Recently, Donald Trump attacked four progressive young women of color in Congress affectionately known as The Squad, saying they should “go back” to the countries they came from. At a Trump rally soon after, a frenzied crowd chanted “send her back” as a call to arms against Minnesota freshman Congresswoman Ilhan Omar.
It’s chilling. But the reality that the president was factually wrong—three of them are actually native-born Americans—is not the point. What he was doing was deliberate and we need to be crystal clear about it.
This isn’t the first time in our history that people in power have tried to characterize those seeking transformative change as fundamentally un-American and as foreign agents. During the late 1940s and ‘50s, Senator Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin and the House Un-American Affairs Committee investigated, persecuted, and blacklisted Americans of all stripes as suspected communists and Russian agents.
The goal was to assert that radicals could not be truly American. “Radicals” included a broad array of artists, organizers, labor leaders, celebrities, politicians, anti-racists, and activists that had even a tangential relationship to economic justice, racial justice, or culture change movements. The Red Scare targeted Jews, as well as black leaders of the civil rights movement like Bayard Rustin and Paul Robeson among many, many others.
Anti-black racism, anti-immigrant fervor, and anti-Semitism have always been tools of the far right to quiet emerging leadership. And lest you think this language of Un-American-ness is mere coincidence, let’s remember that Senator Joe McCarthy’s chief counsel was a man named Roy Cohn. Later in life, Cohn would mentor a young Donald Trump.
The Red Scare purged many people from their jobs or unions, but its success ran deeper than that. It forced a generation of activists and political leaders to justify themselves and proclaim that they weren’t communists or socialists. In effect, they had to prove their faith in free-market capitalism. That means it also became hard to speak openly about the problems created by American capitalism.
Red-baiting shrank the confines of debate and abruptly silenced what had been vibrant movements. This is one big reason why America’s mainstream political discourse ranged only from neo-liberalism to neo-conservatism through the latter half of the 20th century. It’s a big part of why Republicans and Democrats built a consensus around the idea that there is no alternative to our economic system, no matter the injustice experienced under it.
A new generation of leaders has begun to outgrow the internalized logic of the Red Scare, but there is no question that it still haunts us today. During the height of the Movement for Black Lives, we heard people who claimed to be allies tell us to stick to racial justice and to keep narrowly focused around issues of identity and police violence. But from the very start, the Movement for Black Lives unapologetically brought together our class analysis and demand for economic justice with our demands for racial justice and gender justice as well. Any society that truly valued black lives must establish all the conditions necessary for all black people to thrive.
So often politics creates—or seems to create—incentives to fit ourselves in smaller and smaller boxes. We feel pressured to trim the wings of our ambition, or to swallow ourselves and our agendas to the narrow confines of what is perceived as making us electable. That’s why Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Ayanna Presley are such a breath of fresh air. That’s also why we can expect more of these kinds of attacks from the right wing. It’s about defining the politics of these courageous leaders—our aspirational politics—as out of bounds.
The Working Families Party is an independent political force bringing that aspirational model of politics to communities across the country. And while some of The Squad’s colleagues in the Democratic Party have hedged, let me say unambiguously that the Working Families Party stands with them.
Contrary to the cowboy myths of rugged individualism, courage is most often a product of community. When we know there’s a community that has our backs, it is that much easier to take a leap. If I am as successful as I want to be in my leadership of the Working Families Party, I know I will eventually become a target of these same kinds of attacks. People will say terrible things about me. And if the WFP is as successful as we want to be, we will as a community and movement come under attack.
It’s already happening. WFP member Candi CdeBaca was elected to the City Council in Denver this summer after defeating a Democratic incumbent closely aligned with the mayor. In the run-up to the election, they called her a “communist.” (Just last week, Candi led the charge to end Denver’s contracts with two private-prison operators. It shows what electing a so-called “communist” can do.)
This can get worse than name-calling. The New York WFP, which helped transform politics in New York City and helped end Republican control of the state senate last year, has faced unfounded legal attacks from powerful establishment interests. Members of The Squad in Congress have faced death threats.
These attacks are inevitable, and our best defense against them is to recognize that we are all in this fight together. Our strength is rooted in our ideas and our ideals, but it is also rooted in our solidarity. That is why I use that word in almost every talk I give.
If you want to show your support for The Squad, you can sign this solidarity petition. And if you want to help the WFP build a new brand of transformational politics, just text “WFP” to 738674.
Our mission—building a nation committed to justice and equality and dignity for all—is never going to be easy. But it is possible so long as we have one another.
Maurice Mitchell is the national director of the Working Families Party. Give today and join the movement!