"Mini-Maduro": RNC attacks Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, compares her to Venezuelan dictator

The New York congressional candidate has been criticized by conservatives like Tomi Lahren and Ben Shapiro

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published August 17, 2018 6:28PM (EDT)

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AP/Seth Wenig)
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AP/Seth Wenig)

Even though she's running in a solidly blue district that has no chance of flipping to the GOP, it seems that Republican just can't quit Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

The latest example of this phenomenon, which could be aptly dubbed Ocasio-Cortez Derangement Syndrome, was demonstrated by the Republican National Committee when it sent out an email that explicitly compared the aspiring congresswoman to a dictator. The letter wrote that "leading The Democrat Party To The Left With Nothing More Than An Unsubstantiated, Factually Incorrect Socialist Wish List" and was referred to her as the "Mini-Maduro Foreboding The Future Of Democrats."

As CNN described Nicolás Maduro, the Venezuelan strongman being conflated with Ocasio-Cortez in that email:

Maduro is the successor to Hugo Chávez, who ruled from 1999 to 2013. His government is nominally socialist, but with Maduro's assorted power grabs and silencing of critics, Venezuela is not governed democratically. It is currently in the grips of a devastating economic and political collapse owing in large part to a drop in oil prices.

Conservative critics, especially online, routinely reference Venezuela's dire state of affairs when arguing against progressive left policies.

"The RNC knows that the American people support our policies by wide margins. They want universal health care. They want Wall Street to pay their fair share of taxes. They want to raise the minimum wage," Corbin Trent, the communications director for Ocasio-Cortez's campaign, told CNN. "I guess if you can't beat our ideas, you have to lie about them. Meanwhile, the Republican Party is standing in lock step behind a President who abuses human rights and wants to crush the free press which, to me, sounds like a Mini Maduro in the making."

It isn't just the official apparatus of the Republican Party which is taking this stand against Ocasio-Cortez.

"I think the Democrats are radicals," Sam Nunberg, a former adviser for Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential election, told Salon. "They are going so far to the left. Now the media doesn't understand that, or they don't accept it, or they actually are supportive it. Regular Americans, actual rank-and-file Americans, are not. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, by all means, please stay out there. Please campaign hard. Elizabeth Warren. Please. Please. Go everywhere you can. Do us a favor. At least [House Minority Leader Nancy] Pelosi is smart enough that all she does is hide and raise boatloads of money."

Then there was Ben Shapiro, the right-wing pundit who founded the website The Daily Wire. He offered Ocasio-Cortez $10,000 that she could give to her campaign or charity in return for debating on his program for one hour, according to The New York Times. Although he claimed that he did this in order to make "America a more civil and interesting place," Ocasio-Cortez interpreted his offer differently, writing on Twitter that "just like catcalling, I don’t owe a response to unsolicited requests from men with bad intentions. And also like catcalling, for some reason they feel entitled to one."

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Last month Rep. Ron DeSantis, a Republican from Florida running for governor, also took a high-profile swipe at Ocasio-Cortez during one of his rallies.

"You look at this girl, Ocasio-Cortez or whatever she is, I mean, she’s in a totally different universe," DeSantis told his supporters. "It's basically socialism wrapped in ignorance. ... You're repeating canned left-wing talking points and you're somehow the savior of the Democratic Party? Good Lord."

Around that same time Fox News contributor Tomi Lahren facetiously praised Ocasio-Cortez, arguing that she would be a boon to Republican Party candidates in the future.

"I used to love it when Hillary Clinton would come on TV because I thought that it would make it so much easier for [Republicans] in November and in 2020," Lahren said. "But I'm over Hillary. This is my new girl."

Perhaps most infamously, there was this piece of ripe hyperbole from Virginia Karuta of The Daily Caller, one that was widely mocked for minimizing the legitimate needs that Ocasio-Cortez has spoken to:

But then Ocasio-Cortez spoke, followed by Bush, and I saw something truly terrifying. I saw just how easy it would be, were I less involved and less certain of our nation’s founding and its history, to fall for the populist lines they were shouting from that stage.

  • I saw how easy it would be, as a parent, to accept the idea that my children deserve healthcare and education.

  • I saw how easy it would be, as someone who has struggled to make ends meet, to accept the idea that a “living wage” was a human right.

  • Above all, I saw how easy it would be to accept the notion that it was the government’s job to make sure that those things were provided.

There are three important takeaways here:

First, it is clear that the Republican Party views Ocasio-Cortez as a boogeyman they can hold up to scare their base into voting. Part of this is because of her democratic socialist views, which the GOP clearly believes are anathema to most Americans; yet there is also a racialized dimension to their approach, as evidenced by the comparison between Ocasio-Cortez and a Latin American dictator in the RNC email (Ocasio-Cortez is of Puerto Rican descent herself) or the calloused way that DeSantis dismissed her last name as "Ocasio-Cortez or whatever she is."

Second, it seems likely that this is the type of rhetoric one should anticipate from Republicans if another self-proclaimed democratic socialist captures the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020 (Ocasio-Cortez herself will be too young to run in that year). It remains to be seen whether this would hurt that hypothetical nominee's candidacy or not, but it is at the very least noteworthy.

Third, and perhaps most important, is the fact that Ocasio-Cortez has transformed the Overton Window of American politics. The Overton Window is the idea that politicians can only voice opinions within a certain spectrum of ideas before being branded as "fringe." Beyond Ocasio-Cortez herself, conservatives like Karuta from The Daily Caller are obviously concerned that Ocasio-Cortez's candidacy has further normalized a set of ideas that began to enter the mainstream with Bernie Sanders' campaign in 2016.

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By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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