President Donald Trump descended to a new low in obviously targeting, in mid-July, four lady members of the United States Congress (all non-white or, as the Americans now say ‘persons of colour’) collectively and popularly called the Squad. Trump tweeted that “Progressive Democratic Congresswomen” who come from countries with “catastrophic” governments were telling the United States, the “greatest and most powerful Nation on earth” how its government should be run. He viciously added “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they come”. And as a final kick he said “…you can’t leave fast enough…”. Interestingly, three of the four congresswomen are US born and the fourth is a naturalised US citizen.
Some days later, he also targeted Elijah Cummings, a black veteran member of the same chamber, again shamelessly, in a thinly veiled racist attack. He said that Cummings black-majority constituency in Maryland state was “filthy” and “rat and rodent infested”. Later, he condemned the corruption which Cummings had presumably permitted because he has represented the constituency since 1996. It appears that Trump was angered because Cummings as chairman of the powerful Oversight committee of Congress had condemned the condition of the government run detention centres on the US-Mexico border for illegal migrants.
That these were manifestations of Trump’s prejudices which, ironically, he proudly flaunts, for they appeal to his retrogressive support base, is undeniable. But by raising them, at this stage, has he virtually begun his election campaign about sixteen months before polling day in November 2020? Before that question is briefly addressed a word on the four congresswomen.
The four ladies are all members of the Democratic party and first time members of Congress. Their personal and political journeys have been spectacular by any universal yardstick. Consider:
Ilhan Omar, a 36-year-old, Somali origin naturalised American citizen. Her family fled the horrors accompanying the collapse of the Somali state when she was a child. She spent four years in a refugee camp in Kenya and reached the US in 1992. She went through school and college wearing the hijab which she dons today too; she suffered slights in school and college for doing so. She worked on the staff of Minnesota state legislators and in 2016 became a member of the state legislature herself. Two years later she was accepted by the Democratic party as its candidate in the 2018 US Congress elections which she won with 77% votes becoming one of two Muslim members of the chamber.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez a third generation American of Puerto Rico origin; at 29 she became the youngest ever woman member of Congress. She initially ran her campaign while still working as a waitress. She defeated a ten term powerful congressman to win the Democratic party nomination. The event is now part of American political folklore. That victory also made her a social media sensation.
Ayanna Pressley, 45, the first black woman congresswomen from Massachusetts defeated a congressman of twenty years standing to win the primary in a Democratic party stronghold constituency. Pressley has been a political worker with long experience of working on the staff of legislators including Senator John Kerry.
Rashida Tlaib a 43 year-old second generation Palestinian-American Muslim lady, the daughter of working class parents. She worked with politicians and served in the Michigan state legislature. She decided to contest when John Conyers who became a congressman in 1965 decided to retire in 2017. She served the remainder of his term and was elected in 2018.
All four congresswomen staunchly oppose Trump’s narrow agenda on domestic issues. They differ on his immigration, health and education policies and want America to be a more equitable country. They are also vocal on gender issues and criticise Trump for being a misogynist. What perhaps Trump irks most is that they consider him racist at, as Ilhan said, a racialized time in the US.
The four congresswomen, especially Ilhan and Tlaib, are also critical of Trump’s foreign policy, especially in West Asia. They have condemned the approaches and actions of strong US allies—Israel and Saudi Arabia—and of continuing US support for them. In particular, Ilhan has provoked the anger of the powerful Israeli lobby in the US, Trump and even senior Democrats for hinting at the financial support extended by Jewish organisations to the US politicians. Recently, Tlaib and Ilhan have also supported the movement that calls for the boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. As support for Israel is a corner stone of US policy since World War 2 they have become easy targets for Trump. Significantly, all the four have condemned Saudi involvement in the Yemen civil war.
In resorting to racist comments against the squad and Elijah Cummings Trump is directly pandering to the emotions of his base. The fact that the four were elected, although from safe Democratic seats, shows that there is a strong body of US opinion that does not subscribe to Caucasian prejudices against people of colour and are liberal and open. The current American tragedy is that instead of seeking to bind the country Trump is feeding its polarisation. In doing so through these racist taunts and also raising the issue of corruption in the context of Cummings predominantly black constituency Trump is reinforcing Caucasian prejudice that black people are lazy and corrupt.
Certainly, it seems that his re-election bid will be rooted in his divisive agenda and that the campaign is now beginning although the formal election season will kick off some months later.