Two days before she defeated the incumbent Democratic Representative Joseph Crowley, representing the Bronx and Queens, in a primary election, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—a 28-year-old Democratic socialist from the Bronx—visited an ICE detention camp in Tornillo, Texas. More than 2,100 miles away from her own congressional district, Ocasio-Cortez drove at the very heart of the 2018 midterm campaigns, which are shaping up to be a referendum on the profound racial animus that has come to define President Donald Trump’s administration.
Ocasio-Cortez campaigned for Bernie Sanders in New York during the 2016 presidential primaries. In her own, young political career, she has cultivated a passionate left-wing following as she’s criticized Israel’s recent slaughter of Palestinian civilians in Gaza and advocated for the abolition of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. The leftist Democratic primary candidate for New York governor, Cynthia Nixon, has also advocated for the abolition of ICE, and has even gone so far as to describe the federal agency as “a terrorist organization.” Together, Ocasio-Cortez and Nixon represent a left-wing, anti-incumbent insurgency in New York politics—and in the wider Democratic imagination.
On Tuesday evening, Ocasio-Cortez’s victory came as a great shock, including to Ocasio-Cortez herself. It was such an upset that major political publications are just now running their earliest coverage of her campaign. In the immediate wake of Ocasio-Cortez’s victory, conservatives and conventional Democratic figureheads alike have struggled to reckon with her winning coalition. Warily, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi fielded questions from reporters about the broader significance of the defeat of her colleague and long-rumored successor, Crowley. “They made a choice in one district,” Pelosi said. “It is not to be viewed as something that stands for everything else.” Fearfully, Pelosi characterized Ocasio-Cortez’s left-wing upset as a fluke.
Pelosi’s naïveté spells doom. The chaotic nature of the Trump administration has made it difficult to predict the 2018 midterm conditions with any great certainty. Each week there are new outrages, which provoke new political crises. But there’s a singular, all-consuming priority that has come to define the president’s political agenda: immigration.
Trump’s original campaign promise was a vow to curb illegal immigration across the Mexican border. His opening presidential gambit—and the earliest disaster of his administration—was a ban blocking travel from seven Middle Eastern countries, such as Iraq and Libya, with large and supposedly violent Muslim populations. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court upheld the third and final version of the travel ban, which it found was devoid of any specific “religious animus.” Overall, the Supreme Court has rendered a series of judgments about immigration, labor rights, voting rights, and commercial discrimination that have gravely demoralized Trump’s critics. On Wednesday afternoon, Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement from the Supreme Court, effective July 31; Kennedy sided with the conservative majority in the travel ban case, but he’s been the crucial swing vote in high-profile Supreme Court decisions during his tenure. Trump’s critics now fear that the president will replace Kennedy with a more staunch conservative who will further reinforce his fearsome agenda.
Among Trump’s critics, national politics has become a losing battle to preserve the rule of law. Unlike the resigned Democratic establishment—which is already clearing the deck for Trump’s pick to succeed Kennedy on the Supreme Court—Democratic challengers such as Ocasio-Cortez and Nixon have seized upon this popular anxiety; their calls to abolish ICE underscore a great collapse in the Democratic base’s faith in American institutions. Notably, ICE predates Trump; the George W. Bush administration and Congress created the agency 18 months after 9/11 to oversee criminal investigations, immigrant detentions, and deportations. Quietly, Barack Obama oversaw the beginnings of the family separation crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border. But the Trump administration’s belligerent rhetoric about immigrants, coupled with an intrusive and brutish program of arrests, detentions, and deportations, have shrouded ICE in infamy and urgency. Suddenly, it’s quite common for liberals, including civil rights activists as well as Democratic politicians, to compare ICE to the Gestapo—another civil security apparatus that right-wing officials seized, expanded, and transformed into a monstrous police force tasked with racial purification through “deportation.” Once upon a time, immigration was Trump’s proudest, unrelenting concern. Now, it’s become a public-opinion sinkhole for the president and the fiercest point of mobilization against the Trump administration and the Republican majorities in Congress.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez represents the upper bound of the Democratic imagination. She enters Democratic politics with an urgency that the party establishment has otherwise repressed, or betrayed, since Trump’s day one. In the Bronx and Queens, Ocasio-Cortez mobilized an otherwise demoralized base of supporters to turn out with exceptional force. In Texas—and in general—she’s addressing grave concerns, with great clarity. In an ideal world, candidates like her will motivate voters all throughout the country.