It’s 2019 and People Still Don’t Know How to Talk About Trump

We’re not used to hearing members of Congress say Trump’s rhetoric and policies go well beyond “racially tinged.” Photo: Alena Kuzub/Getty Images

There is “no question” Donald Trump is a “racist,” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told 60 Minutes’ Anderson Cooper on Sunday. Predictably, her succinct answer set off a chain of outraged responses, mostly on the right; the White House accused her of making “disgusting false claims” and displaying “sheer ignorance” about Trump’s stance on race. Cooper’s response to the newly sworn-in socialist — “How can you say that?” — sparked fury, too. In the context of the interview, it’s not clear if Cooper meant to scold the congresswoman for her boldness or to draw her out on specific examples of Trump’s racism. As the Washington Post noted on Monday, Cooper himself criticized Trump’s infamous “shithole countries” remark as a “racist sentiment.”

Whatever Cooper meant, he injected new life into a debate that should have died long ago. Ocasio-Cortez may not have called the president a “motherfucker,” like Michigan representative Rashida Tlaib did last Thursday. But Cooper’s response to the New York City Democrat bore a passing resemblance to the censorious reaction to Tlaib — who is, like Ocasio-Cortez, a Democratic Socialist. In a piece for The Atlantic, Elaine Godfrey worried that Tlaib’s remarks signalled some new era of norm-breaking in the Democratic Party:

Some incoming progressive Democrats are repeatedly disregarding norms and breaking with their party in order to criticize the president and speak to their passionate base. Curiously, it’s an approach to politics that mirrors the tactics of the man they’re up against. Tlaib’s comments could foreshadow an intensifying drumbeat of norm-breaking on the left similar to the one that Trump has already imposed on the GOP.

These norms must be fragile if they are so threatened by verbal profanity. Godfrey’s reaction to Tlaib wasn’t anomalous; commentators advanced similar criticisms in the Post and the website for ABC News. Though most refrained from conflating either Tlaib or Ocasio-Cortez wholly with Trump in recent days, conservatives critical of Trump have previously accused Ocasio-Cortez of being “the Trump of the left.” These left-wing newcomers have elicited divisive responses not just from the media, but from fellow Democrats. While House Speaker Nancy Pelosi declined to condemn Tlaib, but Joe Manchin, the Democratic senator from West Virginia, was so incensed by Tlaib’s remarks that he apologized to “all Americans” on her behalf.

Pundits and more centrist Democrats have been similarly jolted by the left flank’s policy proposals. Pelosi may have refrained from criticizing their rhetoric, but she responded to Ocasio-Cortez’s request for a special committee on the Green New Deal with a version that will actually be less powerful than the House’s last climate committee. Some commentators reacted with shock to Ocasio-Cortez’s call for a 70 percent marginal tax rate; National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar went so far as to assert that the policy was “a whole lot more politically damaging” than Tlaib’s profanity. On Monday, CNN’s Chris Cillizza used an out-of-context quote from Ocasio-Cortez to promote his analysis of her 60 Minutes interview — which, in turn, conflated the congresswoman’s erroneous claim about $21 trillion in “Pentagon accounting errors” with the Trump administration’s fabrications about border security. As Vox’s Matt Yglesias explained last month, the $21 trillion figure is incorrect, but Ocasio-Cortez’s underlying argument — that America’s defense spending is very high and reducing it by a fraction could fund a variety of social welfare projects — is true. Meanwhile, Trump’s anti-immigration fearmongering rests on outright lies. And while Ocasio-Cortez said on Twitter that fact-checkers “push” her “to be better,” Trump greeted Monday morning with another tweeted attack on the “failing” New York Times.

Neither the press nor the Democratic Party has much recent familiarity with a powerful, organized left, and it shows. Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal isn’t radical; it is, as New York’s Eric Levitz argued, an evidence-based response to significant national wealth inequality. Tlaib is an experienced community organizer from a working-class background whose constituents are likely familiar with her demeanor. But the real problem isn’t unfamiliarity with the left’s policies and tactics; it’s that two years into the Trump presidency, some commentators still don’t know how to talk about Trump. Neither, for that matter, do some Democrats. If you can’t accurately characterize the threats posed by Trump’s presidency, you’re prone to mischaracterize the goals of his opponents, too.

As long as major newspapers relegate any acknowledgement of Trump’s racism to the editorial pages, headlines refer only to the president’s “racially tinged” policies and rhetoric, and the Democratic Party tolerates members like Joe Donnelly warming up to Trump, the bluntness of left-wing politicians like Tlaib and Ocasio-Cortez will look more dangerous and more radical than it actually is in context. The idea that Tlaib, for example, somehow sunk to Trump’s level just by declaring “we’re gonna impeach the motherfucker” reduces the president to an aesthetic problem. There is substance to Trump’s cruelty. The president does more than refer to immigrants as “animals”; his administration puts migrant children in cages. The difference between Trump and various bombastic Democrats is thus a material one. Tlaib used vulgar language to call for impeachment because, as she and John Bonifaz outlined in a Detroit Free Press editorial, she believes the president is “lawless.” Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal is an expansive policy that would dramatically reorder the government’s financial priorities, but it’s no less radical than Trump’s tax cuts for the wealthy.

Trump is no strategic genius. His rants are often just that — tantrums, with no carefully considered intention behind them. Even so, it’s easy to discern the prejudice that motivates him. Trump shut down the government, depriving hundreds of thousands of federal workers and subcontracted service workers of their wages, all to force Congress to give him $5 billion for a steel slat fence designed to keep out refugees. Trump responded to Heather Heyer’s 2017 murder by a neo-Nazi with what amounts to a shrug; there are, he insisted, “very fine people” on both sides of the fight. He uses language the way he uses the power of his office: to empower and enrich the nation’s wealthiest, white citizens at the expense of vulnerable communities. The truth is profane.

People Still Don’t Know How to Talk About Trump