I’ll never forget the moment I realized something bizarre was going on with American politics. It was February 2016 and I was at a Donald Trump rally in Manchester, New Hampshire. I wandered around the floor of the arena, chatting with attendees, and then it happened. A young man, maybe about 26, told me, “For me it’s a choice between Trump and Bernie Sanders.” Gobsmacked, I asked him to repeat his statement. Wouldn’t you know, I had heard him correctly.
On paper few figures appear more dissimilar than Trump and New York Democratic primary upset winner Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the self-described democratic socialist, but in terms of political style and temperament, the two have much in common. In fact, there is much overlap between these two neophyte candidates.
Both Trump and Ocasio-Cortez won primaries against the establishment in parties that didn’t want them. Both used social media as the primary tool to do an end-run around those party establishments. Both ride a wave of celebrity that propels them to larger audiences and relevance, and both espouse views that quite recently would have been disqualifying but no longer are.
Let’s consider each of these points in their turn.
The Power Of Social Media
In the few scant years it has existed, no politician, or possibly even entity of any kind, has used social media as successfully as Trump. He used it to achieve what most people thought was impossible. This mainline into the bloodstream of a body politic jonesing for quick fixes made short work of his profound GOP opponents, who, as P.G. Wodehouse would have put it, appeared to lack ginger and the stuff that wins.
Now, in 2018, it is Ocasio-Cortez who is using social media to take down the elite in her party. It was in no small part a viral video spread on Facebook and Twitter that most helped her take down the powerful Rep. Joe Crowley. Since that victory and her rise to prominence, her social media use has only grown more sophisticated and powerful.
Yesterday proved a prime example of Ocasio-Cortez’s social media strategy. In reaction to a satirical video from conservative outlet CRTV, which swapped clips from another TV show to make her appear to say things she didn’t say, this was her response:
Republicans are so scared of me that they’re faking videos and presenting them as real on Facebook because they can’t deal with reality anymore.
Here’s one bonafide truth:
Election Day is November 6th. https://t.co/Z7MfisgiWl
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) July 24, 2018
In Trumpian style, she took the attack and hit back harder, making her critics look pathetic and weak. She won the exchange in a knockout. This is Trump Social Media 101, a course that, had it been offered at Trump University, could have made that institution rival Princeton.
The Cult Of Fame
To her credit, Ocasio-Cortez is in many ways a self-made woman with a good, if exaggerated, backstory. So is Trump. Yes, he was born well off, but he was the one who invented his playboy real estate magnate persona, eventually becoming a reality TV star, then our president. He was the outer borough kid who made good in Manhattan among the elite. Now that outer borough resident is Ocasio-Cortez.
Ocasio-Cortez didn’t have the advantage of being a reality TV star, but she had the next best thing. She’s a young woman with an attractive brand that draws attention and accolades. Our society is the house in which female charisma can live.
As we found out, the going can be tough for a qualified older woman. This may sound cynical or even sexist, but there is a reason our top movie stars have always been mainly men in their 50s and women in their 20s. This is not to take away from Ocasio-Cortez’s success, merely to say she has some marketable advantages, like Trump.
Time and again during the 2016 campaign, Trump said things that most people thought were disqualifying: his remarks about David Duke, suggestion that judges of Mexican descent can’t be fair and honest, and eventually his thoughts on what famous men are allowed to grab. But so desperate, it turned out, were the people for change that norms were abandoned and he paid little political price.
Not so long ago, praising socialism was a similar third rail in American politics. The idea that the federal government would become a kind of parent of the people, paying for them and setting the rules of the household, was a nonstarter. Yet the genocidal horrors of Marxism and mortal threat of the Soviet Union seem like old timey ideas now. That was then. Maybe it will work this time.
To conservatives who laugh and say, “Go ahead, progressives, vote for the socialist,” I’d urge caution. Plenty of progressives said, “Go ahead, conservatives, vote for the guy with the arguably racist rhetoric.” As the old saying goes, who’s laughing now?
The greatest fear conservatives should have about Ocasio-Cortez is that she will normalize Marxism in a way that even Sanders never could have dreamed of. Sander’s socialism is also something of a different breed, one that at least nominally places value on individual rights. Ocasio-Cortez has not been clear about any fidelity to the Constitution and its protections. She may well believe in a central government that makes Sander’s vision look like an Ayn Rand novel.
As I learned in New Hampshire, what feels like several decades ago now, the appeal of Trump, Sanders, and Ocasio-Cortez is based less in a belief that they have the answers, and more in a belief that the status quo is broken beyond repair and we need something — anything — new. This is a dangerous attitude that makes little sense given the peace, prosperity, and wellbeing most Americans enjoy today.
Ocasio-Cortez is 28 years old and is about to win a congressional seat in a district more blue than Billie Holiday at a funeral. She could hold the seat for half a century. The question is whether she will bring her party along with her into the philosophy of Marx. There is a good chance she can. Trump’s great success is good reason for us to worry she can be very successful doing that nationally.