democratic politicians to choose sides in their progressive-moderate battle over racism, they switched focus to asking Republicans to endorse or repudiate Trump's comments.
The New York Times, which had been covering the Pelosi/Ocasio-Cortez fight in some detail, made an abrupt change in direction Monday. Its digital front page was filled with scolding headlines: "Trump's Tweet Was Condemned as Racist. His Response: No, They're the Racists," "Saying 'Go Back,' Trump Fans the Flames of a Racial Fire," "Trump's Tweets Prove That He Is a Raging Racist," and so on. Instead of the story being about knee-jerk Democratic accusations of racism and their destructiveness to politics, a debate Republicans have waited decades to have in the media, Trump made the story about himself and put the GOP on the defensive instead.
That wasted an opportunity that might take years to come back around. The Times itself had taken up that subject in a Maureen Dowd column published just before Trump's tweets titled "Scaling Wokeback Mountain." Dowd was no defender of Trump or beyond playing the r-word herself, calling him a "racist, backward president," but cut to the heart of making that ad hominem the Democrats' go-to accusation for critics.
"The progressives act as though anyone who dares disagree with them is bad," Dowd wrote, citing Chakrabarti in particular. "Not wrong, but bad, guilty of some human failing, some impurity that is a moral evil that justifies their venom." And far too often, that moral evil is expressed as racism, even when the supposed failing has little or nothing to do with race. "But once you start that ball rolling," Dowd warned, "it's hard to stop."
Democrats may find that prophetic even after Trump's intervention. Their civil war and the media's interest in stoking it has stopped it for the moment, but it won't end the risk for Democrats altogether. The purity campaign waged by progressives will require attacking the Democratic establishment in ways that will have effects on activists and voters in the districts they want to capture. The initial Battle of Wokeback Mountain may have been stalled, but the war is far from over — if Republicans can refrain from providing distractions.