The Exceptions to the Rulers

When people of color enter elite spaces, they’re often attacked as undeserving charlatans. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is no different.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Joshua Roberts / Reuters

Conservatives’ obsession with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez may seem ridiculous. Ever since the 29-year-old former bartender wrested the Democratic primary nomination from the 10-term incumbent Joe Crowley, right-wing media has fixated on the unapologetically left-wing representative. From her clothes to her nickname to her high school to her childhood home, conservatives seem particularly intent on proving that her working-class background is fraudulent.

Some of the frenzy is rooted in sexism—conservative pundits have referred to Ocasio-Cortez as a “little girl,” and openly fantasized about going on a “date or two” with her. Some of it has to do with her politics—she recently suggested taxing income above $10 million at 70 percent, anathema to conservatives (but hardly as radical as they wish it were). She is an effective avatar of the rising left: a young, working-class person of color who is fluent in the culture of the internet and, unusually for a Democrat with a national profile, not easily spooked by criticism from the right. It is not surprising that conservatives would oppose Ocasio-Cortez; her politics are opposed to theirs. But that fails to explain the degree of interest she has drawn from her right-wing critics since winning the primary last year.

Distinct from the mainstream press’s fact-checks of Ocasio-Cortez’s errors or exaggerations, the attempts to discredit her personal history are related to a core argument of the Donald Trump–era Republican Party. “The Democrat Party’s vision is to offer them free health care, free welfare, free education and even the right to vote,” warned Trump just before the 2018 midterms, speaking of Central American migrants seeking asylum. “You and the hardworking taxpayers of our country will be asked to pick up the entire tab.” Broad-based prosperity for white Americans, Trump contends, would be within reach, if people of color and their white liberal allies had not restructured society so that undeserving minorities succeed at their expense.

Trump’s unlikely election victory in 2016 was in large part fueled by anger and nostalgia, and the fear of many white Americans that their political and cultural dominance of the United States was coming to an end, usurped by the diverse coalition that elected the first black president. Two years after Trump’s upset victory, the backlash against him elected the most diverse Congress in history. More than simply a leftist to be opposed, Ocasio-Cortez has joined Barack Obama as a focus of the very same fear and anger that elected Trump in the first place. She represents the prospect of a more progressive, diverse America where those who were once deprived of power and influence can shape the course of the nation and its politics. The story of her family’s working-class roots in the Bronx is both specific enough to be compelling and universal enough for anyone, including many voters in Trump’s base, to relate to. And that’s precisely why her story, like Obama’s, must be discredited.

The focus on undeserving minorities receiving unearned benefits at white expense is not an incidental element of modern Republican politics; it is crucial to the GOP’s electoral strategy of dividing working-class voters along racial lines.

The idea that undeserving people of color are stealing money or recognition from the deserving  predates Trump, of course. It has been a feature of American politics since the country’s founding. The poetry of the young enslaved woman Phillis Wheatley was assumed to be fraudulent because her intelligence undermined the basic assumption of chattel slavery, that black people were not truly human. After Frederick Douglass wrote his first autobiography, a critic who knew one of Douglass’s owners insisted that the famed orator was “not capable of writing the Narrative” and that “there are no such barbarities committed on their plantations.”

More recently, the election of Barack Obama provoked a fierce backlash on the right, one that manifested in one conspiracy theory after another meant to prove Obama was a fraud. Conservatives became fixated on proving that the first black president did not write his autobiography, that he was functionally illiterate absent a teleprompter, and that his admission to elite universities was the unearned result of affirmative action, despite his graduating magna cum laude from Harvard Law.

Even after Obama was elected, conservative pundits argued that Obama wasn’t “really popular” because he maintained sky-high support among black voters—who, they implied, should count less. The underlying argument behind the claim, no matter how mundane or outlandish, was that being black confers unearned benefits rather than systemic obstacles to be overcome. Obama became the living, breathing symbol of the narrative that undeserving people of color were being elevated even as hardworking white people were being left behind. In a country where most wealthy CEOs, legislators, governors, presidents, justices, and judges are white Christian men, Republicans believe whites and Christians face more discrimination than anyone else.

What this narrative is meant to obscure is the reality that American policy making has not created some nightmare inversion of power between white people and ethnic minorities, but a landscape of harrowing inequality where people are forced to beg strangers for money on the internet to pay their medical bills. Upward mobility is stagnant; those who are born rich, die rich, and those who are born poor, die poor. Real wages have risen painfully slowly for decades; housing, particularly in urban centers, is unaffordable; and young people are saddled with skyrocketing student debt for educations that did not provide the opportunities they were supposed to.

These trends are even more pronounced for people of color, who have historically been excluded from government efforts to help Americans build wealth. The entirety of the Republican Party’s response to this situation during its two years of unified control of the federal government was a failed effort to slash health-care coverage for millions and a successful effort to cut taxes on the wealthy. The GOP needs a different story to tell about what’s wrong with the country, and the one about people of color living lavishly at the expense of white people who work hard and play by the rules is an old classic.

In America, when people of color succeed despite the limits placed on them, and use their newfound status to indict the system for holding others back, they are held up as proof that the limits do not exist, they are denounced as ingrates, or they are pilloried as frauds incapable of the successes attributed to them. The exception is if they present their success as evidence that the structural barriers are not as great as they seem, and that in truth the only thing that holds back marginalized communities is their own lack of ability or motivation. If they affirm the righteousness of the class and caste system that they defied to succeed, they are hailed as heroes by the same people who would otherwise have denounced them as frauds.

The election of the most diverse Congress in history, and the presence of outspoken women of color in a chamber that has been dominated by white men for most of its existence, was bound to provoke these responses. When people of color enter elite spaces, they make those with unearned advantages conscious of how they’ve been favored by the system. That poses a choice to those whose access to such cloistered communities is unquestioned: They can recognize that others might also succeed given the right circumstances, or they can defend the inequities of that system in an effort to preserve their self-image, attacking the new entrant as a charlatan or the group they belong to as backwards.

Trump is president in large part because of his ability to speak to this insecurity. The New York real-estate mogul’s embrace of the conspiracy theory that Obama was not born in America, and was therefore an illegitimate president, was crucial to his rise in the Republican Party. During the 2016 campaign, for every problem America faced, Trump found an enemy, an outsider to blame: Latino immigrants stealing jobs and lowering wages, Muslims engaging in terrorism, black men committing crimes. Then there were the white liberals, such as Elizabeth Warren, whose claim to American Indian heritage was touted as proof that the system is rigged to the advantage of undeserving people of color—so much so that even white liberals seek to get in on the scam. Part of the reason Republicans have continued to taunt Warren with the slur “Pocahontas” over the protests of Native communities is because the falsehood that Warren obtained her professorship at Harvard by claiming to be a person of color reminds the GOP base that they are being fleeced by the unworthy.

The unworthy, in this case, are not the legislators and their wealthy benefactors who have worked tirelessly for decades to concentrate wealth and power in the hands of a few, at the expense of American welfare and democracy. Rather, they are marginalized communities and their white liberal allies, who maintain a corrupt spoils system for black and brown people at the expense of hardworking white Americans. As long as rank-and-file Republicans are focused on these supposed villains, they won’t realize who is being conned, and who is trying to con them. And it isn’t Ocasio-Cortez.