Ocasio-Cortez’s racism charge shows Pelosi at risk of being devoured by the revolution
This week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) discovered the greatest peril of unleashing a revolution: The transformation from revolutionary to reactionary is always just one political cycle away.
Pelosi began the week throwing Molotov sound bites at President Donald Trump, including the allegation that what he really wants is “to make America white again.” It was only the latest example of Democrats ramping up racial rhetoric for the 2020 elections. By week’s end, it was Pelosi who was being labeled as a racist after Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) accused her of “explicit singling out of newly elected women of color.” Worse yet for Pelosi, it was Trump who came to her defense, chastising Ocasio-Cortez for disrespecting Pelosi and insisting that the Speaker is not a racist.
In the meantime, Ocasio-Cortez has continued to be supported by groups such as Our Revolution and has described herself as a new “American revolutionary” to forge a government truly based on the people.
This is why French journalist Jacques Mallet du Pan famously observed during the French Revolution that “like Saturn, the Revolution devours its children.” Many of Ocasio-Cortez’s supporters already have attacked former Vice President Joe Biden, the party’s presidential front-runner, on race-based issues, from his opposition to school busing as a U.S. senator to his work with segregationists in the Senate. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) fueled such attacks in the last Democratic debate.
The Democratic Party has long relied on identity politics to balkanize the voter base and appeal to each group to oppose Republicans. Race, however, has always been carefully handled to avoid inflaming public sentiment. That restraint has been lost in the “age of rage” known as the Trump administration. From the outset, Democrats have portrayed Trump as pandering to white nationalists and racists with his controversial Charlottesville comments and his immigration policies. Even Trump’s signature symbol — the MAGA (Make America Great Again) hat — has been denounced as racist and “triggering.” Numerous Trump supporters have been attacked for wearing the hats.
Last week, Gonzaga University School of Law visiting law professor Jeffrey Omari wrote a column in the ABA Journal that offered an almost breathless account of his encounter with raw racism in his class: a student wearing a MAGA hat. Omari states matter of factly that the hats are meant to advance “racial antagonism” as “an undeniable symbol of white supremacy and hatred toward certain nonwhite groups.” He recounted the moment with the same sense of danger as if the student was wearing a live cougar on his head: “As my blood boiled inwardly, outwardly I remained calm.” Yet, he not only concluded that “this student was indeed trying to intimidate and/or racially antagonize me” but that “I understood that my lack of tenure, precarious status as a [visiting professor] and the hue of my skin meant that I would be fighting an uphill battle should I have asked the student to remove his distracting red hat during class.”
Of course, it would have been an “uphill battle” to ask for the removal of just that hat unless he asked for the removal of all hats and clothing of all political viewpoints, from pro-antifa to pro-choice to pro-NRA.
Omari assumed that his interpretation of the hat (which is not shared by many) was manifestly true. This is part of the trend on today’s campuses, where speech is being curtailed as racist or “microaggressive” based on how it is perceived by others rather than how it is intended. In this case, the hat has different meanings to different people. Yet it was deemed racist because Omari considered it to be racist.
Omari survived his harrowing encounter, and Gonzaga University School of Law issued a meaningless, cowering statement that “this situation presents an opportunity for our community to listen to and learn from each other.” The faculty, however, failed to note what should be learned from “this situation,” particularly about free speech on campus. Instead, they avoided taking a stand on the right of political expression. If other campuses are any example, they will soon find themselves facing insatiable demands for greater and greater speech regulation.
Such refusals to take responsibility on campus has resulted in schools yielding control to students who have shut down classes and speakers with impunity.
Democratic members of Congress are doing the same with their party as they seek to use radical movements to their advantage while struggling to maintain control. It is Ocasio-Cortez — not Pelosi — who is being courted by candidates such as Sens. Harris, Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who also have courted young socialists. Ocasio-Cortez has rejected the “middle ground” of Democratic candidates on issues such as climate change, and candidates are moving to “join the revolution.” Of course, the French revolutionaries eventually suffered the same fate as the aristocrats, including the infamous Robespierre, who found both his political and physical stature cut short by the guillotine.
That evolution already has started, with young House members portraying Pelosi as an all-devouring Saturn. Ocasio-Cortez has accused Pelosi of burying her in committee work to keep her from agitating or advocating in public. Other members such as Rep. Wm. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) called Ocasio-Cortez “juvenile” and said her “ignorance is beyond belief.” Clay added that she and other young members need “maturing” and accused them of lacking “sensitivity to racism.” Another Democratic source called Ocasio-Cortez “a fraud” as attacks mount from leadership. In January, when “mature” Democrats objected to Ocasio-Cortez’s demeanor — including her dancing videos — fellow freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) said, “If we can’t dance it’s not our revolution.”
In the end, burying “Les Enfants” in work may not be enough to keep them from dancing or agitating — at least if Greek mythology is any measure. The Titan Cronus (whom the Romans denoted as Saturn) was afraid his offspring would overthrow him. Accordingly, as each child was born, he ate them. Cronus’s wife hid her child Zeus (or Jupiter to the Romans) while feeding Cronus a large stone wrapped in swaddling clothes. Zeus grew up, overthrew Cronus, and forced him to regurgitate his siblings, who in turn defeated the Titans and threw them into the pit of Tartarus.
The pit of Tartarus, in this case, may be the 2020 elections. Pelosi has previously lost the House majority but has repeatedly refused to yield power. Moreover, the Democratic leadership has changed very little despite successive elections showing an overwhelming dislike for the establishment. Instead, Pelosi has hoped to absorb the revolution. Yet as Cronus vividly shows, devouring revolutionaries is rarely successful. They have a habit of, well, coming back up.
If Pelosi cannot devour the revolution, she could well be devoured by it. She’s no racist — but such distinctions mean little in this revolutionary moment.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.