On Monday evening, President Trump pressed send on a tweet declaring that in the next week, ICE would begin removing “the millions of illegal aliens” who are in the United States. This, of course, was not true. ICE deports about 7,000 immigrants per month, which is rather short of the roughly 10.5 million undocumented immigrants currently residing in the United States. The tweet, coming two days before Trump’s big reelection rally, seemed tailor-made to send Democrats into paroxysms of rage and force us into a law-and-order debate in which we stand on the side of the lawbreakers.
AOC beat Trump at his own news cycle game. Not all superheroes wear capes.
It’s not the strongest ground to stand on. But into the void stepped AOC, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). In one Instagram video, in which she called U.S. detention centers for migrants “concentration camps,” she pushed the president’s law-and-order debate to the side and, instead, forced a conversation about the inhumanity of migrant-holding conditions. When the president took the stage in Orlando to launch his bid for reelection, his speech trended on Twitter — but so too did AOC’s comments. According to Google Trends, interest in “concentration camps” reached its zenith 10 p.m. Wednesday, the time of Trump’s reelection speech. AOC beat Trump at his own news cycle game. Not all superheroes wear capes.
The way that AOC pulled off this feat is worth examining. Her tactics actually were quite Trumpian. First, she expertly stoked the flames of outrage. Not only did she label detention centers as concentration camps but she added “never again” to underscore the Nazi connection. Republicans, who can never resist a chance to take AOC’s bait, predictably pounced. This controversy set the cable news trap, and soon political panels were debating the meaning of concentration camps instead of having to engage with Trump’s law-and-order framing. As David Rothkopf pointed out, if you are explaining why your policies aren’t as bad as Auschwitz, you are losing. AOC, for her part, doubled, tripled and then quadrupled down, offering scholarly articles on concentration camps and retweeting Jewish people who lauded her comparison.
Some Democrats were comfortable with the comparison and some were not. Even Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) told CNN, “I have not used that word.” But that’s not the point. Whether it was 4-D chess or just an instinctive knack for the modern media landscape, AOC forced the debate that she wanted to have — and it was a good debate for Democrats. After all, there is no Democrat who would not concede that the conditions in which we hold migrants are abhorrent.
They despise her precisely because she communicates boldly, passionately and in a Twitter-native manner.
This wasn’t the first time that AOC grabbed hold of the news cycle and bent it to her own purposes. Her fingerprints are all over the contours of the Democratic presidential primary. Interest in the Green New Deal skyrocketed after AOC released her GND framework, and now presidential contenders are being judged by how closely they hew to that plan. She argued that a world with billionaires is immoral, and now the New York Times is asking 21 of the candidates whether anyone deserves to have a billion dollars. Remember, this is a freshman member of Congress.
I know this kind of power in the hands of a young lefty makes plenty of Democrats nervous. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) derisively referred to AOC’s Green New Deal as a “green dream.” Every time I talk to a potential Democratic donor, I get an earful about how terrible AOC is for the party. But I think they are looking at this all wrong. They are afraid that her prominence as a Democratic messenger will make it easier for Republicans to caricature Democrats as having been taken over by the “loony left.” I have news for you — they’ll do that anyway.
They’ve been using Pelosi and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and Hillary Clinton as boogeymen for years, distorting their positions and caricaturing them in a misogynistic way, and they’ll continue to do so, with or without AOC. But these donors and establishment types don’t recognize how brilliantly effective AOC is as a messenger for Democrats in the Trump era.
Trump won because he got new people to vote who normally didn’t care about politics. He galvanized the energy of his base and he made Democrats reactive, which allowed him to dominate the news cycle. He dictated the terms of the news cycle and he caused the media to fixate on him to the exclusion of the messages of other candidates and politicians — in short, he sucked the oxygen out of the room.
AOC does the same thing. Philip Bump of the Washington Post did an analysis this year showing that Fox News covers AOC more than any other Democrat besides Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). This makes Warren look more moderate, changes which ideas are acceptable in mainstream discourse, and focuses energy on what Democrats want to talk about. AOC galvanizes young people, makes the Democratic Party feel vibrant and full of ideas and cognitive diversity — and drives the GOP to distraction.
The right doesn’t dislike AOC because they fear for the future of the Democratic Party and want to save us from a messaging error. They despise her precisely because she communicates boldly, passionately and in a Twitter-native manner. When AOC talks, Republicans know they are losing.
So let’s stop worrying that we’ll be called socialists (they’d do that even if Warren Buffett were running as a Democrat). Let’s concentrate on winning the social media wars with our Twitter savant, AOC, instead of letting Liz Cheney and Sean Hannity tell us who our messenger should be.