When President Donald Trump tweeted a video of Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) spliced among images of the Twin Towers collapsing, everybody knew the deal. Trump has one political play ― aggravated racism ― and he had decided to make Omar, a Somali refugee who came to the United States as a child, the public focal point of his hate.
Trump is going to do horrible racist stuff. It’s what he does. But there are a lot of black and brown Democrats in Congress. Trump picked on Omar because Democratic leadership had spent much of the previous two months trying to figure out the correct way to dump on her.
Omar had offended Jewish members of the caucus with comments about Israel that were legitimately insensitive, but not exactly a national crisis. When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) surprised her caucus by telling them they would be voting on a resolution that condemned Omar by name, uproar ensued. Why were Democrats singling out one of their own over some stray tweets when the president was putting brown children in cages, ranting about immigrants from “shithole countries” and standing up for the “fine people” who marched with Nazis in Charlottesville? Was the man running the executive branch of the most powerful nation on earth the problem, or a random House freshman?
Democrats eventually split the baby, voting to condemn anti-Semitism and Islamophobia (phew!) ― but Pelosi had exposed a weak spot. Seeing the caucus divided over Omar, Trump attacked. She was deluged with death threats, and Democrats didn’t know what to do.
Somehow neither Pelosi nor her caucus learned anything from this debacle. They’re still complaining about Omar, and whining to the press about how they don’t really want to have to vote against the awful things the most powerful man on the planet does.
Pelosi spent much of the past month painting targets on the backs of Omar and three other freshman Democrats: Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.). She badmouthed them to New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, and when they fired back, she held caucus meeting to denounce them again for tweeting their complaints. Two days later, House leadership violated this new no-mean-tweeting rule to attack Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff from the official @HouseDemocrats Twitter feed.
Trump, correctly reading the room, pounced again. He attacked all four in a racist Twitter rant on Sunday, telling them to “go back to their country.” When Pelosi finally got her members to vote for a resolution condemning the president’s remarks, a crop of House Democrats immediately went to CNN’s Jake Tapper to complain under cover of anonymity that they really hated having to vote about Trump and were still mad at the Squad.
Their complaints? They wish Ocasio-Cortez hadn’t described the prison camps at the border where children are dying and refugees are being ritually humiliated as “concentration camps.” One Democrat complained that singling out Trump for criticism was unfair when Democrats had failed to legislatively condemn Omar back in the spring. “We couldn’t even bring ourselves to have a resolution exclusively condemning anti-Semitism uttered by one of those members,” this brave Democrat told Tapper, “but we leapt to their defense here.”
Once again, Trump got the message. Shortly after Tapper posted all of this stuff, Trump held a rally in North Carolina where he assailed all four House members, inspiring a terrifying chant of “Send her back!” referring to Omar.
Democrats aren’t going to agree on everything. No political party ever does. They have ideological disputes, generational divides, whatever. But House Democrats haven’t been debating. For months now, they’ve been directing a fascist feeding frenzy toward four women of color.
In her press conference after the vote, Pelosi told reporters her caucus would be focused on its domestic policy agenda through the summer. The plan is to send a message to voters about the Democratic Party’s priorities, while her members do everything in their power to ignore whatever Trump says or does.
At least, that’s what Pelosi seemed to be saying some of the time. At other moments she appeared to say that Trump really had a point about how zany Democrats really are: “We all know the argument that can be made against us in terms of our philosophy, in terms of our priorities,” Pelosi said, before trailing off about “our ideals,” “the Constitution,” “separation of powers,” “Article 1,” “a nation of immigrants,” “we the people,” and for some reason, “Make America Great Again.”
Democrats do need a positive economic message, and it does need to be better than whatever Pelosi was talking about on Wednesday. It will be important for winning those Rust Belt states Hillary Clinton lost in 2016 ― states including Michigan, which just elected Tlaib. But the party’s 2020 presidential nominee will determine that agenda, not the message bills that the House decides to clear over the next six months.
What the House can do is communicate to voters whether Trump is a problem. Trump tried to make the midterm elections a referendum on some supposedly nefarious migrant “caravan” filled with terrorists and criminals waiting to brutalize white America. Republicans lost 41 seats, including previous GOP strongholds in Orange County, California, and Oklahoma City. Those voters weren’t parsing white papers about pre-existing conditions. They were voting against Trump and what he stands for.
The 2020 election, like all of American politics in the coming year, will be about deciding who stands with the people shouting “send her back!” and who stands against them. House Democrats need to figure out which side they’re on.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated Rep. Ayanna Pressley’s affiliation as Michigan; her district is in Massachusetts.