Michael Meeropol: Demonizing "The Squad"

Jul 26, 2019

By now everyone has heard of “the squad” ---  Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D, NY), Ayanna Pressley (D, MA), Ilhan Omar(D, MN) and Rashida Tlaib (D, MI) – four young left wing Democratic women of color.   Ocasio-Cortez is Puerto Rican, Pressley is African American, Omar is Somali-American and Tlaib is Palestinian-American.   All are citizens – all except for Omar were born here in the United States.

[By the way, the adjective “young” only applies because people like me are over 70 (!!). Congresswoman Pressley is 44 and Congresswoman Tlaib is 43.]

The Republican Party believes that by making these four women the face of the Democratic Party, they will be able to scare people into voting for Trump. Some attacks are aimed at policies. Republicans attack the Green New Deal and other policies aimed at redistributing income from the superrich to the rest of us. According to the Republican fear-mongers these policies if enacted will be the first step towards the United States becoming Venezuela.

This is an old page from an old playbook. Back in the 1930s, Social Security and many other policies of FDR’s New Deal were attacked as the first step towards turning the United States into the Soviet Union. After World War II, when President Harry Truman proposed national health insurance, the American Medical Association successfully blocked it by accusing Truman of proposing “socialized medicine.” In the 1965, when the AMA was attempted to thwart President Lyndon Johnson’s proposal to create Medicare and Medicaid, Ronald Reagan made national headlines with a televised speech claiming that if Medicare passed it would herald the “end” of freedom in America.

Now, the attacks are on the Green New Deal, Medicare for all, a $15 an hour minimum wage, vigorous actions to stop global warming. According to this right wing playbook, these would all be dangerous first steps towards disaster. To protect your freedom from these dangerous socialists, you better vote to re-elect Trump. So there’s a policy attack on the four women --- an attack that will undoubtedly be leveled at whoever emerges as the Democratic nominee for President.

But the attack on the four women goes much further. They are demonized as “the other” because they are women of color and (except for Pressley) “foreigners.” How else could Trump get away with saying “they should go back where they came from?” Here are Trump’s exact words, unedited

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!

What does it mean “originally” came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe? The only one who “originally” came from outside the United States is Congresswoman Omar – and she came to the US as an eight year old! Representative Pressley’s family has been in the United States much longer than Trump’s! Representative Ocasio-Cortez as a Puerto Rican did not come from anywhere but the good old USA. Representative Tlaib’s family immigrated from the Palestinian territories. How are these first generation American citizens in any way connected to the alleged failures of the governments from which their relatives immigrated? (And of course, Puerto Rico as a territory of the United States is in trouble because Congress refuses to let them have voting rights and rigidly controls the purse strings.)

But note one really telling part of the first paragraph above – the part I underlined. Implied by these words is that these four women have NO BUSINESS telling this “greatest Nation on earth, how our government is to be run.” But they were ELECTED by their constituents to do PRECISELY THAT. They are elected representatives of the people. Trump’s idea to send them back to “fix” other countries is laughable. They have knowledge and expertise and the support of their constituents to “fix” the United States. They have NONE of these in relation to the island of Puerto Rico (Ocasio-Cortez), Somalia (Omar), the Palestinian territories (Tlaib). And where should Pressley go “back to” in order to “fix” it? Chicago?? (where she lived as a child) Cincinnati?? (where she was born).

What amazes me is that, at least for some of the people at a Trump rally in South Carolina, his admonition for these four women to “go back” where they came from made perfect sense. How else to explain the spontaneous eruption of a “send her back” chant that erupted when Trump mentioned Representative Omar by name?

Faced with widespread condemnation of the obvious racism inherent in that chant --- Republican toadies on television have been falling all over themselves telling audiences that what REALLY DISTURBS them is not the racism of the chant but some alleged horrible statements by these members of Congress. This is where it gets personal. The right wing is no longer attacking their policies --- the “socialist” policies of Medicare for all, etc. which will “guarantee” that the US will be like Venezuela if adopted. Instead, they have made it personal. (And in fact, it has gotten so personal that many of these individuals have received credible death threats.)

So what are the horrible things, these folks have said? I went to the internet to try and find those so-called horrible statements. Ocasio-Cortez is alleged to have referred to the United States as “garbage.” This is projection. It was candidate Donald Trump who said that President Obama had turned the United States into garbage. (He tweeted that on 21 Oct 2014) Ten days later he re-tweeted a statement by a supporter that the United States had gone to “shit.” (31 Oct 2014). Ocasio-Cortez had used the word garbage to describe --- bad policies. Here are her exact words. They are part of a long answer to a question as to why she criticized both Democratic Party leaders and Republicans for opting for an incrementalist approach to solving problems. In defending so-called radical proposals like the Green New Deal she said

I think all of these things sound radical compared to where we are. But where we are is not a good thing. This idea of 10 percent better from garbage shouldn’t be what we settle for.

Representative Omar is attacked as an anti-semite. She did strongly criticize the influence of AIPAC and other lobbying organizations which uncritically support the Israeli Government of Benjamin Netanyahu. In referring to the role of money, she said

“It’s all about the Benjamins baby.” (Benjamin Franklin is on the one hundred dollar bill.) Since one of the anti-semitic tropes is that Jews have tremendous financial influence in the United States, this statement was seized upon as evidence of antisemitism. At another event, she attacked people who “push for allegiance to a foreign country.” This is in fact an anti-semitic trope – it accuses American Jews of “dual loyalty.” Omar quickly apologized for the crack about “the Benjamins” and for the dual loyalty accusation.

So the personal attacks have now focused on the alleged anti-semitism of all four of these members of Congress --- They are anti-semites because they oppose the policies of the Netanyahu government. (Jews who oppose those policies are dubbed “self-hating” Jews.) This line of attack was the subject of an outstanding OP-ED in the New York Times (July 19) written by columnist Michelle Goldberg, entitled “Defenders of a Racist President Use Jews as Human Shields.”

I urge everyone to read the article but here are some excerpts:

It’s true that Omar has said things that were freighted with anti-Semitism, for which she has expressed regret. But it is grotesque to argue that that excuses racism against her, or that Trump’s taunts have anything to do with protecting Jews. This is a president who regularly deploys anti-Semitic tropes and whose ex-wife said that he slept with a volume of Hitler’s speeches by his bed. When speaking to American Jews, he’s called Israel “your country” and Benjamin Netanyahu “your prime minister,” suggesting that in his mind, we [Jews] don’t fully belong here anymore than Omar does.

When the right presents Trump as an enemy of anti-Semitism, it goes beyond hypocrisy. Jews have thrived here as they have in few other places in the world because America at least aspires to be a multiethnic democracy, not an ethnostate. If Trump succeeds in making citizenship racialized and contingent, that’s an existential threat to American Jews.

It’s worth thinking about how we got to a point where anti-Semitism can be exploited as it has been this week. What we’re seeing is the absurd but logical endpoint of efforts to conflate anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism, and anti-Zionism with opposition to Israel’s right-wing government. Only if these concepts are interchangeable can Jewish critics of Israel be the perpetrators of anti-Semitism and gentiles who play footsie with fascism be allies of the Jewish people. Only if these concepts are the same can an evangelical group claim that Jews are being anti-Jewish when they protest Trump, because Trump loves Israel.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of the liberal Zionist group J Street, puts part of the blame for this rhetorical derangement at the feet of the American Jewish establishment. Its leaders made an alliance of convenience with right-wing Christian Zionists, who support the state of Israel as the fulfillment of biblical prophecy and a bulwark of Western values in the Middle East, but care little about pluralism in the United States.

The Jewish leaders, said Ben-Ami, “made a deal with the devil. And what they’ve done is they’ve laid down in bed with white nationalists and racists and bigots.” Now white nationalists and racists and bigots — and those politically aligned with them — feel entitled to use their backing of Israel as an alibi when their leader indulges in racist incitement. [end of the quote from Goldberg’s OP-ED.]

Goldberg’s reference to biblical prophecy is quite ominous. The right-wing Christian evangelical politicians claiming to be great friends of Israel are actually promising a complete holocaust. Their goal is have all Jews return to Israel. According to some interpretations of the Bible, this will herald the second coming of Christ. All true believers will follow the Messiah to heaven. Meanwhile, the Jews who refuse to convert will be consumed by fire. With allies like these, Jews don’t need enemies. In the United States, anti-semitic incidents have been on the rise since Trump was elected and they aren’t being perpetrated by Muslim supporters of Al Qaeda. When racists and Nazis marched in Charlottesville defending statues of Robert E. Lee, they were the ones chanting “Jews will not replace us.”

So I want to strongly urge my fellow citizens – Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, atheists, etc. – do not be taken in by efforts to demonize these four women. WE have a country that is dangerously close to a point of no return in terms of suppressing votes and voices of those who oppose this President and the extreme policies he is introducing. Our democracy is at risk.

Meanwhile, as I have asserted many times, the planet remains at risk. If we continue burning fossil fuels for the next four years instead of leaving them in the ground, this may guarantee a burning planet for the next 100 years. And four more years of packing the judiciary and gutting more regulations and making it harder to vote and gerrymandering Congressional districts may lead us to a President Pence in 2024.

I have my preferences in the Democratic Primaries but I think the most important thing that can happen between now and November 2020 is for young people and all people of color – black, Latino and Asian – to recognize that they must register and they must come out to vote. Hillary Clinton lost the Presidency in 2016 for many reasons – but one of them was certainly the fall off in voter participation by people who had voted for President Obama in 2008 and 2012.

If these same folks sit out the 2020 election, they will be condemning our grandchildren to a burning planet and our children to a fascist America as Trump basks in his second term.

[After this commentary was recorded, Congresswoman Omar wrote an eloquent OP-ED in the July 26, 2019. It was entitled, “Push Back Against Trump’s Racism” and appeared on page A23. It is worth reading in its entirety but she makes a number of very important points about the REASONS Trump sees his racist rantings as politically useful: “Every time Mr. Trump attacks refugees is a time that could be spent discussing the President’s unwillingness to raise the federal minimum wage. Every racist attack on four members of Congress is a moment he doesn’t have to address why his choice for labor secretary has spent his career defending Wall Street banks and Walmart at the expense of workers When he is launching attacks on the free press he isn’t talking about why his Environmental Protection Agency just refused to ban a pesticide linked to brain damage in children.” This fits what I have said over and over again in these commentaries --- the willingness of the press to focus on the latest “bright shiny object” (usually some outrageous statement by Trump) takes away from our understanding of the real damage his POLCIES are doing to our country and the planet.]

Michael Meeropol is professor emeritus of Economics at Western New England University. He is the author with Howard and Paul Sherman of the recently published second edition of Principles of Macroeconomics: Activist vs. Austerity Policies.

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