Brandstanding: AOC, Amazon, and how the Far Left Sacrifices the Public Good at the Altar of Pious Populism

@AOC wasn’t always Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Twitter handle.

Try creating a three-letter username on Twitter, and you will get an error message telling you that your handle must be at least four characters long. In fact, Ocasio-Cortez’s 2018 campaign used the Twitter handle @Ocasio2018. A big, bad, multibillion-dollar, multinational corporation by the name of Twitter did her a favor after the 2018 elections by granting her the @AOC handle because more than her real name, “AOC” had become a brand.

Brand-building for the purpose of political messaging is not novel. During Barack Obama’s first campaign for president, the message of change reverberated across the country, Hillary Clinton adopted the ‘Love Trumps Hate’ brand in reference to her opponent’s name and his message, and who could forget the dystopian, racist, MAGA brand that Trump continues to campaign under?

Remember, though, that Trump was a brand long before he was a politician. For decades, the Trump family built the brand to be associated with luxury, wealth, and success, even though many products associated with the brand were spectacular failures: Trump Vodka, Trump Steaks, and even Trump Casinos went down in flames, and that doesn’t even scratch the surface of Trump brand failures.

The fact that Trump’s brand, despite failing again and again, is still associated with success and luxury demonstrates an important lesson about branding. Facts and actual successes and failures are often irrelevant to brand building, especially if the brand is the product.

The brand ‘AOC’ is strikingly similar in this respect to the brand ‘Trump.’ Where the ‘Trump’ brand is associated with success despite Trump’s many failures, the AOC brand exudes pious populism, despite her actions and positions often working against the public interest. Let’s call that brandstanding.

Brandstanding is a way of life for AOC. The height of this anti-people brand of populism for AOC occurred when she and her allies forced Amazon to cancel its plans to build a second headquarters (HQ2) in economically challenged Long Island City, which would have sparked major economic activities and created at least 25,000 high-tech jobs and over 100,000 other jobs. By killing over 100,000 jobs and millions of dollars in economic activity that would have benefited her own constituents, AOC had polished and perfected her pious populism brand.

AOC and her supporters were eager to advance their “victory.” They had, after all, ‘beaten’ Amazon, the granddaddy of brands. When news came that Amazon is going to open an office in already well-off Manhattan with just 1,500 jobs, in true AOC brand fashion, Ocasio-Cortez claimed vindication and demanded an apology from those who criticized her for literally sucking money and jobs out of her own district.

Even the Queen of Twitter can be rattled, however, and her initial blithe comment was met with a host of pushback, reminding her that she was celebrating 1,500 tech jobs in place of 25,000. The brand clearly suffered, and Ocasio-Cortez eventually pushed back with two weak points: (1) that the 1,500 jobs did not require any subsidies, and (2) the 25,000 jobs for HQ2 weren’t guaranteed.

The only problem: none of these things is actually true.

Let’s understand what brand AOC is celebrating here. Under the HQ2 NYC deal, Amazon would have developed at least 4 million square feet of new buildings in Queens, and have had to create at least 25,000 jobs in the first decade in order to take advantage of the tax breaks and subsidies Ocasio-Cortez and her cabal found so objectionable. Over 25 years, HQ2 would be home to 40,000 jobs, according to the state’s own estimate.  These jobs would have been supplemented by the construction crew, new small businesses, and restaurants that would have added an additional 107,000 jobs and revitalized and transformed the economy of the area. That’s a total of nearly 150,000 jobs.

For those of you keeping track, AOC is actually bragging about a paltry 1,500 jobs outside of her district after her direct actions robbed her own constituents and neighbors of a hundred times as many jobs.

The crocodile tears over $3 billion in total tax credits and subsidies don’t hold much water, either. According to the state of New York, HQ2 would have generated an additional $27.5 billion in tax revenue over a 25-year period, over 9 times as much as the amount of the tax credits and subsidies.

Lastly, Amazon’s Manhattan office space will cost New York taxpayers more than HQ2 would have on a per-job-created basis. The development where Amazon is leasing office space already receives much more generous taxpayer subsidies than the HQ2 deal AOC destroyed would have. The idea that the new office space for Amazon in Manhattan isn’t costing New York taxpayers anything is a flat out lie.

Amazon is leasing 335,000 square feet of space in the plump, expensive, and upscale Hudson Yards development in Manhattan for a workforce of 1,500. The developers at Hudson Yards won their bid in 2008, and the New York Times reports that it has already netted $6 billion in tax incentives and subsidies in roughly 10 years. That amount is double what Amazon would have received for a comparable period of time for HQ2 in Long Island City, and the Hudson Yards project is only half way finished. Once completed, Hudson Yard’s combined office space is expected to be able to host a little over 50,000 workers. But since it’s only half done at the moment, let’s assume it’s ready for the inhabitation of 25,000 workers, the same amount of workers who would have had jobs at Amazon’s HQ2.

In other words, for every job it can host, Hudson Yards costs New York taxpayers twice as much as HQ2 would have, including for the 1,500 Amazon employees who will be working in Hudson Yards.

None of this matters to Ocasio-Cortez of course, because Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is not looking to help improve the lives of her constituents. AOC is brandstanding. Like Trump, for her and those attracted to and enforcing her brand, it’s not about the facts. It’s about the brand. It’s not about actually helping to improve lives and revitalizing neighborhoods you have been elected to represent. It’s about looking like you are “fighting.”

The success of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the member of Congress, should depend on the reality of the lives of her constituents, but the success of AOC, the brand, depends on the perception of purity and pious populism.

Like Donald Trump, Ocasio-Cortez did not build her own brand. It was built for her by a group and money from far outside of her Congressional district. That outside group did the job of recruiting her for Congress as well as of building her brand. That group, a PAC based in Knoxville, Tennessee, by the name of Justice Democrats, had its founders run her campaign, and when she won, one of those founders became her chief of staff. Saikat Chakrabarti - whom I am embarrassed to share my last name with - was forced to resign as Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff just as news broke that Chakrabarti, along with the Justice Democrats, is under federal investigation for campaign finance crimes. The resignation came a full five months after we at the TPV called for Ocasio-Cortez to fire Saikat Chakrabarti for funneling a million dollars to his personal slush fund through these PACs, the thing that now he and Justice Democrats being investigated for. Better late than never, I suppose.

The transformation Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez into AOC has been, thus far, the greatest branding success of the PAC. The brand of AOC is, as we discussed before, pious populism.

That AOC brand has been on display since the day Ocasio-Cortez got to Congress. She joined a sit-in at Nancy Pelosi’s office (who was then Speaker-designate) supposedly to demand climate action, when the version of the Green New Deal she wrote and introduced in the House explicitly fails to direct a single action by a single government or private entity in response to the reality of the climate crisis that the Speaker agrees with.

Ocasio-Cortez has continued building the AOC brand at the expense of actual policy achievements that would help the people she trips over everyone to get to a microphone to say she cares about. In fact, Ocasio-Cortez has built the AOC brand far more as a spoiler of progressive and Democratic priorities than as a fighter against Trump and the nationalist Right.

Despite her followers’ insistence that she is doing more to counter the Right than “establishment Democrats”, Ocasio-Cortez has voted with Republicans, among other things, against the renewal of the Export-Import bank sponsored by the legendary Maxine Waters, against holding Saudi Arabia accountable for killing an American journalist, against a two-state solution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, against reigning in the Trump administration’s abusive treatment of asylum seekers, particularly children, and even for leaving Trump’s anti-abortion global gag rule in place.

Because, once again, whatever sincerity Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had to serve the people in her constituency appears to have been replaced by a draw more promising to her stardom: brandstanding for AOC.

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