Last week saw yet another round of attacks against 4 recently elected congresspersons, all women of color. While these members of the so-called “squad”—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley—have all been attacked by Donald Trump before (e.g., on Twitter, at rallies, in press interviews, etc.), this most recent incident has been widely condemned as “racist” in no uncertain terms by much of the mainstream media (see Trump’s tweets below). This marks a shift of sorts from previous media coverage of “the squad,” particularly AOC and Ilhan Omar, where similar charges of race baiting, misogyny, and xenophobia at the hands of Trump were overshadowed by semantic arguments over the meaning of language that they had used, particularly Omar’s critiques of AIPAC (American Israeli Public Affairs Committee) as anti-Semitic, and AOC’s characterization of detention centers on the south border as “concentration camps.” Despite Trump’s more overt and strategic use of bigoted language, however, attacks against these two congresspersons have come mainly from within the Democratic Party, where these younger, racialized, “progressive” representatives are routinely pitted against older, mainstream, “establishment” figures such as Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer.
There are many facets of this most recent skirmish that are worth examining, including the recent (and unprecedented) House vote to condemn Trump’s “racist comments,” and the incident at a Trump rally in North Carolina, where his supporters began to chant “send her back” in reference to Ilhan Omar, whom Trump claimed “hates America,” and “has a history of launching vicious anti-Semitic screeds.” For the sake of space I’ll narrow my focus to two recent narratives that highlight some of the ways that popular discourse constructs social meaning through the twin logics of individualism (including an emphasis on personal beliefs), and Party identity (read mainstream American identity), which is arguably more fluid and shifting today for both Republicans and Democrats than at any time since the post-war, civil rights era (c. 1948).
The first example comes from a segment on Chris Cuomo’s program Cuomo Prime Timeon CNN, where he stages a debate between a Democrat (Jennifer Granholm) and a Republican (Kayleigh McEnany) on the question of whether or not Trump’s tweets and follow-up comments against “the squad” are racist? Cuomo begins this segment by referring to an interview on his show from the day before, where he asked Republican Senate candidate Kris Kobach, “what would you do if the president said, I am a racist, what would you do?” When Kobach responds by saying that he would not defend him if that were the case, Cuomo follows-up by asking, “would you still support him as president?” When Kobach hesitates in reply, Cuomo interjects, “you have to think about whether you would support a racist? Really?” Returning to the debate at hand, Cuomo announces that he is now calling this the “Kobach test”—“would you support the president if he said he was a racist”—and poses it to McEnany, the 2020 Campaign National Press Secretary for Trump.
Despite the counter-factual (and to my ears bizarre) nature of this question, its’ purpose, it seems to me, is to trip-up defenders of Trump’s behavior, by forcing them to address whether they would endorse open racism (or a candidate who promotes it). Putting aside the semantic and rhetorical ploys that Trump and his supporters have used to defend his comments in the wake this incident (e.g., by suggesting that he was telling them to go back to their home districts and not “countries,” or by shifting focus to Ilhan Omar, stating that if she hates America then she is free to leave), one thing that stands out for me is how much of the public debate on whether or not Trump is a racist has relied on the question of individual beliefs and intentions as a the primary criteria of racism.
This emphasis on individual beliefs and intentions might help to explain why Trump is able to slide so easily past charges of racism (at least in the eyes of many of his supporters), since the debate remains largely on the level of semantic meaning (e.g., I meant their districts, not ‘countries’) and personal beliefs (e.g., Trump has does more for the X community than …)
As Burke and Stets argue in Identity Theory (2009):
A symbol derives its meaning from social consensus and is arbitrary, varying from one culture to another. … Symbols are relative to social groups and language communities in which the same signs are interpreted in the same way by most persons. Symbols thus evoke the same meaning responses in different individuals. (10-11)
While it may be true that the strong backlash against Trump’s comments as racist will have some effect in convincing (or censoring) a certain percentage of people, the emphasis on Trump and his supporters racist beliefs and intentions as a self-evident fact misses the ways in which language and meaning are, as Burke and Stets point out, “relative to social groups,” and thus do not, by themselves, prove anything.
A much more useful analytic approach to this question would be to look at the social effects that such rhetoric has on individuals and communities (e.g., the increased death and rape threats against Omar and AOC, or the crowd in North Carolina Pavlovian response at Trump’s prodding, chanting ‘send her back’ in reference to Ilhan Omar), which demonstrates the affective impact that such discourse has on, to evoke Bruce Lincoln, manipulating sentiments of affinity or estrangement within particular group identities.
The second example comes from a Washington Post article by Jennifer Rubin, entitled “About that AOC Problem,” which appeared on July 12, two days before Trump’s tweets and the chaos that followed. Rubin was remarking on AOC’s comment that Nancy Pelosi was “persistently signalling out … newly elected women of color,” which she later clarified was not intended to suggest that Pelosi is racist. AOC’s comments were in response to Pelosi’s own New York Times interview with Maureen Dowd, where she was dismissive of “the squad” as they were the only four congresspersons to vote against allocating 4.6 billion for measures concerning immigration and border security–a measure that they maintain does nothing to fix the underlying problems, while providing a “win” for Trump.
Rubin opens her op-ed with the following remarks:
There is a moment when the boss or the parent or chaperones realizes, “Weʼre in charge! The inmates/employees/children donʼt get to make the rules around here.” And, by the way, “Clean up your language — show some respect!”
She continues her argument through a series of rhetorical juxtapositions that attempt to represent Pelosi as the embodiment of sensible Democratic leadership, while AOC stands-in for a radical wing of young upstarts who are framed as beyond the pale. Indeed, throughout her piece, Rubin refers to “the squad” as “unhinged,” “extreme,” “outrageous,” and “far left,” with evidence that includes AOC’s chief of staff tweeting that moderate Democrats were like “New Southern Democrats,” to which Rubin remarks: “That’s simply outrageous by any measure, especially considering that a healthy number of moderate members are nonwhite.” Rubin goes on to argue that “the squad” has been “tormenting” Pelosi and “moderate Democrats” for “fight[ing] about standards for children’s care,” while also citing AOC’s “showboating” on Twitter, “weird alliance with right wing media,” for “watering down a resolution on anti-Semitism,” and “letting her drive the conversation on the Green New Deal.”
Rubin marshals these arguments to uphold her primary interest in advancing the idea that “the squad was not the reason they [the Democrats] took the house,” but rather “moderates flipping purple seats.” This point, in case it isn’t clear, is meant to demonstrate where the core sentiments of the Democratic Party lie, which she believes is crucial to recognize if they want to beat Trump in 2020.
In a manner that parallels the form of Trump’s rhetoric (though not, crucially, its content), Rubin’s narrative locates race and racism on the level of individual beliefs and intentions–how we might interpret certain claims–as with the charge that Ilhan Omar has engaged in anti-Semitism. Despite the highly contested nature of this claim it has now become a social fact, even among Democrats who routinely fail to contest this charge, even as it thrown around by the president to incite violence against her.
What is equally interesting in Rubin’s narrative is how it reflects the central argument in Bruce Lincoln’s Discourse and the Construction of Society (1989), where he writes:
Discourse supplements force in several important ways, among the most important of which is ideological persuasion. In the hands of elites and of those professionals who serve them (either in mediated fashion or directly), discourse of all forms … may be strategically deployed to mystify the inevitable inequities of any social order and to win the consent of those over whom power is exercised, thereby obviating the need for the direct coercive use of force and transforming simple power into “legitimate” authority. (4-5)
Whereas Trump uses overt racialized discourse in order to shift focus away from social inequities toward various identifiable “others” who can stand-in as a symbol of fear, antagonism, and anger (e.g., Muslims, immigrants, etc.), the type of sentiments evoked by Rubin also function to mystify social hierarchies by strategically classifying challenges to existing authority (i.e., the Democratic establishment) as “radical,” “extreme,” child-like, etc.
Whatever else we might think of these contests over identity and, occasionally, over the substance of competing policies and ideological visions for America, paying attention to the social effects of discourse is one task where scholars can help to clarify what is at stake amidst this dizzying whirlwind of rhetorical bluster in the age of Donald Trump.
It is also worth keeping in mind, however, as Lincoln observes:
Yet discourse can also serve members of subordinate classes (as Antonio Gramsci above all recognized) in their attempts to demystify, delegitimate, and deconstruct the established norms, institutions, and discourses that play a role in constructing their subordination. (5)