AOC isn't Nancy Pelosi's problem. Trump is, and he keeps proving it.

The House speaker paved the way for the president to make his racist, nativist statements. It was an unforced error on her part.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY, speaks at House Oversight and Reform Committee vote on June 12, 2019.Salwan Georges / The Washington Post via Getty Images file
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By Anthea Butler

Nancy Pelosi has managed to take the Democratic Party from the thrill of the 2018 victory to the agony of defeat in just a few short months. The golf-clapping, hot-coat-wearing speaker resorted to gossiping with fellow mean girl Maureen Dowd about The Squad, while kvetching about her purple Manolos and sharing home fries together. “All these people have their public whatever and their twitter world. But they didn’t have any following.”

“All these people” is not the way to talk about four of the many new women of color in Congress: Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York; Rashida Tlaib of Michigan; Ilhan Omar of Minnesota; and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, all Democrats.

Any person of color will tell you that, when a white person says “these people,” it means that a person of color is stepping out of their "place" or being too outspoken for said white person. “These people,” said in reference to people of color, is a colloquialism for being uppity, for not being grateful.

And then after Ocasio-Cortez called Pelosi's remarks disrespectful, President Donald Trump joined Pelosi to vilify the Squad: “Why don’t you go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came?

Trump’s racism is vile, but the fact remains that Pelosi paved the way for Trump to make his racist, nativist statement, and it was an unforced error on her part.

Pelosi’s public prosecution of her dissatisfaction with these junior women of color in Congress has diminished her standing and strength as the leader of the House. For months she has taken catty swipes at various popular new members of the Congress known colloquially as "the squad," blithely squandering the momentum with progressives responsible for the gains Democrats made in the midterms less than a year ago.

And Pelosi’s dismissive and disparaging statements have now not only put her in the position of being a white woman chastising women of color, but also of being deemed “Not Racist” by Trump during an extended racist tirade against those members. That's not exactly the endorsement of the year. (Maybe it’s time to rethink last year's rebellion against the speaker.)

As the calls for impeachment grow, and Democrats are getting restless, Pelosi has not delivered on much of what she promised would happen in this new Congress. There has not been a series of congressional hearings on the Trump administration's missteps because the administration has repeatedly refused to comply with invitations to testify and subpoenas. Pelosi has yet to visit one of the immigration processing centers, and her most cutting harangues have seemingly been saved for the most visible congresswomen to her left instead of Republican policies.

The current dysfunction Pelosi has promoted points to the glaring ways that she has squandered the gains of the 2018 election in the past few months, and the effectiveness of the House. As much as everyone would like to see Nancy Pelosi as the invincible, this latest turn of events shows that she is not. With every passing day, she has offered no strategy for impeachment, saying incredulously that Trump is becoming “self impeachable." She has asked for people of faith and faith leaders to call Trump about help on the border. To add insult to injury, she helped pass a $4.6 billion border funding bill with no protections for immigrant children, which now will be used to build more camps.

Meanwhile, Pelosi is critiquing members of her own caucus in the hopes of pulling them back to a more moderate position. Is this the sign of a great leader, or a leader without a plan? One wonders if she has borrowed the first lady’s “I don’t care, do you?” jacket to wear to her office every day.

Simply put, it is time for a course correction. Pelosi’s attempts to steer Democrats into safer conservative waters instead of tackling border issues, Republican intransigence and holding a sustained conversation about grounds for impeachment puts American democracy in peril. With a presidential election looming and Democrats eager to see change, why is Pelosi stalling? Why can’t she make a clearer case for why she does not want to bring impeachment proceedings against the president?

The most troubling part of this latest debacle is that Trump's attacks regularly put these House members' lives in peril. Ocasio-Cortez has received death threats; Omar already needed protection because of Trump’s tweets. There was no need for Pelosi to allow her annoyance to place her membership in fear for their lives. Her hollow tweets in response to the president's support for her position do little to stem the animus that Trump is fueling against her caucus members.

View this graphic on nbcnews.com

It is time that the speaker of the House's fitness to serve should be called into question. Pelosi has squandered half of 2019 fighting with her membership rather than focusing on the issues they have championed: immigration, workers' rights, climate change and health care. For a woman who held so much promise and power with a golf clap, the current disarray among Democrats is alarming. If she does not get her act together, stop complaining about her more liberal members and start governing, Pelosi will be responsible for handing Trump a second term.

As for the Squad, Pressley said it best, in response to Trump's racist tweets: "THIS is what racism looks like. WE are what democracy looks like. And we’re not going anywhere. Except back to D.C. to fight for the families you marginalize and vilify every day."

Perhaps Pelosi, too, should remember that this what democracy looks like: A group of women fighting for what they believe is the right thing for our country, whether she likes it or not.

Anthea Butler

Anthea Butler is an associate professor of Religious Studies and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of "Women in the Church of God in Christ: Making A Sanctified World" (The University of North Carolina Press) and her forthcoming book is tentatively titled “From Palin to Trump: Evangelicals, Race, and Nationalism” (The New Press).