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Trump versus the Democratic 'squad': A battle for America's soul

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The Democratic "Squad": Ayanna Pressley, Illhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib (screenshot via YouTube).

Dr Martin Hirst on the recently-sparked contest between Trump and his followers, and a new brand of strong congresswomen of colour

“GO BACK to where you came from.”

“Love it or leave.”

“Send her back.”

Any Australian who has been paying even a bit of attention over the past decade would recognise these slogans. They are a staple of the nativist and racist faction of the conservative side of Australian politics.

Now they have become embedded in American political discourse during a week in which President Trump shamelessly lied about four female members of Congress who are also women of colour and progressive Democrats who came to prominence during the "blue wave" of the 2018 mid-term elections.

These women – who have been given the nickname "the squad" – are a major irritation to Donald Trump. They are smart, they’re fierce, they are also women of colour. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez is Hispanic, Ilhan Omar was born in Somalia, Rashida Tlaib's roots are Palestinian and Ayanna Pressley is African-American.

Tlaib and Omar are also Muslim.

These women represent everything the Donald Trump hates. Independent, outspoken women from minority backgrounds who are untouchable. Literally, untouchable. There's no way that Trump would ever be able to lay a finger on them.

These women are not afraid of Trump and that scares him half-to-death. He needs to turn them into larger-than-life cartoon character enemies to energise his base and to define his campaign for re-election.

A battle for the soul of America

Not only have "the squad" put the frighteners on one of the world’s biggest bullies, but they have also signalled to him and his Republican enablers that they are willing to stand their ground and fight back.

Trump has recently pivoted to attacking the Democrats as a party of raging communism filled with Marxists and socialists who "hate America".

He saw an opportunity to drive a wedge into the Democratic Party to separate the more conservative and older wing represented by House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, from the emerging radical faction represented by the younger quartet of new congresswomen.

It is clear that by linking his attacks on some mythical socialist revolutionary current within the Democrats to racial attacks on the squad, Trump has decided on a strategy to take him through the 2020 Presidential Election.

The racial, class and social divisions in American society are now laid starkly bare.

One side is defined by Trump’s overt white nationalism and support for big business; the other by the progressive and inclusive politics of Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, Pressley and Tlaib.

This has the potential to become an existential conflict that could, although unlikely, spill over into an all-out civil war.

Even if it doesn’t come to that extreme, I believe it is a battle for the soul of America.

Trump knows that the majority of women, Hispanics, Muslims and African-Americans won’t vote for him in 2020. He knows that he won in 2016 with a very slim margin and because of the way the Electoral College weights the vote in some states.

Trump knows that the only way he can win in 2020 is by mobilising older white and overwhelmingly male voters on a campaign of fear.

In a speech widely reported as the unofficial launch of Trump’s 2020 campaign, the attack lines were clear. At the June 18 rally in Orlando, Florida, he described the Democrats as “depraved” and returned to this theme constantly in prepared comments.

Some of these include:

  • 2016 was not nearly another four-year election. This was a defining moment in American history;
  • Our radical Democrat opponents are driven by hatred, prejudice, and rage and want to destroy you, and they want to destroy our country as we know it;
  • They would shut down your free speech and use the power of the law to punish their opponents;
  • They would strip Americans of their constitutional rights while flooding the country with illegal immigrants.

Trump knows he must play into the entrenched race-based fear that has been a bubbling undercurrent in American politics since the end of the Civil War in 1865. The abolition of slavery was a major step forward, but it also left deep resentments in many white parts of America.

These areas are now Trump’s heartland and represent his only chance of legitimately securing another four years in the White House.

The other factor playing into Trump’s racially-charged slurs and outright lies against the squad – particularly the two Muslim-Americans Omar and Tlaib – is that there is nobody left on the White House staff who will try to stop him.

The white nationalist rump that has survived all the purges, sackings and resignations now controls the infrastructure and processes of the White House.

The chief protagonist in this cabal is Trump’s speech-writer and close confidant and open nationalist, Stephen Miller.

Miller’s carefully constructed language always features prominently in Trump’s scripted remarks and this was clear and obvious in the speech he gave late last week in Greenville, North Carolina.

Overt racism and deliberate deceits that have always defined Trump’s off-the-cuff style at his infamous campaign rallies are now finding a place in the written comments and the words that Trump reads from the teleprompter.

Here are a few examples from the Greenville speech transcript:

  • The leading voices of the Democratic Party are left-wing extremists who reject everything our nation stands for;
  • Many of the people that voted for us [in 2016] were Democrats and I want to thank them because they did the right thing for our country. Republicans know that American is the greatest force for peace and justice in the history of our world, but these left-wing ideologues see our nation as a force of evil;
  • They want to demolish our Constitution, weaken our military, eliminate the values that built this magnificent country;
  • [Illhan] Omar blamed the United States for the crisis in Venezuela.

You can tell these are scripted remarks because they are in a more formal register, unlike Trump’s convoluted stream-of-consciousness rants. 

Each of the squad members gets a cameo in which Trump openly lies about things that are easy to check on the public record.

However, none of that seems to matter to the crowds at Trump’s rallies. They cheer when he talks about his MAGA agenda; they jeer when he mentions the mainstream media and they boo, then chant “Send her back", when he talks about Ilhan Omar.

Is Trump a fascist?

Sometimes, claims of fascism or references to Nazi memes like the Nuremberg rallies are overblown.

However, there is a lot of room for comparison when you look at the footage of Trump’s rallies.

The emotional involvement of the crowd is apparent in the visceral reactions to Trump’s key talking points and the way that the few brave individuals who manage to get inside the rallies to protest are treated.

The crowds are ready to tear protestors apart and we’ve seen it many times. They revel in Trump’s vicious racism and they celebrate his legitimation of their fears and hatreds.

Well, perhaps he is coming close to embodying fascist politics. Ilhan Omar is certainly articulate about the issue in this sound bite.

Trump is rallying the troops

Trump’s rallies are heavily stage-managed to create an emotional frenzy among his hard-core supporters. It is the equivalent of ramping up frontline troops with stimulants and adrenalin before sending them onto the field of war.

It is hard not to draw a chilling parallel with scenes from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Orwell was drawing on both Hitler and Stalin when he drew his portrait of Big Brother and the Two-minute Hate rallies.

For the faithful, Trump is a benevolent Big Brother, and Ilhan Omar takes the place of arch-villain Emmanuel Goldstein, but the mood and the emotional intensity of Orwell’s fiction are clearly replicated in Trump’s campaign appearances.

Make no mistake, the battle for the soul of America has begun. It will be a campaign marked by Trump’s increasingly vitriolic white nationalist rhetoric.

Four brave young women of colour will not stop him alone. But if they can build a campaign army of their own, they and the rest of the world might just stop Trump and his repugnant politics in his tracks.

You can follow Dr Martin Hirst on Twitter @ethicalmartini.

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