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16 January 2019

How Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez toppled Trump from his bully pulpit

The freshman representative from New York is changing how Democrats do politics – and she has the president on the run.

By Nicky Woolf

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is often described as being on the far left of the US Democratic party – but while that may be true, it does not seem that she is particularly far out from the average American voter.

According to a new poll released on Tuesday by The Hill, a comfortable majority of respondents – 59 per cent – support Ocasio-Cortez’s plan for increasing the top bracket of US income tax to 70 per cent.

“The majority of Americans respect when you break down reasonable policy proposals that are designed to combat runaway income inequality and help fund priorities they value most? We can win public sentiment, stand our ground, & not be scared by GOP information,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted on Tuesday in response to the poll.

That she has been able to get such immediate and effective traction for an idea which the mainstream Democratic party doctrine considers too radical to be palatable shows how effective a communicator Ocasio-Cortez has quickly become, and how much that enables her to shift the so-called “Overton Window” of acceptable discourse within her party in a way that only Trump has been able to do.

But while Trump leveraged his voice and viral potential to demolish the Republican party from the inside almost by accident, as an emergent property of his boundless but largely non-ideological ambition, Ocasio-Cortez has flipped the model.

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Where Trump used Twitter and rallies to float policy ideas and then following those that get the loudest cheers, Ocasio-Cortez uses her platform and following on social media as a sort of a “bully pulpit”, (as Teddy Roosevelt once famously described the platform of the presidency), to pull public perception towards new ideas and to overcome intransigent party doctrine.

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It used to be that Trump was the sole master in the social media domain, able to steamroller through and dominate the conversation in ways that left his opponents, both in the 2016 Republican primary and later in the general election against Hillary Clinton, seem utterly flat-footed by comparison (remember “Pokemon Go-to-the-polls”?).

But in Ocasio-Cortez, the Democratic party now has its own champion; one who is even more adept and at home in the digital realm even than he is. Along with her fellow freshman representatives in Congress, including Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib – who went viral recently for calling Trump a “motherfucker” – she represents a total sea-change in Democratic politics that ably learns the lessons of Trump’s style, but harnesses that power in the service of achieving positive change and moving the window of accepted American discourse towards more radical ideas. Ocasio-Cortez’s Twitter, for example, has by far the most engagement of any US politician other than Trump himself, according to analysis by The Hill, and she is catching up fast.

That can only be a good thing. The lesson of Trump is not simply to make things up, but in a wider sense that in the internet age, sheer viral horsepower can change the parameters of discourse, especially as it seems the ideas are not particularly “radical” anyway, except to centrist Democrat and to Republicans and not to the American people.

Turns out what was needed was someone who can use those tools to become as effective a communicator as Trump was able to become – perhaps even better. Ocasio-Cortez is the one who finally cracked the code of how to muscle Trump from his perch atop the bully pulpit.