It’s never reassuring to begin the New Year with a right-wing insurrection against an elected government. Much was disturbing about the January 6 Capitol riot, including the possibility of more antidemocratic, white supremacist mayhem yet to come. But especially terrifying were the threats on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s life, and the news that the democratic socialist congresswoman may have come close to assassination.
Describing the events of January 6, AOC said on Instagram, “I can tell you that I had a very close encounter where I thought I was going to die.” She said that she couldn’t say much more about it for security reasons, but elaborated, “I did not know whether I was going to make it to the end of that day alive. Not just in a general sense, but in a very, very specific sense.”
The far right has been obsessed with AOC since her election in 2018. Its scary fixation on her reflects its terror of women and people of color holding power, of course, but these hard-rightists are also — as fascists always have been — deeply triggered by socialism.
A man from Texas was arrested after participating in the riots and calling for AOC’s assassination online. He now faces five federal charges. It’s good that the government is taking action against these dangerous criminals. But the more powerful actors freely walking into the Capitol every day may be even more dangerous. AOC said on Instagram that she did not feel safe in the place other members of Congress were hiding during the January 6 riot, because some of them were white supremacists and QAnon sympathizers, she said, “who I have felt would disclose my location and would create opportunities for me to be hurt, kidnapped, etc.” AOC rightly skipped Biden’s inauguration, both to join the picket line of striking workers in the Bronx, and also, she said, to avoid the security risk of being near those colleagues.
The rest of the Squad appear to be in danger, too. Cori Bush has just moved her office, “for my team’s safety,” she said, after harassment from Marjorie Taylor Greene, an openly anti-Semitic white nationalist congresswoman who has called for the assassination of Nancy Pelosi and other colleagues, referred to January 6 as a “1776 moment,” and has called Cori Bush a “Black Lives Matter terrorist.” On January 6, Ilhan Omar was evacuated to a secure location otherwise reserved for senior congressional leadership — because, she has said, law enforcement believed her life was at special risk. Since her election to Congress, Trump has incited threats against Omar, and in the months leading up to the November election, those threats increased. During the riot, Ayanna Pressley’s staff found that the panic buttons in their offices had been torn out. Rashida Tlaib has received constant death threats throughout her time in office.
There is a psychosexual edge to the Right’s obsession with AOC. Eroticizing what they hate, rightists circulate memes on the internet depicting AOC as a tyrannical dominatrix, in full BDSM leather gear, crushing white men under her sharp boots. In one of them, Jeff Bezos kneels at her feet, handing over money, in a financial domination scenario (“findom” is an extremely niche kink in which submissives, usually men, enjoy giving up money, usually to women). The idea of socialism as totalitarianism — specifically, a dictatorship in which rich white men are forcibly expropriated by powerful women of color — looms large in the right-wing imaginary. (Literally “large” — in many of these memes, AOC, physically a small, slight woman, is a giant, looming alarmingly over the white men she tyrannizes.) AOC is at the center of this fantasy. It would be harmless as a bit of edgy pornography, but in this political climate, the fantasy can easily turn deadly.
While racism and patriarchy are fundamental to fascist thinking, the fascist obsession with socialism is just as central. Every far-right movement in history has viewed socialism as its key adversary, and this one is no exception. For Hitler and the Nazis, racial enemies were inseparable from socialism, and contemporary far-rightists think the same way. Today, the right-wing hatred of socialism, personified by a woman of color, is a global phenomenon. In 2018, the same year that AOC was elected to Congress, right-wing Jair Bolsonaro was elected President of Brazil, and Marielle Franco, a black socialist city council member in Rio, and an outspoken activist against police brutality, was assassinated. A year later, two former police officers connected to a paramilitary group were arrested and charged with her murder. Both suspects had ties to Bolsonaro.
Assuming a childishly anarchistic posture toward government, some on the left have imagined that the January 6 rioters’ complaints about Democrats mirror their own. Jimmy Dore, for example, doubted that the riots would have happened if Americans had their two-thousand-dollar checks. This is a perilous misreading. In addition to the explicit dangers to the Squad, there were numerous threats on Nancy Pelosi’s life that day, including calls to hang her or put a bullet through her head. That’s not because Pelosi has failed to write relief checks or support Medicare for All — exactly the opposite. It’s because the Right sees Pelosi as socialist.
That idea isn’t limited to fringe weirdos — even Lindsey Graham tweeted in November that Pelosi and the Democratic mainstream support socialism “deep in their soul.” At last summer’s GOP convention, the main message from speaker after speaker was that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were socialists. On the loonier right, this opinion is expressed only slightly more floridly: Representative Mo Brooks referred to the January 6 rioters as patriots “fighting back against anti-Christian socialists.” The Right has often seen socialist phantasms lurking in the mainstream; historian Richard Hofstadter quoted a right-wing woman in the 1950s sighing, upon the reelection of Dwight Eisenhower, “Four more years of socialism.”
There is zero affinity between right-wing and left-wing grievances. If you’re a socialist, far-rightists share none of your political goals and viciously oppose every ideal you take seriously. They also want you dead. That’s as good a definition of a political enemy as I can imagine.
Of course, individuals caught up in right-wing movements can and do change their minds. Your QAnon-obsessed neighbor probably isn’t violent and you should try to convince her of the error of her ways — and even why she should be a socialist instead (The New York Times recently reported on a Bernie supporter who, disillusioned with Democrats after the Vermont socialist’s 2016 loss, had turned to QAnon. We can certainly reach people like that). But as an organized movement, there’s nothing harmless or politically laudable about the forces behind the January 6 mob. This movement doesn’t just hate socialism; its hatred of socialism is at the core of its politics. The more it grows and mobilizes, the more violently it will fight any socialists who get close to power.
Some have suggested that AOC was being overly dramatic in candidly describing the risks she faced that day and continues to face. That’s dangerously wrong. The Squad has rightly opposed expanding the federal government’s legal tools for combatting domestic terrorism. The government’s existing mechanisms are entirely adequate, and to add more would likely lead to restrictions on the civil liberties of the Left and of racial minorities. But the Left needs to take the threats directed at our elected democratic socialist leaders seriously. We must demand adequate security for AOC and the rest of the Squad and a full investigation and prosecution of anyone who endangers their lives. We must also defeat this depraved movement through organizing, persuasion, social pressure, and, when needed, force, including law enforcement.
Meanwhile, AOC and her fellow Squad members are putting their lives on the line every day fighting for democratic socialism and progressive values. They deserve all our solidarity.