It has become the conventional wisdom that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) has become a rising star in part by copying the tactics of President Trump. But there can be only one. Ocasio-Cortez is not Trump, and she is only beginning to learn her Trumpian tactics pose significant risks to her personal and ideological ambitions.
Both Trump and Ocasio-Cortez are partly creatures of the media, but the differences between them are considerable. Trump spent decades building his public profile. Trump descended a golden escalator into the Republican primaries having reached tens of millions on NBC’s “The Apprentice” and between two and three million followers on Twitter.
The establishment media covered Trump far in excess of the typical frontrunner because he was too big to ignore, someone who draws eyes, ears and clicks in mass quantities––and they thought he would lose. Trump won, so he cannot be ignored, and the dysfunctional but profitable co-dependency between him and the media continues.
In contrast, Ocasio-Cortez had little to no mass media coverage before her surprise primary win over Rep. Joe Crowley. She has only the social media following––impressive for a politician, but overrated by journalists who spend too much time on social media themselves, especially Twitter. When Trump had a few million Twitter followers, the vast majority of Americans learned about his tweets through the media.
Likewise, media exposure is how most Americans learned about Ocasio-Cortez. She receives excessive attention because she has charisma and the media (quite possibly wrongly) believes she (and people like her) are the future of the Democratic Party. So does Ocasio-Cortez, which is why she has gotten so high on her own media supply.
Media Is Water to Ocasio-Cortez and Oxygen to Trump
But the establishment media does not depend on Ocasio-Cortez as they do Trump. To the contrary, Ocasio-Cortez poses a threat to the media that so far has gone unrecognized by both.
When Trump attacks the media, it largely fits in a comfortable partisan frame from which both benefit. Trump scores points with the right; his targets pose as martyrs and let negative partisanship drive the left into their arms. This dynamic is increasingly important to establishment media, which now depends on the support of liberal audiences––in terms of subscriptions, niche marketing, and otherwise––as technological disruption wreaks havoc on bottom lines throughout the journalism industry.
Ocasio-Cortez has begun attacking the establishment media from the left. Those attacks––coming from a fellow traveler and media crush––will carry far more weight with the core audiences of The New York Times and The Washington Post and be far more corrosive of their business model than whatever Trump has to say.
The Deplatforming Question
At some point, the media may look up from their hourly traffic charts long enough to recognize this longer-term threat. Then they will weigh de-platforming Ocasio-Cortez. The only thing worse for Ocasio-Cortez than getting criticized by The Washington Post would be getting ignored by that same paper of record. If the media comes to see her as an ignorant antagonist, she could easily become yesterday’s news, dismissed like other backbenchers and cranks within the House Democratic caucus.
Certainly, House Democratic leadership recognizes the similar problems Ocasio-Cortez has created or could create for them. And they have reacted more swiftly and effectively against her threats to primary Democratic incumbents than the GOP establishment did to Trump’s steamrollering of his rivals in 2016.
At her peak of hubris, Ocasio-Cortez cheekily quoted Rorschach’s prison challenge from “Watchmen” to her fellow Democrats:
To quote Alan Moore: “None of you understand. I'm not locked up in here with YOU. You're locked up in here with ME.” 🤣 https://t.co/8TCmKNJlkD
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) January 11, 2019
In reality, Ocasio-Cortez is very much locked in the House with Nancy Pelosi, who was already queen of the cell bloc when Ocasio-Cortez was dancing around Boston University. Anyone who just watched Pelosi ruthlessly crush the internal opposition to her re-election as speaker should realize she hasn’t lost a step. Pelosi will shank someone with a shiv and then use it to clean her nails.
Ocasio-Cortez’s imitation of Trump contributed to her losing her campaign for a seat on the Ways and Means committee. Moreover, Pelosi has gelded the special committee on climate change that Ocasio-Cortez hoped would launch her pet project, the Green New Deal. This is what happens after Ocasio-Cortez joins a climate change protest in the speaker’s office.
Nancy Pelosi’s Not-So-Subtle Revenge
Instead, Ocasio-Cortez landed on Oversight and Financial Services. The message to Ocasio-Cortez––stick to attacking Trump and scaring Wall Street––is not subtle. She will ignore it at her own peril.
Granted, Financial Services can be a choice assignment for the typical Democrat, who can collect a war chest of protection money from the industry. But Ocasio-Cortez is not the typical Democrat. The colleagues she has crossed may quietly notify the media if the darling of democratic socialism betrays her ideals by suckling at the teats of big banks, hedge funds, and private equity firms.
Nevertheless, this passes for relatively good treatment from Pelosi, who undoubtedly recognizes Ocasio-Cortez can be a valuable asset, provided she behaves herself. Ocasio-Cortez sometimes seems to be taking to heart the advice from Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-NY) not to go against the family––and now complains when the press brings up her past support for primary challenges to Democratic incumbents.
Yet she still seems to be flirting with the idea in private, like a moth to a flame. Ocasio-Cortez also managed to squeeze some late-night TV publicity out of her conflict with her colleagues. She should realize leadership still has plenty of screws to turn. Ultimately, she should be thinking about the wisdom of making enemies in her own party given the near-certainty New York loses a House seat after the 2020 census.
If people are looking to compare Ocasio-Cortez to Trump, their main similarity is that both were, in some way, outsiders arriving at the Capitol with grand ambitions of changing it. President Trump has discovered how tough it is to drain the swamp in a city built on a swamp. Ocasio-Cortez is not the president, and she is not Trump. She seems determined to learn these lessons the hard way.