Twitter has become policy. It is platform, direction and determination. It has served one particular person well, a hazy mechanism to fog up the lenses of law makers. When President Donald Trump needs an air-wave filling distraction, a bilious splurge of interest in the blogosphere, he is always happy to lob a grenade of 280 characters or so. His targets and recipients oblige in an unsettling dance. Speeches are made, press galleries filled and resolutions submitted to Congress.
Trump’s last round of fired remarks found their targets in Representatives Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan. They were not mentioned by name, but presumption can be all powerful. “So interesting to see ‘Progressive’ Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all), now loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run.” Then came his none-too constructive suggestion: “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”
While his remarks against “The Squad” are in characteristic poor taste, not to mention inaccurate (three of the representatives were born in the United States) they remain characteristic, brutish panto and all part of the boundless show that is Trumpism. They are not designed to convert the unconverted or convince the unsure with rhetorical sharpness or insight. Anti-Trump and pro-Trump lines are firmed, concretely paved for the next election. The issue, till then, is merely to occupy space with venom and fury, to divide and hope that the house will fall when the votes are tallied.
Such space of distraction assumes a few forms, all ultimately lending false credibility to incendiary smatterings. Words are broken down, assumptions unpacked. Were his words racist? Yes, claim some. Did he articulate a substantive vision? Most certainly, go others. (House Speaker Nancy Pelosi deemed them “xenophobic”.) For Omar, Trump’s words are programmatic, “a blatantly racist attack on four duly elected members of the United States House of Representatives, all of whom are women of colour. This is an agenda of white nationalists.”
President Barack Obama’s chief election strategist David Axelrod, similarly sees a program, albeit encased in a trap, with Trump wanting “to raise the profile of his targets, drive Dems to defend them and make them emblematic of the entire party. It’s a cold, hard strategy.” The none-too-implicit suggestion here is that the quartet risk being hung out to dry come 2020 by the party strategists.
In solidarity, the four representatives expressed their marshalled outrage, all the time attempting to give a sense of elevated fury to the garbage gilded twittersphere while denying its enduring relevance. Omar fell for the laid bait on the issue of impeachment, claiming on Monday that “it is time for us to impeach this president” having “openly” violated his constitutional oath.
The quartet managed to get up a House resolution, passed by 240 to 187 votes, condemning Trump for “racist comments that have legitimised fear and hatred of New Americans and people of colour”. The resolution, for good measure, also praised the value immigrants had brought to the United States. Trump ventured his own view. “I don’t have a racist bone in my body.”
The show delighted commentators dazzled by the fireworks. It was seen as historic, because it was the first time in over a century a President had received such a vote of disapproval. But it was true polarising fodder for the Trump administration, bound to inflict indigestion for anybody keen to seek a united stance. Division reigned; disorder prevailed and the representatives stuck to firmly etched party lines, with the exception of four Republicans who crossed the floor.
Democrat Representative John Lewis, Democrat from Georgia, spoke of knowing racism when seeing it and feeling it “and at the highest level of government”. Pelosi claimed that to not condemn Trump’s words “would be a shocking rejection of our values and a shameful abdication of our oath of office to protect the American people.”
Representative Dan Meuser, Republican of Pennsylvania, was ill-tempered in response, insisting that the whole show had been a “ridiculous slander” which did a “disservice to our nation”. “What has really happened here is that the president and his supporters have been forced to endure months of allegations of racism.”
Republicans slanted their attack on procedural improprieties, less on the nature of Trump’s words than the behaviour of their Democrat colleagues, who they regarded as impugning the motives of the President. A failed effort was made to excise any suggestive words from the House Speaker’s record in accordance with the Jefferson Manual, a text authored by Thomas Jefferson in 1801. Quaintly if revealingly, the manual states that “references to racial or other discrimination on the part of the President are not in order.” Appalled by the bickering and disagreement, Representative Emanuel Cleaver II, Democrat of Missouri, banged the gavel and took his leave. “We just want to fight.”
While the president versus squad show was boiling over, an arguably more significant resolution failed to gather the numbers. Sponsored by Representative Al Green, Democrat from Texas, the measure seeking to impeach Trump in light of his comments on the four representatives, failed by 332 votes to 95. Bigotry, argued Green, was “a high crime and misdemeanour.”
The president, while publicly condemning the exercise as “time consuming”, would have been heartened: the squabbling Democrats may well have been united in their rebuke of the president’s tweets, but such consensus was momentary. In Pelosi’s words, “We have six committees working on following the facts in terms of any abuse of power, obstruction of justice and the rest that the president may have engaged in”. With unwitting comedic effect, the House Speaker found herself claiming that to be “the serious path we’re on – not that Mr Green is not serious, but we’ll deal with that on the floor.” And dealt with it they did, putting the pro-impeachment Democrats back into their crammed box.