WASHINGTON — When Mark Sanford was running for a South Carolina House seat in 2013 and wanted to make a point about the brand of liberalism he would fight in Washington, he staged a mock debate with a life-size picture of Nancy Pelosi, which his campaign staff had custom made at a local copy shop.
Today, for $64.95, anyone who wants to make a political prop out of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Republican Party’s newest antagonist, can buy a 5-foot-6 cardboard cutout of her at Walmart’s online store.
After barely eight months in office, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez and three other progressive women of color have reached a level of notoriety that is virtually unheard-of for freshman House members, largely thanks to the kind of relentless conservative fire usually trained on far more senior Democrats.
Ms. Pelosi, the House speaker whose “San Francisco values” were the focus of tens of millions of dollars and nearly a decade’s worth of Republican attacks, is Public Enemy No. 1 no more. Even Hillary Clinton, who inspired President Trump’s crowds to thunder “Lock her up!” or Barack Obama, whose ethnic background drew false speculation about his citizenship and religion, are no longer inspiring the kind of vitriol the right has leveled at the four women.
Led by Mr. Trump, Republicans have used the four congresswomen, known as “the squad” — Ms. Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan — as a visual aid for the nationalist, us-versus-them message he seems eager to pursue for the 2020 election. Their attacks on the congresswomen, with only a handful of dissenters, show how broadly accepted Mr. Trump’s racial and cultural instigations have become in the Republican Party.
“Politics is supposed to be about ideas,” said Mr. Sanford, who won that election with the mock Pelosi debate in 2013 and served in the House until 2019 after losing to a more pro-Trump Republican in a primary. “What we’ve now done is to take it to another level, which is to say to some extent it’s about ideas, but it’s about personality more.”
“I never said Nancy Pelosi didn’t love America,” he added. “And I think that’s where some of this has been taken to levels that are dangerous.”
Mr. Trump has done little to discourage the demonization, and the attacks have metastasized. His Twitter harangue that the women should “go back” to where they came from — though all are citizens and all but one, Ms. Omar, were born in the United States — turned into chants of “send her back” at a recent Trump rally. Those kinds of sentiments have multiplied on social media, which has exploded with memes in recent days calling the four everything from terrorists to harpies to cancer.
The president has also had plenty of support from the conservative media. From Fox News, where Tucker Carlson has lent credence to unproven claims that Ms. Omar once married her brother, to the talk show host Rush Limbaugh, who for months has introduced Ms. Ocasio-Cortez by enunciating each syllable of her name with a mimicked Spanish accent, many conservatives depict the four women in a way that recalls how they questioned Mr. Obama’s loyalties and background. Speaking on Mr. Carlson’s show this week, a guest claimed, “We’re not even sure Omar is her real name.”
These portrayals have filtered down to the average pro-Trump, anti-liberal voter and activist. At a party for the Conservative Political Action Conference outside Washington in February, people defaced a cardboard cutout of Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, scribbling “stupid” in vulgar Spanish slang on her face.
Recently, the Facebook account of the Illinois Republican County Chairmen’s Association posted a doctored image of the four that called them “The Jihad Squad.” Ms. Pressley, who is black, was Photoshopped with a pistol in her hand. The association later took down the image and apologized, saying that the posting was not authorized.
Public opinion polls show that significantly more Americans view the four women unfavorably than favorably — a remarkable level of infamy for any House member to reach after less than a year on the job.
While it is not unusual for partisans to move on to fresh targets, the four women have less power, fewer achievements and lower national profiles than past Republican targets like Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton. None are seeking the presidency, or even a leadership position in the House.
Whether the vilification has damaged the Democratic Party as a whole is unclear, as is whether these attacks will have staying power once the Democrats choose their presidential nominee next year — and there is an actual face to put on the party.
Mr. Trump is convinced it will help him, said people who have spoken to him in recent days. And he rejected those who have told him otherwise, responding with certitude, “You’re wrong.”
Joshua Ulibarri, a partner at the Democratic research firm Lake Research Partners, said that his party would be wise to assess what Mr. Trump is really trying to accomplish — rally the faithful while also converting nonvoters who are inclined to be sympathetic to his nationalistic appeals.
“They know our side is coming out,” Mr. Ulibarri said. But what Mr. Trump has failed to take into account, he added, is that the squad “has motived our base, especially young women and people of color.” He recommended that Democrats harness that energy to avoid the low turnout of minority voters that hurt them in 2016. “For us to not promote that means we haven’t learned our lesson,” he said.
But Democrats would risk losing voters who are not as progressive if Americans believe that the four House Democrats and their call for sweeping change on issues like immigration and health care — dismantling the Department of Homeland Security, for instance, as Ms. Ocasio-Cortez recently suggested — represent the party as a whole.
Democratic strategists conceded that their candidates have had a hard time getting traction because of the outsize place Mr. Trump occupies in the media.
“The media attention is driven by whatever Trump is talking about — and that’s what people hear, that’s what filters down, ” said Tresa Undem, a partner with the research firm PerryUndem, who has been surveying likely Democratic primary voters in recent weeks.
“On any given issue they know nothing about it unless Trump has had a take on it at some point, and the media has covered it on a sustained basis,” she added. “Anything else doesn’t break through.”
Months before Mr. Trump started tweeting about the four — telling them to “go back” if they did not like America and calling them racist, weak, anti-American and “not very smart” — conservatives had been watching them closely and covering their public remarks with an intensity that far surpassed the coverage that most of the two dozen Democratic candidates for president were receiving. The congresswomen sometimes did themselves no favors.
Ms. Omar, who is Muslim, was heavily criticized after making comments that were widely condemned as anti-Semitic. Her statements and tweets, including one that pro-Israel activists were pushing “for allegiance to a foreign country,” led the House to pass a resolution in March that condemned “hateful expressions of intolerance,” by an overwhelming 407-to-23 vote.
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s identification as a democratic socialist, and her huge profile on social media, made her catnip for the right. She became a national media sensation after her stunning upset of a white male Democrat who had represented her district for nearly two decades. But the mentions of her in right-leaning media — hardly ever presented in a flattering light — proliferated after she led the public relations efforts behind the Democrats’ Green New Deal, a progressive proposal to fight climate change.
No member of Congress in memory had made such a splash so fast. Most Americans had never heard of or had no opinion about senators like Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Elizabeth Warren a year and a half into their first terms, according to Gallup. But after only two months on the job, most Americans said they knew Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, Gallup reported.
But by then, more people already had an unfavorable impression than a positive one, polls showed. After Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s office published talking points that contained an aside about getting rid of “farting cows and airplanes,” conservatives pounced, incorrectly claiming that Democrats would end commercial aviation and stop beef production.
But with Mr. Trump and others pushing such sensational claims, the Green New Deal gained in notoriety. One recent poll conducted by the Democratic Global Strategy Group found that 69 percent of Fox News-watching Republicans had heard about the proposal, compared with just 33 percent of Democrats.
All of this is reminiscent of the way Republicans started hammering Ms. Pelosi in 2010 because of her role in getting the Affordable Care Act passed. The time and money spent reminding voters of comments she made about the bill — she once said Congress needed to pass it so that Americans could see what was in it — helped Republicans put a public face on Democratic leadership. And it belonged to someone who happened to be from the city that inspires some of the most cartoonish portrayals of liberals, San Francisco.
Republicans took back the House that year, deposing Ms. Pelosi as speaker. They kept vilifying her with some success in congressional elections for the next eight years, driving her approval rating below 30 percent at times and holding on to their House majority.
But by 2018, the attacks were no longer working as well.
When Democrats took control of the House in last year’s elections, more voters were galvanized by and preoccupied with another unpopular leader: Mr. Trump.