As AOC confounds both the right and the left, the self-described socialist and tweet-shaming agitator takes center stage in the documentary 'Knock Down the House' and invites The Hollywood Reporter to catch a few episodes in the life of the one Democrat Trump hasn't dared attack: "Maybe he thinks that he's met his match."
It’s 6:15 p.m. on Jan. 21, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and Stephen Colbert is introducing his lead guest, the freshman representing New York’s 14th District: “Please welcome back to The Late Show now-Congresswoman Alexaaaaandria Ocasio-Cortez!”
It’s the coldest day in four years, and the street outside the Ed Sullivan Theater is deserted, but the atmosphere inside is electric. The audience is out of their seats, not a rare occurrence on late-night television, where floor producers vigorously pantomime the standing ovation. But this crowd needs no prompting. “Oh my gosh,” says Ocasio-Cortez, sitting, then standing back up. “Do I stand up? Sit down?” As the applause dissipates, Colbert notes: “It must be nice for you to be back in a city that understands you.”
She’s been on The Late Show before, on June 29, three days after her stunning Democratic primary upset, which, because of her deep blue district encompassing parts of the Bronx and Queens, all but guaranteed her election to the House. She was the fourth guest of the night. And at that time, Colbert noted sheepishly: “I want to confess that I did not know your name on Monday.” This time, she arrives with an entourage large enough to fill the tiny backstage green room. And is known by just her initials — AOC.
As Ocasio-Cortez settles into her seat, Colbert pulls out a photo of her swearing-in ceremony with her mother, Blanca, who moved to the Bronx from Puerto Rico, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and another of an Instagram post of Ocasio-Cortez in bed with a pint of ice cream after a busy day on the Hill. She was eating Ben & Jerry’s Colbert-inspired Americone Dream, named after the CBS host’s charitable fund of the same name. Colbert reaches behind his desk and pulls out two pints and two spoons. Ocasio-Cortez rips off a lid and digs in. “Oh man, and you thawed it out,” she says. “Cheers,” and she clinks spoons with Colbert.
Colbert asks her about her first weeks in her new job — amid the longest government shutdown in history — and the recent social media tutorial she held for fellow Democrats. “Rule No. 1: be authentic, be yourself ... don’t try to talk like a young kid ... don’t talk like the Founding Fathers ... don’t post a meme if you don’t know what a meme is.”
When Colbert asks her how she chooses whom to “go give the business to,” she admits that an empty stomach makes her much more dyspeptic. The host promptly takes her ice cream away. After they break for a commercial, he puts it back on the desk, and she digs back in. Colbert explains to the audience that he has to film a “fake toss to a commercial,” and she gamely plays along, grinning and waving to the camera.
Ocasio-Cortez’s Cinderella story — she was bartending at a taqueria in Union Square before she launched her campaign — and her social media prowess (fellow pols are afraid that she’ll mean-tweet them) have made her an object of obsession on both the right and left, catapulting her into the zeitgeist at head-spinning speed. Her participation in a documentary set to make its debut Jan. 26 at the Sundance Film Festival and her planned appearance in Park City to promote the film are likely to add more fuel to the fire.
Director Rachel Lears’ Knock Down the House benefits from the good fortune of having followed Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign long before Colbert or anyone knew her name. She was merely one of the new generation of female candidates Lears chronicled as they challenged old guards. It just so happens Ocasio-Cortez won.
Before her appearance ends, Ocasio-Cortez pulls out a prop of her own — a paperback copy of Why We Can’t Wait, Martin Luther King Jr.’s rumination on the 1963 Birmingham protests, a key moment in the civil rights movement. It could be her answer to congressional critics who have complained that the 29-year-old self-described Democratic socialist would do well to sit down and be quiet.
And when Colbert punctuates the interview with a profane question: “On a scale from zero to some, how many fucks do you give?” Ocasio-Cortez puts her finger above her lip in a gesture of mock introspection. “Let me check,” she says. Holding her hand up, she makes a circle with her fingers. “I think it’s zero.”
The audience erupts: “AOC! AOC!”
Ocasio-Cortez has become the new face of the resistance, electrifying the media, emerging as a hero to millennials alienated by broken government, and confounding establishment Democrats as much as the “alt-right dudebros,” as she calls them, who have attempted to trivialize and villainize her. Her upstart primary victory was the first evidence of the coming blue wave that would see Democrats take 40 seats and control of the House of Representatives, and her overnight rise has fascinated the mainstream media even as the primetime chorus on Fox News and the right-wing commentariat attempts to turn her into a junior version of Nancy Pelosi and Maxine Waters, their favorite left-wing boogeymen. “Downright scary,” is how Sean Hannity has described her policy positions. She is “the most dangerous person in America right now ... ignore her at your own peril,” warned actor turned social media malcontent James Woods.
There are even some in Ocasio-Cortez’s own party eyeing her skeptically. When Politico published an article Jan. 11 sprinkled with blind quotes from “exasperated Democrats” attempting to “rein in” Ocasio-Cortez, she responded by tweeting a quote from Alan Moore’s Watchmen: “None of you understand. I’m not locked up in here with YOU. You’re locked up in here with ME.” She added a crying-laughing emoji. She offers no apologies. “People are overwhelmingly over it. They’re overwhelmingly done with how Congress operates,” she tells me when I catch up with her during her first visit back to New York after her introduction to D.C. “There are a lot of things that just need to change.
"And friction and conflict is just a foundational element of change. If there was no conflict in change, then we would be in a totally equal society and people would have no problem getting health care and getting paid a living wage. But that’s not the case.”
Ocasio-Cortez has clearly embraced the attention, using it to promote her platform, which includes a Green New Deal (a massive investment program to combat climate change), Medicare for all and a 70 percent marginal tax rate. With 4.57 million followers between Twitter and Instagram, social media is both her natural metier and an ever-present hotline to both supporters and detractors. She’s mastered the art of oversharing without seeming to strain for relevance. She is perfectly comfortable broadcasting herself making a pot of black bean soup or doing coin laundry in the basement of her apartment building. Pulling back the curtain to let followers into her life as a freshman member of Congress, she’s offered up Instagram Stories chronicling congressional orientation — or “Congress Camp,” as she dubbed it — revealing the tortured, bureaucratic method for assigning members’ offices and a “swag bag” festooned with the congressional seal. “Look at that,” she says with genuine glee. “Isn’t that so cute?”
She has amassed a level of influence far beyond the legislative realities of her station in the notoriously fractious House of Representatives. Generating more Twitter interactions (retweets and likes) than any other Democratic politician, she has demonstrated a deft ability to encapsulate progressive policies in the space of a tweet while at the same time defanging her critics. Former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker attempted to belittle her with a tweet that explained tax rates to “5th graders ... Imagine if you did chores for your grandma and she gave you $10. When you got home, your parents took $7 from you.” With a hat tip to her Latina heritage, she responded by turning Walker’s object lesson on its head: "Imagine if you did chores for abuela & she gave you $10. When you got home, you got to keep it, because it’s only $10. Then we taxed the billionaire in town because he’s making tons of money underpaying the townspeople.”
The day she was sworn in as the youngest woman ever to be elected to the House, the internet blew up over a nearly decade-old video of her dancing on a rooftop with her friends from Boston University. It was an endearingly corny homage to the iconic dance scene in The Breakfast Club, but it was shared by alt-right Twitter users with the intention of smearing her. (One of the videos has been watched more than 11 million times.) But like so much of the trolling aimed at Ocasio-Cortez, it backfired spectacularly because it not only exposed the trolls’ glib sexism, but also prompted an outpouring of support from the Twitterverse. In fact, several of her college friends — some of whom were in the video — had made the trip to Washington, D.C., for the occasion and were waiting in her office. “I’m on the floor, so I have no idea what’s going on,” she recounts. “And then I come back, and they’re like, ‘Yo, have you seen that our video is going viral?’ ” She laughs and shakes her head, before adding, “It was a full-circle moment.”
The next day, Ocasio-Cortez decided to clap back with a new dance video. This one had her gyrating into her brand-new office to the tune of Edwin Starr’s counterculture anthem “War” with the caption: “I hear the GOP thinks women dancing are scandalous. Wait till they find out that Congresswomen dance too!” Never mind that, technically, “the GOP” was not actually the perpetrator in this instance. It’s an example of the social media jiu jitsu in which she’s earned a veritable black belt.
“I always expected to be treated differently or less,” she tells me. “The extent and the degree to it is actually pretty mind-boggling to me. When it comes to these alt-right dudebros, I think it’s hysteria. It’s the fear of, ‘We may not be in charge much longer,’ in terms of just blanket homogeneous representation. Like, oh my God, what happens if white dudes aren’t in control of Congress?”
Her ability to use humor and sarcasm to tap into the female-rage that spurred the #MeToo movement has earned her the admiration of the women who came before her. “You really are tested when people come after you,” says former California Senator Barbara Boxer, who spent 10 years in the House and was inspired to run for the Senate after Anita Hill’s testimony about Clarence Thomas. “The way you handle negative attention is really key. Ann Coulter said about me, I was the perfect Democratic candidate; female and learning disabled. Those kinds of slings and arrows — and she’s been getting her share of that — turn it back at them. That’s the key. If she keeps the focus on why she ran in the first place, and she stays authentic, she’s going to do very well.”
And though Ocasio-Cortez appears fearless in the face of incoming social media attacks, she admits that the spotlight can sometimes feel daunting: “I feel like I’m at the edge of a diving board. And I’m just sitting there looking down,” she says. “And I’m bouncing on that diving board and I kind of just ask myself the core question. And it usually is like, if we don’t do this no one will. And so I jump, but I’m scared all the time.”
You wouldn’t know that from her spirited game of “Where’s Mitch?” during which she and colleagues trolled Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — on social media and for the pack of TV cameras that now follow her wherever she goes — for refusing to call a vote to end the government shutdown. Or on her recent 60 Minutes profile in which she embraced the “radical” moniker and called Donald Trump a racist, which prompted an immediate response from the White House.
“It’s a Bronx thing,” she says, explaining her talent for deploying the clap-back. “It’s call-and-response culture, which is very much in the wheelhouse of people of color. There is a certain amount of street cred that comes with being able to cleverly defend yourself.
“I grew up in a very humorous family, too. That’s how we dealt with trauma; it’s like if we don’t laugh, we’ll cry,” she continues. “We had a family dinner the day before the swearing-in and my cousin was talking about how emotional it makes him to see me make fun of people on Twitter.”
She says toiling in the hospitality industry also prepared her for the personal-destruction warfare of political office. “When you work in the service industry as a woman, you are harassed all the time. It’s just part of your job. You’re often spoken to in a way that is very classist. You are treated like a servant. So you really get used to navigating those dynamics.”
Her mastery of Twitter has drawn comparisons to Trump. While he has used the medium to demolish the norms of presidential decorum, she employs it to bypass the traditional political gatekeepers to speak directly to the people, often in frankly millennial terms. “There’s nothing new about a politician taking a new medium and mastering it,” observes David Litt, who was a speechwriter for Barack Obama. “One thing that’s very new, however, is that young women of color have historically not been allowed in the political arena in the same way. So the fact that she is certainly the first to be as successful is noteworthy. It doesn’t feel forced; it seems very natural. And I’m sure a lot of work goes into it. Politically, it’s very impressive.”
But with her prodigious social media habits – and the reverberation through the mainstream media – does she risk overexposure? “I mean, all public pronouncements by a politician come with some risk,” notes MSNBC host Chris Hayes, who has had Ocasio-Cortez on his 8 p.m. program several times. “What I think is fascinating about AOC is how differently she views the upside and downside risk of public presence. Most politicians don't actually want a lot of attention because it brings scrutiny. AOC takes a very different approach, and one I think we'll see more politicians take as time goes on.”
When I ask Ocasio-Cortez why she thinks Trump has not specifically targeted her, she pauses for several seconds. “I’m not sure,” she says. “I think as nuts as this guy is, one thing he does have an expertise in is media and branding and marketing. And I think, I don’t know, maybe he thinks that he’s met his match."
When filmmaker Lears — whose previous documentary, The Hand That Feeds, followed an undocumented immigrant — first approached Ocasio-Cortez in early 2017 about chronicling her quixotic campaign, it was not a hard sell. “Alexandria has always been interested in transparency,” says Lears, 41. “Early in her campaign, she decided to communicate her process to her supporters. So making a documentary dovetails with that.”
Lears, who was interested in following a handful of candidates who were mounting challenges to Democratic incumbents, first reached out to Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress, progressive political action committees that sprung from the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign to recruit and back candidates who renounce corporate money. “We wanted people who had strong backstories that motivated them to run, who had experienced injustice in a personal way,” she explains.
The search led her to Ocasio-Cortez and three other female candidates: Amy Vilela, who was vying for a seat in Nevada’s 4th district, which includes Las Vegas; Paula Jean Swearengin, who was challenging West Virginia’s centrist Democratic senator, Joe Manchin (who would become the only Democrat to vote for Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court); and Cori Bush, a nurse from St. Louis who became an activist during the Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, Missouri. Lears and her husband, Robin Blotnick — who shares producing and writing credit with her and also edited the film — raised $28,000 through Kickstarter, enough to cut a trailer and set about securing additional funding. They landed a significant grant (she won’t say how much) from The Perspective Fund, which finances social-issue documentaries; but still, it was a relative shoestring project (she declines to disclose the budget).
Lears ended up collecting the most footage with Ocasio-Cortez by dint of their proximity. Lears and Blotnick live in the Hudson Valley, 30 minutes northwest of New York City. Thanks to Ocasio-Cortez’s overnight star power — she made her first appearances on Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel Live! during the latter show's Brooklyn road trip in the summer of 2018 — it became much easier to raise money to finish the film. In part because she became the only candidate of the four Lears trailed who won her primary, Knock Down the House became very much Ocasio-Cortez’s story.
It opens with an intimate scene in which she’s applying makeup in her dimly lit bathroom. “For women it involves so many decisions about how you’re going to present yourself to the world,” she says as she fills in her right eyebrow with a liner.
Ocasio-Cortez isn’t worried that taking part in a movie premiere at Sundance, where she and the film’s other subjects are expected to walk the red carpet, will ding her grassroots street cred. The indie-minded festival is one remove from Hollywood itself. And as Kim Yutani, director of programming at the Sundance Film Festival, notes: “We programmed the film because of its compelling, insider access to a timely story, and inspiring, personal take on a large-scale political narrative.”
Unlike old-school liberals who regularly trek to Los Angeles in search of validation and money, Ocasio-Cortez has kept her distance from Hollywood. When she made her first, and so far only, trip to L.A. last August, she headed instead for Skid Row, where she was the headliner, along with Bernie Sanders, at a downtown small-dollar fundraiser. The perception among the industry’s political donors who are accustomed to being sought out by Democrats is that she has “actively avoided L.A. political types,” says one. But Ocasio-Cortez counters that this is not exactly right. “After my primary, what I was really focused on was doing a grassroots tour of the country. L.A. has some of the most progressive and innovative activist communities in the country. So it wasn’t a decision to exclude; it was a decision of who am I trying to find right now.”
Some in Hollywood do see her ability to connect with millennials as critical to the future of the party. “We certainly hope she continues to energize the Democratic base,” says Andy Spahn, Jeffrey Katzenberg’s political consigliere. But privately, and occasionally not so privately, many Hollywood liberals are apprehensive about her radical bent. But they risk igniting a social media conflagration for saying so. After Aaron Sorkin told CNN host Fareed Zakaria on a Jan. 20 broadcast that the new members of Congress should avoid identity politics and “stop acting like young people,” AOC clapped back on Twitter, and Sorkin felt compelled to clarify his remarks. “I wasn’t referring to Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez specifically,” he said the following day to THR. “I was referring to them getting into public spats with people who plainly agree with them. From what I’ve seen, I’m confident that Ms. Ocasio-Cortez is going to rise to the considerable challenge and serve in the House with distinction.”
“I think she’s done amazing job in showing strength and resiliency,” says Vilela, who met Ocasio-Cortez in 2017. “And it really bothers me when they try to corner her and attack her on her policy positions and label her as an extremist. Because she didn’t take any corporate money, she’s in a unique position to really fight for people and speak the truth, and people are acting like she’s off her rocker.”
Ocasio-Cortez has made calling out the baked-in bias of the media a priority. When a CBS News producer tweeted a photo of the net’s 2020 campaign team, she zinged them for not assigning a “*single* black” journalist to cover the election. And referring to the shocked coverage of Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s vow to “impeach the motherfucker” by the same outlets that offered only perfunctory reports about Iowa Republican Steve King’s latest defense of white nationalism, she mused on Twitter: “Maybe having powerful editorial positions awash in people from one race, class, or gender isn’t a good idea; since we get 1000% more takes on ‘brown lady says a curse word’ than an actual white supremacist in Congress.”
Ocasio-Cortez sits in the front seat of a compact silver SUV; her campaign manager, Naureen Akhter, is behind the wheel. We’re on our way to the Bronx Zoo for the swearing-in ceremony of New York State Assembly Member Karines Reyes, an oncology nurse and first-term representative who, like Ocasio-Cortez, had little political experience when she won in November. After Akhter dodges a succession of gaping potholes, she turns to Ocasio-Cortez: “You’ve got to tell someone to do something about these roads.” The congresswoman agrees, “Yeah, I do.”
Ocasio-Cortez still lives in this neighborhood, but she and her boyfriend, Riley Roberts, a web developer (they met at BU), recently relocated from their one-bedroom to a two-bedroom in the same apartment complex. “We were losing our minds using our dining room as two offices,” she says. She’ll be spending more time in Washington, D.C., but she intends to stay rooted in the Bronx, where she was born and much of her extended family still lives.
Her mom, Blanca, worries about her daughter’s safety — her father died while she was still in college — and Ocasio-Cortez has begun to take precautions, saying, “It’s hard. I do everything I can do. I don’t walk alone places. This whole moment is just really emotionally overwhelming for my mom. It was really hard growing up for so many different reasons. There were so many times where we just thought, ‘It’s over, life is just going to be impossible.’ And to have this happen is just so unbelievable for her and for the whole family.”
Ocasio-Cortez, who was living off her savings of about $7,000 when she was elected while paying off student loans that total a little over $25,000, adds, “There are threads of my life that haven’t changed since I was a waitress.”
But there is a lot that is utterly surreal. Like when Hillary Clinton rang. “She called me the week after my primary. It was overwhelming. It’s like, ‘Oh my God, whhaaaat?’ She had really great advice because what woman has been under more scrutiny in the United States? None. It’s like she knew what was coming for me.” Clinton told Ocasio-Cortez to identify the “touchstones” in her life, “know what grounds you and always return to those things.”
For Ocasio-Cortez, that includes staying right where she is at this moment. “Going back to the same bodegas and talking to everyday people, and my neighbors still being my neighbors,” she says. “That’s really important.”
Just don’t look for her to back down from any of her stances. If anything, the more the maelstrom of media attention swirls around her, the quicker she is to respond, calling for “a fundamental paradigm shift that needs to happen in media overall.” For, she tells me, “These biases, they’re not just conservative, and that’s why I say that our issues aren’t left or right, they’re top and bottom, because it directly has to do with who’s in the positions of power.”
A version of this story also appears in the Jan. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.