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What AOC is doing right now is the antidote to GOP gaslighting

The star congressperson is going to keep drawing attention to the trauma of the Capitol siege until her Republican colleagues stop pretending it doesn’t matter.

What AOC is doing right now is the antidote to GOP gaslighting
[Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images]
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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has clearly not gotten over the insurrection of January 6—and what almost happened that day.

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But anyone who has gotten over it is in the wrong.

Ever since the Capitol siege that resulted in five deaths, dozens of injuries, and allegedly thwarted plans for much worse, Ocasio-Cortez has continually spoken up about the trauma she and many others incurred that day.

She first came forward with a harrowing account of what it felt like to be hunted at own her workplace, in a candid, hour-long Instagram Live session on January 12.

“It is not an exaggeration to say that many, many members of the House were nearly assassinated. It’s just not an exaggeration to say that at all,” she said during the stream. “We were very lucky that things happened within certain minutes that allowed members to escape the House floor unharmed. But many of us nearly and narrowly escaped death.”

In the days since the congressperson first recounted her experience, the facts have borne her out, with one Capitol rioter charged for threatening to assassinate her. In turn, AOC is taking every opportunity to make sure that her Republican colleagues, and anyone else who may doubt her account, don’t forget it.

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When Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, whose objection to Joe Biden’s electoral vote count helped drive the insurrection, attempted to agree with Ocasio-Cortez on a separate issue last week, she brought the conversation right back around to January 6, and Cruz’s culpability.

Most recently, on Monday, February 1, Ocasio-Cortez opened up yet again about her tortuous experience, again on Instagram Live, fleshing out the portrait of her brush with death using fresh details. (If you have a couple minutes, this section is especially harrowing.) The biggest news to emerge from this latest IG Live is AOC’s revelation that she is a sexual assault survivor, something she disclosed to contextualize how it feels when Cruz or fellow Republican Marco Rubio suggest that we all move on from what happened on January 6. (“These are the same tactics of abusers,” she says at one point.)

The fact that Ocasio-Cortez has been assaulted should, sadly, not be that surprising. A staggering one in three women reportedly experience sexual or physical abuse in their lifetimes. What is surprising, and refreshing, is her radical candor. It’s a useful way to ground personal experience within a vocabulary and a context that one in three women (and countless men) will understand: trauma.

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Although the congressperson’s ever-present critics have already characterized her candor as “emotional manipulation,” what she’s doing is actually the opposite of that. Or rather, it’s the antidote to it.

Few words became as over- and misused as “gaslighting” during the Trump administration, but gaslighting is the ultimate form of emotional manipulation. The term is meant to evoke not merely an abuser’s denial of reality, but their alternate version of reality, which they then wield relentlessly in an effort to make the abused person accept it as truth. Right-wing extremism isn’t a problem in America; the real problem is Antifa and, somehow, Black Lives Matter! Trump wasn’t trying to steal the election by damaging the postal service during a pandemic; the Democrats were actually trying to steal it through mail-in voting!

After the term gaslighting achieved ubiquity around 2017, people frequently began subbing it in where it did not belong, often to describe simple lying or chiding. The term may have lost its potency, but the gaslighting itself never stopped under Trump. In fact, it’s still flourishing in his aftermath.

The Capitol siege is still less than a month in the rearview mirror and Senate Republicans like Cruz and Rubio are already distorting our collective memory of it. In their version, what happened was certainly a darn shame, but it wasn’t, like, impeachment-bad. And what almost happened? Well, that’s to be ignored entirely. It doesn’t matter. Let’s move in, for the sake of unity.

By downplaying the severity of January 6, these senators are being emotionally manipulative. They are denying the validity of trauma—both AOC’s personal trauma and the greater national trauma that the congressperson takes great care to acknowledge beyond her own.

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After a year of COVID-19 and a historically contentious election, all Americans are currently steeped in trauma. We’re marinating in it. If you don’t think you’re experiencing trauma right now, what you’re probably experiencing is denial.

Trauma is significant and powerful and it demands to be recognized. And it is for this reason that AOC divulging her history as a sexual-assault survivor may prove most helpful.

There used to be an idea that to admit trauma was to exhibit weakness. Victims were encouraged to toughen up. Walk it off. Stiff upper lip. But to block out trauma for any extended period is like swallowing poison you have the option to spit out. Our emotions are part of our humanity, and to repress them is to be dehumanized. What the #MeToo movement did was create space for women to openly acknowledge their trauma and either seek justice for it or find a way to move past it.

By repeatedly grounding the Capitol siege in hers and the nation’s trauma, Ocasio-Cortez is providing the antidote to gaslighting. She keeps reiterating, as many times as it takes, the gravity of what happened on January 6—what we all saw from home, along with the insider perspective of what we didn’t see. And because she has an enormous megaphone, her message is mostly drowning out those who oppose her with their own interpretation of events.

Perhaps Ocasio-Cortez continuing to beat this drum will become the Capitol equivalent of Chanel Miller’s legendary victim impact statement against the Stanford rapist. Maybe this one congressperson’s personal point of view will help provide universal insight into the trauma of an entire nation. No matter what happens in the upcoming impeachment trial, though, Ocasio-Cortez has already refused to let her experience during the Capitol siege be diminished.

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She’s also proven that acknowledging trauma is sometimes a way of harnessing power.