Trump v “The Squad”: The Deterioration of the US Political Apparatus

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This article, and the Update, were written by a close sympathizer of the ICC


Update: As this article was being finalised, the US experienced two more mass shootings on the weekend of August 3rd. In El Paso, TX a gunman opened fire at a Wal-Mart store killing over 20 people, many of them Hispanic. Later that same day, another assailant shot up Dayton Ohio’s cultural district killing 9, including his own sister.

The EL Paso shooter, like the attacker in Christchurch, New Zealand some months before, appears to have been inspired by conspiracy theories that suggest the “liberal elite” in the West is intentionally pursuing the “demographic replacement” of the white Christian population with foreign immigrants. If the attacker in New Zealand targeted Muslims, the El Paso shooter murdered Hispanics, who it is suggested are the greatest threat to the United States’ cultural and social integrity. The revelation of the shooters’ intentions immediately drove political and media denunciation of President Trump’s own rhetoric about immigration, as he has repeatedly referred to immigration as an “invasion.” Democrats running for President were swift to blame Trump for the shooting, pointing to his past incendiary rhetoric, including his recent comments about “the Squad”— the subject of this article—which they say demonstrate his commitment to racism and “white supremacy.”

While it’s true that Trump’s  harsh denunciations of immigration set a definite tone, it should be noted that concerns about the weight of Hispanic immigration on the US predate his entry into politics and have not been limited to hardened right-wing demagogues. The esteemed Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington’s 2004 book, “Who Are We?” was an early expression of an emerging national identity crisis, in which he expressly worried about the unique challenges posed by mass Hispanic immigration. Whereas others saw continued immigration as an integral and important part of the American story—its supposed history of openness, inclusiveness and diversity—Huntington worried about a loss of national identity, cultural Balkanization and the corrosion of civic life. Today, these debates around the meaning of “Americanness” have only accelerated and deepened in an increasingly hostile tone, with Trump taking the rhetoric on one side to levels of aggression that many in the media deem beyond the norms of bourgeois politics.  

But, it is important to note that Trump’s critics’ own response to his rhetoric is not free of similar illusions in national identity and the meaning of so-called American values. Even as their own rhetoric grows more and more radical in the face of Trump’s provocations, they nevertheless fail to transcend the terms of the debate framed by Trump about the meaning of national identity, citizenship, etc., often falling into a pointless back and forth about who are the “true Americans,” or who best upholds “American values.” The entire exercise remains trapped on the level of the national state, of who belongs and who doesn’t. This is true even when Trump’s opponents emote sympathy for so-called “open-borders.”  While they may express sympathy for the migrants coming to the border in search of a better life, they condemn those already here who want to limit immigration out of concern, real or imagined, for their own material conditions, often accusing them of racism, bigotry, intolerance, etc. While there can be no doubt that these elements exist, some of whom may have felt empowered by Trump’s victory, it’s not the case that the now longstanding political-electoral imbroglio over immigration can be written off solely to the moral failures of Trump voters. Doing so only furthers the ‘culture wars’ and reintroduces the very divisions in society Trump’s critics claims they oppose. It seems though that this may be the point. In a social environment dominated by increasingly hostile identities, fomenting division can be powerful political currency for all sides.

As for the mass shootings, while it may be true the El Paso shooter was motivated by rhetoric of the kind Trump himself is prone to employ, it’s not so easy to write the entire social phenomenon off to the fault of irresponsible politicians. While the El Paso shooters’ political motivations seem more or less clear, the Dayton assailant’s politics appear to have been all over the map, and the authorities have not yet been able to establish a clear link between any political sentiments and the shooting.

What can be said is that the social decomposition of bourgeois society is producing more and more angry, lonely and depressed people, some of whom will find the means and opportunity to express these emotions in violent ways as a last, failed attempt to exert some power denied them by their increasingly debased and detached social lives under a capitalism that offers them little meaningful perspective. This is the case whatever the particular content of the political delusions that are said to drive these killers, be they “Islamic” (the Tsarnayev brothers, San Bernadino, etc.), “white nationalist” (the El Paso shooter, Dylan Roof, Pittsburgh Synagogue, etc.), or are undetermined or even absent (Dayton, various school shootings, etc.).

All of this only underscores the deepening crisis of bourgeois social life and demonstrates that the bourgeoisie is itself experiencing an increasing loss of control over society, more and more unable to construct a shared civic narrative that binds the population together in a common identity, however mythical. More and more today, the logic of ‘everyman for himself’ prevails, fueling a quest for many to reestablish some grounding, even when all that is on offer are the false solidarities of imagined communities loosely bonded together in online spaces by perceived threats and conspiracies. These shootings are just more evidence of the worsening bankruptcy of bourgeois society.

Trump Lashes Out

In mid-July, President Trump ignited a media firestorm with a series of tweets blasting four freshmen Democratic Congresswoman, all “women of color,” for their supposedly anti-American politics. By telling the four members of the so-called “Squad” to: “go back and fix the totally broken places they came from” Trump was universally denounced in all mainstream and legacy media outlets for his vicious racism.

If all this story was about were Trump’s tweets it would be easy to dismiss them as another example of his self-defeating, narcissistic tendency to spout whatever transient thoughts and impulses come into his head in a given moment regardless of the political consequences for him. However, there is much more to this episode, reflecting a multi-dimensional crisis that has been festering within the US bourgeoisie’s political apparatus for some time and which shows few signs of mitigating. While one can never be sure with Trump, it’s likely this outburst was a calculated moment in a broader political campaign to paint the Democratic Party as an increasingly radical and anti-American institution, descending ever deeper into a supposedly “socialist” abyss under the unofficial, but no less real, leadership of the increasingly insurgent “Squad.”

Turmoil in the Democratic Party

Trump’s tweets against the Squad were remarkable in light of events of only a week prior. Amidst growing strategic divisions with the Democratic Party over whether to impeach Trump, how far to go in moving to the left on economic issues such as Medicare for All, free college, student debt forgiveness and a festering divide on immigration policy, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi let loose on her own media campaign to delegitimize the “Squad.” Mocking them as “like only five votes” and for having little support within the Democratic Congressional caucus despite their social media followings. It looked like the Democratic establishment was about to finally drop the hammer on the Squad, who had been upping their own rhetoric against the leadership of the party in prior weeks.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), the ostensible leader of the group, had just made a thinly veiled accusation of racism against Pelosi herself, claiming she was singling the Squad out for maltreatment because they were “women of color.” Ayana Pressley, until then one of the quieter members of the group, even went so far as to pick a fight with the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), claiming that the time for “black faces who didn’t want to also be black voices” was coming to an end. These remarks were the latest in a long series of increasingly bitter sniping with racialized overtones between the Squad and more centrist Democrats, with AOC’s Chief of Staff (himself a Silicon Valley entrepreneur) implying that Democrats who voted for increased funding for border security were just like the segregationist Democrats of the 1960s. All of this was on top of repeated instances of questionable comments that bordered in many people’s eyes on anti-Semitism from Squad members Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib. [1]

In addition to the appearance of deep divisions within their House majority, with groups like the so-called “Justice Democrats” threatening primaries against vulnerable centrists, Democratic leaders were also growing increasingly concerned about their party’s Presidential candidates, who many believed were being pushed further and further left by a restive anti-Trump base egged on by the Squad.

Amazingly, asked by the press about his thoughts on AOC’s implications of racism against Pelosi, Trump appeared to take the high road. Although Pelosi never wastes an opportunity to denounce Trump as a racist, given the chance to exact some revenge, Trump instead defended her, stating, “Nancy Pelosi may be a lot of things, but believe me, she is no racist.” Stunningly, as the Democratic Party appeared to descend into the disunity of a three-way catfight, pitting the establishment Congressional leadership against the Squad with the party’s Presidential candidates caught in the middle, Trump had actually succeeded in taking the high ground on race! The Squad’s deployment of identity politics against their own party leadership looked nakedly cynical and disingenuous, while Pelosi just looked pathetic—having enabled the Squad for months to deploy their identity cards against Trump, the chicken certainly came home to roost.

Over the course of the next few days, things were not looking particularly good for the Squad. From marketable identities (strong women of color) to deploy in the ongoing campaign to delegitimize Trump to increasingly irresponsible radicals, weaponizing their identities and hurling accusations of racism against anyone who dare criticize them, the Democratic establishment was concerned that the entire party was becoming identified with the Squad’s conduct in advance of 2020. Much of the mainstream media appeared to turn against the Squad, worrying that the leading Democratic Presidential candidates were caught in a downward spiral of radicalization driven by this group and that a rebuke from senior party leaders might offer the opportunity for a reset.

It was in this context that Trump quickly abandoned the high ground of a week prior and tweeted out his divisive, confrontational and controversial sentiments, directly attacking the Squad, telling them to fix the places they came from before telling America how to conduct business. When asked to clarify his remarks a day later and being informed that three out of the four Squad members were natural born American citizens, Trump simply implied that if they don’t like it here and hate America so much they should “just leave.” Whatever high ground Trump held after defending Pelosi from AOC’s accusations of racism, he immediately surrendered it with his abrasive tweets.

Within minutes of the tweets, the entire landscape of the previous week was reversed. From a descent into increasingly public division, the Democratic Party, together with its allies in the media, were united in defense of the Squad’s “Americanness” and in denunciation of the racism represented by Trump’s vicious tweets. Why on Earth would Trump go there? Is he really just the mindless, racist bully his opponents’ claim who was accidentally elected President with Vladimir Putin’s help? Or was there some element of calculation to it all?

If the goal were to actually defeat the programmatic vision of the Squad and the insurgent “social democrats” within the Democratic Party, then Trump would have been wise to shut his mouth and let the Democratic establishment deliver the blow that was already being wound up the week before. It appears that, on the contrary, Trump and his advisors wanted precisely the opposite result. Concerned that the Democratic Party would distance itself from “socialism” in advance of 2020, Trump did what he does best: change the conversation with one tweet.

Faced with Trump’s gratuitous attacks against four women of color, the Democratic Party and the media would have no choice but to rally around them and denounce his racism. The Squad would again be front and center, the faces of the Democratic Party, elevated to victim status once again by the media. Faced with the choice of a Democratic Party newly returned to electability by having spanked its radicals or a Democratic Party united in defense of “socialists” whose Twitter accounts are a daily affront to “Middle America,” Trump would clearly rather have the latter. And that is precisely what happened in the days and weeks since his tweets.

If Trump appears to not know what he is talking about half the time, it’s not clear that members of the Squad are much more coherent. On the contrary, like Trump, they appear to mobilize and deploy the concepts of American citizenship and American identity inconsistently depending on the particular context and audience and in order to achieve the political goals of the moment. One minute they are the real Americans upholding true American values against Trump’s debasement and their possession of US citizenship is a weapon with which to poke Trump in the eye, but the next they are denouncing American citizenship itself as just a tool of white supremacy or whatever claim about the country’s misdeeds is being made at the moment, stripping it of any positive meaning for those who might feel like their citizenship in a national community is one of the last forms of “social protection” they have in a world they see as rapidly changing for the worse.

In any event, in this confrontation between what appear to be polar political opposites, it may not be obvious which side is doing more to value or debase citizenship. This was demonstrated earlier in the heat of the debate over the Trump administration’s treatment of migrants at the US-Mexico border, when AOC claimed that asylum seekers attempting to enter the United States were “more American” than those Americans trying to keep them out. Whatever her righteous outrage at the Trump administration’s policies, she is still fully within the logic of American national identity here, even to the point, in Trump like fashion, of denying her political opponents’ “Americanness.”

Still, if there is prior material to muster in making a case for Trump’s racist motivations against the Squad, one must then wonder about the real nature of Nancy Pelosi’s confrontation with them. Is resisting women of color in their political ambitions itself racist? This of course didn’t stop the Democratic leaning media from pouring cold water on AOC’s insinuations, while immediately, repeatedly and strenuously assigning a racist meaning to Trump’s tweets. If Pelosi’s actions were unlikely to have a racial motivation, there could be no debate for the media that Trump’s tweets did.

In the contrast between the media’s rather differing reaction to his tweets and the previous week’s Pelosi-AOC dust up, Trump is banking on planting the seed of a double standard in the minds of not only his avowed supporters, but also the few remaining fence sitters. Trump is stoking a sector of the population’s feelings of alienation from a dominant culture they see as increasingly condescending, judgmental and hostile to them.

Where the media sees in Trump’s tweet an unmitigated, self-inflicted disaster, Trump likely sees a potentially winning strategy, polarizing the demographic groups most likely to vote for him against the media and the Democratic Party.

Populism vs. “Identity Politics”: The Impoverishment of the Bourgeoisie’s Political Life

If this is the essence of populism Trump offers us, the logic of the kind of identity politics the Democratic Party has put front and center is to degenerate into ever more frequent, but never anything less than absurd metaphysical debates about an individual figures’ potentially racist motivations. If this week Trump is clearly a racist, next week it might be Obama’s Vice President Joe Biden and the month after that maybe it will be Pelosi’s turn again when the next confrontation with the Squad flares up.

Bernie Sanders knows all about the Jacobin logic of it all; no matter how hard this often described old-school social democrat attempts to placate the forces of identity politics in the Democratic Party, it still gets implied that he is something other than pure on issues of race, immigration, gender, etc. One pundit recently said on MSNBC (a mouthpiece of the Democratic Party’s establishment) that Bernie Sanders “made her skin crawl,” and that she viewed him as “something other than a pro-woman candidate,” and was unsure how young women could vote for him.

If, as revolutionaries, we can easily denounce Trump’s bitter divisiveness, we must also recognize that he is not the only sinner in the mess that is bourgeois politics today. The supposedly liberal left has developed its own racialized politics that it will cynically deploy at any opportunity. This is no less true when the purveyors are self-described “socialists,” as several in the Squad describe themselves, or when they are neo-liberal centrists. The logic of this kind of identity politics is that nobody is ultimately above moral suspicion, everyone’s motives are always suspect. Power in this Jacobin political moment, flows to whoever is the first to denounce the other for failure to live up to a new, often impossible, moral standard.

If there are still forces resisting this logic within the ostensibly left formations of the bourgeois political apparatus today, it is also the case that they have often been all too willing to use it to their advantage when the situation presents itself. If the women of color in the Squad are useful tools for the Democratic establishment against Trump, they are also thorns in its sides. If Trump presents a common enemy for the moment, it is also clear that these divisions will not just simply go away in a return to normalcy in a post-Trump America. Whether it is populism or identitarianism today that irks you the most, the cats are out of the bag and it’s not clear how the bourgeoisie could put them back in.

If Trump knows that his ‘everyman’ sentiments are likely shared by more than are willing to admit it to pollsters, his increasingly belligerent tone only riles those forces that want to see him removed from office by legal, electoral or other means. We can’t say which one of these political forces will prevail at the ballot box in 2020, but what we can say is that there will be more and perhaps deeper convulsions ahead.

It may be possible that deep revulsion for Trump will allow the Democrats to pass off a feckless Biden as a national-unity candidate in 2020, or that a Kamala Harris will reassemble parts of the Obama coalition committing only to a milquetoast liberalism while riding her identity contrast with Trump to the White House. But it seems likely that such outcomes would be little more than a momentary pause in the deepening tendency towards ever more uncivil conflict, aggressive (negative) partisanship, juvenile name-calling and tribalism in politics.

The way out of this morass is to fight for the unity of the working-class across all of our seeming divisions. It is clear that neither side of the bourgeois political apparatus does anything other than seek to aggravate those divisions for their own increasingly narrow and short-term political aims. We must resist them all.

Henk 07/28/2019

[1] For our take on the earlier (but ongoing) anti-Semitism controversy see:


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