There is an almost refreshing honesty in the right’s treatment of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Rather than conjuring a fake migrant-caravan threat to scare voters or lying about protecting health-care access while gutting it, conservative politicians and their media counterparts have made their disdain for the representative-elect abundantly clear. Their main method has been ridicule — particularly regarding her status as a self-identified socialist and, relatedly, that she is too well-off to be working class, too dishonest for Congress, or too ignorant to describe accurately the structure of American government. But beneath their scorn is a deeper antipathy toward leftist governance and Latinos that is not new, but has found in the Puerto Rican Bronx native a tailor-made boogeyman.
Observers have pointed out, correctly, that these jabs are largely about belonging. Only by delegitimizing Ocasio-Cortez and mining her every act for hypocrisy can they make sense of her presence on Capitol Hill as a 29-year-old, working-class woman of color. When she discusses her background — that her mother scrubbed toilets for a living, and that she will likely have trouble affording rent without a salary for the rest of 2018 — they claim she is richer than she says and laugh through television segments about her rent struggles. Fox News has spent seemingly constant airtime discussing and mocking her and mispronouncing her name. When on Sunday she described “the presidency, the Senate, and the House” as “all three chambers of government,” conservative pundits, journalists, and politicians piled on, ridiculing her. The Daily Caller and Townhall both ran stories about the gaffe.
But her incongruity in American politics stems from being a socialist and a Latina — both groups with which the U.S. has a tense and often brutal history, especially in combination. This is clear in some of the other attacks she has faced. Newsmax host John Cardillo and the Daily Mail have both challenged stories about Ocasio-Cortez’s working-class background by pointing out that she grew up largely in Westchester County — “a far cry from the Bronx hood upbringing she’s selling.” The term “hood” is Cardillo’s phrasing, not Ocasio-Cortez’s, and has an unsubtle racial connotation. Douglas Wright’s argument in the Virginia conservative publication Bearing Drift makes the connection to her ethnicity more explicit, painting the 29-year-old as a harbinger of Latin American–style socialism. “In the United States, socialism is not entering through revolution in the streets but quietly as leaders and activists on the left use the cover of ignorance to chip away at [our] liberties,” he wrote in July of Ocasio-Cortez’s primary win. “Socialism is leading to blood and Russian tanks in the streets of Nicaragua, but American leftists will never criticize murder in places like Nicaragua.” Similarly, the Republican National Committee in August called Ocasio-Cortez a “mini-[Nicolás] Maduro,” referring to the Venezuelan president. Kurt Schlichter claimed over the summer that she “wants to turn America into Venezuela.” Seeking to explain why conservatives dislike Ocasio-Cortez so much, Vox wrote in August that “blasting Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, whose name and image Republicans have used to try to terrify voters for more than seven years, just isn’t getting the job done.”
It is no accident that they point to countries like Venezuela — and to a lesser extent, Cuba and Nicaragua — as Americans’ inevitable destiny should socialism be implemented here, rather than, say, pointing to Finland. The spread of socialism across Latin America during the mid-to-late 20th century posed a much more proximate existential threat to American capitalism. The U.S. government helped overthrow the democratically elected president of Guatemala, Jacobo Árbenz, in 1954, partly because they feared communism in their backyard. Indeed, nuclear warheads in Cuba had a shorter trip to U.S. soil than missiles in Russia, creating the panic that fueled the missile crisis of 1962. After revolution erupted across Central America in the late 1970s, the Reagan administration made the region a U.S. foreign-policy hot spot for much of the following decade, sending weapons and billions of dollars to help repressive military dictatorships in Nicaragua and El Salvador quell socialist uprisings. American-backed wars in Latin America have since created the conditions for immigration patterns that conservatives use to demonize Latin American migrants today. There is no migrant caravan for Republicans to stoke fear around or unaccompanied-minors crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border without the violence and instability caused by U.S. interference in Central America — almost always in the name of anti-communism.
Pair this with already-rampant bigotry against Hispanics, including a continued resistance to accepting that Puerto Ricans are Americans, and Ocasio-Cortez was perhaps destined to face outsize hostility from the right. Their warnings about socialism and the coming transformation of the U.S. into Venezuela are logical nexuses of American racism and American post–Cold War anti-communism. That challenge is embodied here most visibly by people like Ocasio-Cortez — whose race, gender, age, and political leanings combine to form a sort of conservative antithesis. It is difficult to discern which element most drives the right’s disdain. Some conservatives, namely Latinos, might take issue with her politics in particular. Others may focus on her youth, gender, or race to paint her, alternately, as ignorant, dishonest, or sinister. Considering the tenor of their attacks — and how overtly they target her personally despite the prominence of white self-identified socialists, like Bernie Sanders — it is unlikely that none of those elements are involved. More likely, many combine to form a kind of intersectional disdain. But they are often the same qualities that permitted her to triumph in New York’s 14th Congressional District in the first place, upsetting ten-term incumbent Joe Crowley in the Democratic primary in June, and capturing 78 percent of the vote in November. Whether conservatives like her or not — and clearly, they do not — her district certainly does.