Since Jan. 6, we have witnessed a sad little suite of GOP responses to the riots that took place when supporters of Donald Trump destroyed property, injured and murdered Capitol Police, and threatened officeholders in an effort to help him set aside the results of the presidential election. Early GOP efforts at overt fabrication—it was really antifa!—were belied by the first arrests. Most early GOP concessions that something demonstrably vile had happened and that Trump bore at least some responsibility were rapidly replaced by walk backs and offramps. Those who haven’t retreated from those claims are being threatened and sanctioned. Republicans who don’t want to think about, talk about, process, or probe the causes or effects of the Jan. 6 insurrection have plenty of rocks behind which they can hide: the unilateral demands for “unity,” the bottomless distracting petulance over their right to “free speech,” and their golden ticket claim that Sure, they’d love to see accountability but unfortunately this impeachment trial is unconstitutional. But all of that was the stuff of January, when hearts were still pounding and stains were still being scrubbed off the walls of the Capitol.
Now, we are in February and with this new month comes the real GOP defense. It takes the predictable form of gaslighting. This was always the go-to play of the Trump era, and it’s effective because it doesn’t waste its time with anodyne calls for unity, or formalistic claims about due process or constitutional structure. Less than a month after armed violent attackers broke into the Capitol, we come to the first-order defense of the Trump years: The victims are not the victims at all. The attack was not an attack at all. Those being blamed for bad behavior are themselves the victims of witch hunts and partisan fishing expeditions. This claim was previewed this week in the back-to-back performances of dismissing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Instagram Live account of the capitol insurrection and the first filing by the former president’s lawyers in his impeachment trial. Both presage and preview the strategy that will play out at next week’s impeachment trial in the Senate. It’s an approach that is both very old and quite new: demanding the silencing of actual victims while claiming the mantle of greater victimhood.
The blowback to Ocasio-Cortez’s account is hardly surprising. As Jill Filipovic points out, this is garden-variety erasure of any woman’s account of abuse, whether it’s from the men who insist she hasn’t suffered a single tiny bruise on her physical body so she is in reality just fine, to those who insist that when women speak of fear, violence, and threats, they are simply “performing,” as Michael Tracey suggests, a political act of “emotional manipulation” and “histrionics.” This is the age-old trope of female testimony as hysterical and imprecise—the implication being that the victim was confused or rejected or the unknowing agent of cunning (male) puppet masters. It dates back to the Bible, and to Chaucer, sure, but our more recent examples include, of course, Anita Hill and Christine Blasey Ford. The swift and certain attacks on AOC’s gripping factual testimony of the events on Capitol Hill include the suggestion that maybe she did it for money and attention, as posited on Fox News by Kim Klacik.
This move, the move so publicly perfected by Donald Trump but with roots that, again, date back centuries, is to paint the woman as the real malefactor; she is faking/acting/being manipulated, and also she waited too long and also used the wrong forum and also must be profiting somehow. And as my colleague Susan Matthews points out, by centering AOC’s sexual assault claims instead of her testimony about the Capitol attack, the media followed right along in the same old play that makes her sexual history the central issue, as opposed to her reliable narration of her experience of the insurrection. That bifurcated media focus on the sexual abuse she mentioned suffering in the past then itself became the vehicle for Rep. Chip Roy, to continue to demand an apology from her, for comments she made last week about Ted Cruz and his role in the Capitol riot. In a statement he released Tuesday, Roy indicated that while he “was saddened to learn about the trauma that my colleague, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, described in recent days regarding sexual assault” and hoped “she has received justice and experiences peace in the matter,” he “will not be swayed from my beliefs about right and wrong—regarding this or anything else. Her comparison of my defense of colleagues to her circumstances were again inappropriate, but I am not going to participate in discussing her personal experiences as a political matter.” The sexual assault, he implies, is a “personal experience” and has nothing to do with the “political matter” of who instigated and emboldened the insurrectionists. He will not tolerate any conflation of the two, thus the first is tragic and irrelevant. Never mind that part of her personal trauma is what happened on Jan. 6. No, just as GOP senators were moved but not willing to act around the specific, anguished testimony of Christine Blasey Ford in 2017, Roy is moved but unwilling to probe that of AOC. He would instead like to clarify that while he is sorry for her prior (private) pain, it has no bearing on any discussions of accountability, Capitol insurrection, or politics.
Now, anyone who watched her speak would understand that Ocasio-Cortez wasn’t seeking justice for a sexual assault that happened in the past; she was simply testifying to the malignant effect of Republican gaslighting over a Capitol siege that ended in five deaths, dozens of injuries, massive property damage, and deadly serious plans to harm and kill elected officials. She was giving much-needed voice to those officials, most of whom have yet to provide blow-by-blow public testimony of the trauma they themselves endured and the ways in which they are forced to live within that trauma as they are lectured that the patriotic thing to do is “move on.” Congressional aides have now added to that horrifying narrative. This is anything but private pain. Ocasio-Cortez wasn’t talking about earlier trauma to “manipulate” a political debate; she raised it to highlight what the aggregate effect of being told, over and over, that the violence that happened to you is normal, or trivial, or—most perniciously—somehow your own fault. It’s no coincidence that almost half of Ocasio-Cortez’s Monday testimony concerned the two days leading up to the insurrection, days in which she was terrified, heart pounding, receiving warnings from others, and yet powerless to stop what she knew was coming. She is being gaslit about an event about which she had been gaslit even before it took place. After-the-fact denialism is bad enough, but knowing that an assault is coming while everyone around you dismisses the glaring evidence is its own form of violence. AOC has been living that reality for years now, by the way, but when she gives voice to the effect of all that, she is called histrionic.
It is astounding, in some sense, that Republicans, the party of the victim’s rights movement, and victim impact statements, and specific, ends-driven victimology, is always so quick to trash victims that don’t tell the stories they want to hear. But it’s hardly astounding that the first, shoddy filing in the Trump impeachment is a tour de force of well-trod victimology. According to his lawyers, not only is he being singled out for persecution by a vengeful cabal, intent on after-the-fact vengeance for his “unpopular speech,” but he claims that he should by all rights be protected from “government retaliation” for such speech. His innocent speech is being used against him, they claim, simply because it is not “deemed popular in current American culture.” Don’t get him started on the unfairness of the “due process” violations and something something “bill of attainder” and the failure to grant the accused his “opportunity to be heard,” all of which brings us to the sole victim of Jan. 6: Donald J. Trump. Because he is, of course, just an ordinary golf-playing guy being singled out for having some kind of—what did he used to call it?—“I have Article II, where I have the right to do whatever I want as president.” Yeah that poor ordinary guy, suddenly being singled out by the House of Representatives, which has “created a special category of citizenship for a single individual: the 45th President of the United States.”
It’s in no way surprising that we have arrived at the stage of the national discussion in which the true victims of Jan. 6, 2021, are being dismissed, seemingly en masse, as vengeful, theatrical hysterics, just as the vengeful, theatrical hysteric in chief lays claim to the argument that he is suffering particularized harm. That’s exactly the long-standing prerogative of powerful political men that AOC was attempting to redress. As Filipovic explains, the law has never been a particularly even-handed instrument when it comes to ferreting out which victims are heard. Next week brings an opportunity to collectively examine and understand, in the clear light of day, why and how so many people felt so free to threaten, attack, and even kill elected officials and their staff in their place of work four weeks ago. That the GOP plan is to occlude and obscure that inquiry as its chief instigators claim that they are themselves being persecuted, silenced, and unfairly targeted is simply more of the same gaslighting we’ve endured for four years. It’s also a laser pointer to what’s to come in the future, which is precisely what AOC attempted to say, before she was dismissed as an imperfect victim of the perfect crime and an imperfect witness to perfect national tragedy.