It began on Instagram, of course.
The four congresswomen-elect, in Washington for the November 2018 new-member orientation, had gathered for an interview about the history they had made. There simply had not been people like them in Congress before: no one younger than Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; no Muslim women before Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib; no black woman representing Massachusetts before Ayanna Pressley.
Afterward, someone snapped a photo of them smiling broadly, and then came a crucial question: how to caption it for the 'gram. Ocasio-Cortez had an idea: How about something like "#squadgoals?"
So Ocasio-Cortez slapped "Squad" on a post, uploaded it and tagged her colleagues, who followed with similar posts. It was a spontaneous, perfectly natural thing for a millennial woman to do and, as it turns out, a moment of serendipitous branding.
"So many of us didn't run to be the first of anything," Tlaib said this week as she left a hearing. "We ran to change people's lives for the better."
But they are firsts, and that — along with their high profiles on social media — has brought a massive amount of attention to the Capitol Hill Squad.
"Squad" — dictionary-defined as a small, organised military group, or any small group engaged in a common effort — carries a specific cultural meaning about loyalty and friendship built up from its use in black culture, hip-hop and, more recently, through social media hashtags, by Taylor Swift and your boomer parents texting GIFs. Now "squad" has fully entered the political arena as shorthand for the four progressive lawmakers and what they represent; the term is humourlessly cited on cable news banners, evoked by the lawmakers' supporters and lobbed on Twitter by a president intent on using the quartet as a political foil.
So begins the rush to define the parameters of "squad" and how narrow or expansive it is.
President Donald Trump, who sent racist tweets suggesting the congresswomen — all American citizens — "go back" to other countries, has labelled the Squad as "very Racist", "troublemakers", "young, inexperienced, and not very smart".
Tlaib, however, said last week "Squad" has a broad political meaning. It stands for "a new era of what government should be about, [with] people on the ground, making sure that corporations are not seeping into our democracy and tainting the process".
"One of the things that I love about everybody that supports equity and justice, that 'we are the Squad' — you hear people saying, 'I'm part of the Squad, too' — is we translated it into the movement work we all came from," Tlaib said.
Power to the people
Politicians have long called upon the power of pop culture to connect with voters and project coolness.
There is peril though: They can come off as trying too hard, and nothing kills coolness faster than that.
The trick to guarding against appearing contrived is to be yourself, said Tommy Vietor, Pod Save America co-host and a national security spokesman under President Obama. The four congresswomen are between 29 and 45 — much younger than the average House member, who is just over 57 — and are "talking the way young people talk" and "reaching people in a new way, through new language", Vietor said.
"The challenge in politics is ensuring that people see themselves in their representatives," he said, and politicians struggle to galvanise younger Americans in part because "politics can feel older and stuffier and the language can feel stilted".
Coming from the freshman lawmakers, "Squad" signals both female friendship and a "generational divide," said Nadia Brown, a political science professor at Purdue University. In recent weeks, the term has mainly been used to distinguish the four congresswomen from their fellow Democrats.
But the Squad's members have already managed to draw attention to their shared progressive values and have set themselves apart, Brown said.
Still, some, including liberals, express discomfort with calling grown women and elected members of Congress by such a colloquial term. Is it, as one asked on Twitter, infantilising?
"They're going to be insulted regardless," said Chicago-based writer Mikki Kendall, author of the forthcoming Hood Feminism.
"Does it matter if they have a term that they like, that makes them feel good, that makes them feel like somebody has their back?"
And for many younger women of colour, Kendall said, "it's perfectly fine for them to feel represented by this and feel like their culture is now happening in the places where decisions are made about them".
Trump — who likes to brand opponents with his own mocking nicknames — uses "Squad" derisively with what Craig Jenkins, music critic for New York Magazine, calls scare quotes. The president's supporters have likewise used the term with sarcasm or tried to rebrand the women.
"Right now the Squad is a very effective placeholder for the eventual Democratic nominee," said Amanda Carpenter, a conservative Trump critic and former spokeswoman for Senator Ted Cruz.
"Donald Trump is eating this up. Not only Donald Trump, but the broader fringe conservative ecosystem relies on having an adversary."
In another flip of the term, Trump backers are co-opting it. The Women for Trump coalition, which is led by Trump's daughter-in-law Lara, tweeted photos of their group and declared they were, in fact, the "real" or "better" squad.
"It's a clear reference to what the four freshman members of the House call themselves, only the members of Women for Trump are proud of this country and support the president's policies," Trump campaign spokeswoman Erin Perrine said. Their group is a "much more positive, pro-America squad," she added.
Sometimes politics can totally redefine a term.
With "Squad", though, "I don't think the application we are seeing right now in referring to the four congresswoman is a truly new political meaning", Emily Brewster, an associate editor at Merriam-Webster said. At least not yet.
"It'll be interesting to see in what other situations people will self-identify as squads going forward."
For now, people like Brown think the quartet should wield its label as a rallying cry. "The Squad need to claim it for themselves, as a way to raise money for black and brown candidates to run in 2020," Brown said.