Politics

Trump’s Racist Tweets Paused House Democrats’ Infighting. Only Nancy Pelosi Can Stop It.

Side-by-side images of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, facing away from one another
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Win McNamee/Getty Images.

It took a while, but President Donald Trump bailed House Democrats out of their seemingly interminable family feud this weekend by belching out a racist tweetstorm prior to his Sunday golf outing. In recommending that Reps. Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Rashida Tlaib, “who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe … go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came,” Trump reoriented the House Democratic caucus toward its broader purpose: opposition to him and his dangerous ideas.

It takes no small amount of skill to get, say, the centrist co-chair of the Problem Solvers Caucus, Rep. Josh Gottheimer, rising in defense of his four progressive Democratic colleagues who comprise “the Squad.” But our president has a way with words. Over the course of a weekend, the political conversation shifted from whether the House Democratic majority was collapsing from the inside to whether Republicans will speak up against their president’s latest tirade. Statements from Republican members of Congress about the president’s remarks only began trickling out Monday morning, and additional members will be asked whether they consider Trump’s tweets racist when Congress returns for the week.
And, as Speaker Nancy Pelosi told her colleagues Monday morning, the chamber will also be voting on a resolution condemning them. While a resolution condemning tweets is, as a legislative mechanism, exactly as toothless as “a resolution condemning tweets” sounds, it will give Democrats an opportunity to put Republicans on the record either for or against their party leader’s most recent thumbed outburst.

What neither racist presidential tweets nor the resolutions condemning them will do, however, is permanently resolve the ugly rift that grew between Pelosi, “the Squad,” and their respective subordinates. Instead, that tension will be repressed and materialize later, likely whenever House Democrats face their next setback.

I did not imagine, when I was writing about this train wreck a week ago, that the intraparty issue would have remained live and escalated as it did. After a July Fourth recess week in which Progressive Caucus members (and staffers) tweeted some harsh insults at their more moderate, vulnerable colleagues, Pelosi told the caucus in a private meeting last Wednesday to keep their conflicts to themselves. “You got a complaint? You come and talk to me about it,” she said. “But do not tweet about our members and expect us to think that that is just OK.” She also told her progressive colleagues not to “make our Blue Dogs and our New Dems the target in all of this,” referring to the more centrist Democratic member groups, “because we have important fish to fry.”

But telling progressive members not to tweet disparagingly about their moderate colleagues is a big ask when you, the speaker, have made disparaging remarks of your own about “the Squad” to Maureen Dowd. Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, Pressley and Tlaib put up with months of casual dismissiveness from Pelosi because, as Ocasio-Cortez correctly surmised, “I kind of thought that she was keeping the progressive flank at more of an arm’s distance in order to protect more moderate members, which I understood.” But after the Dowd column, Ocasio-Cortez told the Washington Post, “the persistent singling out … got to a point where it was just outright disrespectful … the explicit singling out of newly elected women of color.”

The suggestion that there might have been a racial element to Pelosi’s “explicit singling out” did not go over well with Pelosi’s allies inside and outside the House. By the end of the week, whichever staffer in Rep. Hakeem Jeffries’ office runs the House Democratic caucus Twitter account was accusing Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff, Saikat Chakrabarti, of racist tweets as well.

Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff, Drew Hammill, retweeted that missive and explained to the Washington Post that he did so “in my personal capacity as a gay man who was bullied and beaten in high school.” Meanwhile, Dowd was back with a new column that featured Rahm Emanuel, former Chicago mayor and White House chief of staff, calling Chakrabarti a “snot-nosed punk.”

And then, just as we were about to flip to a brand new week of ever-pettier displays from the Dems, Trump—incapable of following the simple political rule that you shouldn’t interfere with your opponents while they’re busy destroying themselves, because he fears he might dissolve into nothingness if the spotlight isn’t on him for more than a few days—vomited some racism into the mix.

What’s a little disturbing—not “oh wow, the sitting president is tweeting unconstrained racism on a Sunday morning and this is his reelection strategy”–level disturbing, but disturbing in its own way—was how this intra-Democratic conflict showed no signs of petering out until Trump stepped all over it. While I’ve reported on plenty on internal party conflicts—the Freedom Caucus vs. Paul Ryan, for example—usually individual flare-ups don’t linger unresolved for two weeks, because someone has the perspicacity to recognize the problem and attend to it.

And that someone should have been the leader, Nancy Pelosi. While none of the parties involved in this dispute covered themselves in glory, the speaker was noticeably absent in treating an open wound. It’s not hard to schedule a private meeting to clear the air or to not insult your own members, in the first place, while brunching with Maureen Dowd. The lack of such discipline suggested that Pelosi’s top concern was putting these outspoken members in their place, and taking their outspoken staffers off the federal payroll, rather than containing the damage. Ego took over.

With major votes coming later this year and a spirited primary underway, tensions between progressives, moderates, and the leaders who’ve prioritized protecting the latter in 2020 as their No. 1 goal will boil regularly. If the caucus wants to appear cohesive during these delicate fights, some trust-building is in order. Relying on Trump to flip news cycles by going on a racist rant is—well, it’s very reliable. But it’s not healthy.