From one perspective, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the second coming of Donald Trump. By this I mean that she surfed the same structural forces to Congress that swept Trump into the White House. These forces can be characterized, very roughly, as the escape of information from institutional control and the desire of an angry public to overturn the established order. AOC, like Trump, communicates digitally, and thus directly, with the public, somersaulting over institutional gate-keepers like the media and Democratic Party elders. And as with Trump, AOC’s digital voice has struck a chord with the millions who follow her online.
Politically, of course, she’s the anti-Trump: that is to say, the president’s polar opposite. She’s young, female, Hispanic, and a member of the very progressive Justice Democrats. There was an open space in American politics for a populism that tilts leftward. AOC has now occupied it. From that slot, she aims her rhetorical fire across the elites of her own party at President Trump’s populism of the right.
Her rise to fame, influence, and political office has been astounding in its rapidity. In June 2018, she was waitressing at a taqueria in Union Square. By January 2019 she was proposing on 60 Minutes a radical increase in the marginal tax rate – and being faithfully seconded by a Nobel-prize-winning economist. Entering a speeded-up universe is a mysterious, but not infrequent, digital occurrence. We call it going viral. Virality tends to be explained in confident terms after the fact, but random elements are always involved, and it is impossible to predict or manufacture. All of this holds true for AOC’s viral political ascent.
Certain factors had to be in place before AOC’s universe could hit warp speed, however. She was extremely lucky in her historical moment. The election of Donald Trump in 2016 dealt a traumatic shock to the Democratic Party. The leadership was old, discredited, and stuck in a totemic dance of death around the mesmerizing figure of the president. The party faithful craved fresh faces and fresh ideas: they wanted to break loose. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won her seat to Congress after defeating Joe Crowley, a 20-year incumbent and chair of the Democratic Caucus, in a primary. She was the anti-Pelosi and anti-Clinton before becoming the anti-Trump.
She could pull this off because she possesses an ineffable star quality. Some have labeled this quality authenticity, and discerned in it more parallels with Trump. The president is said to be able to get away with his often outrageous tweets, and AOC with her sometimes bizarre Instagram posts, because both are real, unscripted persons who are simply being themselves. I don’t buy this notion with regards to Trump, and I doubt that it explains AOC’s appeal. As video of any family outing will prove beyond dispute, the camera rarely loves those who are “being themselves.” Unscripted isn’t synonymous with authentic. Both Trump and AOC are extraordinary performers.
They might be called authentic performers: they convey to the camera, and thus to the public, an enormous confidence in the parts they play. They wear controversy comfortably. When mistakes are made, they double down, and never retreat or apologize. The president’s tweet with the non-word “covfefe” brought down a storm of derision from political antagonists. He pocketed the attention and returned the ridicule. Similarly, when conservative websites mocked a video of a youthful AOC doing a dance routine, she responded with a new video of herself dancing in the Capitol. “I hear the GOP thinks women dancing is scandalous,” she tweeted. “Wait till they find out Congresswomen can dance too!”
The play in which both perform was invented on the web but is now the dominant ritual of US politics. It consists of three acts. Act one: the protagonist says something outrageous. Let the mention of “cow farts” harming the environment in AOC’s Green New Deal explainer stand for many other such effusions. Act two: the opposition is driven into full-throated rant mode, with the protagonist as target of contempt, insults, and sometimes worse. It’s difficult to exaggerate, in this regard, the obsession of conservative and libertarian websites with AOC’s utterances. They just can’t get enough. Act three: in response to the attention generated by the attacks, supporters rise in a host and gather behind the protagonist, who is now seen in the light of leader and commander of the faithful.
That is how a 29-year-old first-time Congressperson acquires immense authority over her political kindred.
How far can she ride the current wave of virality? Could we, realistically, see a President Ocasio-Cortez by 2024? The timeline for the presidency strikes me as too long – and outside of that, this sort of question is irrelevant. AOC is a creature of the digital environment. She derives her leverage from her vast following there. Online authority is personal rather than institutional: it’s earned day by day and can be lost at any moment. Her future will be determined by whether she can retain her influence over her millions of followers, not by her success in climbing the Washington hierarchy.
This leaves her vulnerable to the inconstancies and misadventures of online relationships. The web loves to devour its heroes. Anyone who goes viral is inspected and researched minutely for hypocrisies, naked photos, shady deals, dirty friends, violations moral or criminal – anything that will bring down the high and mighty. The horde of ruthless digital egalitarians is at work on AOC even as I write these lines. The mysteriously-posted dance routine video was a weak attempt to make her look foolish. Other material is sure to follow.
On top of that, the ritual of outrage and response, at which she has so far excelled, makes her political opponents highly motivated to fling at her whatever accusation they believe will weaken her position. Already she has been entangled in allegations of campaign finance irregularities, brought about by complaints from conservative groups. This is part of the script. The charges and counter-charges never end. The effect can be death by a thousand cuts. Donald Trump has survived the ordeal by developing the scarred carapace of a bull sea lion. Nothing that Trump can be charged with will detach his supporters. I’m not sure the same can be said of AOC, who often posts about her awe-struck feelings and affects a “Ms. Ocasio-Cortez Goes to Washington” naïveté. Any taint of scandal would likely damage her political future.
Finally, there’s the question of ideology. AOC was selected to run in her district by the Justice Democrats, a political action committee that operates on the extreme US left. If its website is to be believed, the group’s objectives are to punish the rich and knock down most standing institutions. While this ferocity is actually in tune with the public’s temper, the devil, as always, lurks in the details.
The public in the digital age is not one but many: it has fractured into pieces like a fallen mirror. The single unifying and mobilizing impulse is the repudiation of the established order. The public stands powerfully against. Positive policies and coherent ideologies drain away energy and aggravate the fractures. To the extent, therefore, that AOC uses her influence to condemn the status quo, she could solidify behind her a public in revolt. To the extent that she chooses to promote the cauldron of ideas burbling out of the Justice Democrats’ coven, she will risk turning into a divisive sectarian figure even within the progressive movement.
Yet this is pure speculation. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been a political celebrity for less than a year. She may yet rise, in time, to spectacular heights, or plunge into the abyss and be forgotten. No one can say at this point. The only prediction I offer with confidence is that her performance, along the way, will be hugely entertaining.