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.
Read: How Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s plain black jacket became a controversy
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.