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Trump, AOC, and the Triumph of Trauma Politics

Spectacles of public grief substitute for political change

Scott Wordsman
March 12, 2021
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images
Rep. Troy Nehls, R-Texas, in blue shirt, uses a sign to drive back rioters trying to break into the House chamber to disrupt the joint session of Congress during certification of the Electoral College vote, Jan. 6, 2021Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images
Rep. Troy Nehls, R-Texas, in blue shirt, uses a sign to drive back rioters trying to break into the House chamber to disrupt the joint session of Congress during certification of the Electoral College vote, Jan. 6, 2021Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

In her first big leadership moment under the Biden administration, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the shining star of the Democratic Party, known to most as AOC, organized a congressional hearing for her and fellow lawmakers to bear witness to their experiences at the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol riots. To pick just a few examples of the press coverage, The Washington Post called it, “harrowing and emotional,” The New York Times found it “strikingly personal and harrowing,” and NBC News labeled it “stunning.” At one point, Michigan Representative and fellow “squad” member Rashida Tlaib, who was not actually present at the Capitol on Jan. 6, began to cry while recounting threats she had received in 2019. From watching the cathartic rituals of a “support group” play out on the floor of Congress, a nagging question remained: How exactly did this televised display of emotional venting help the American people, whose material needs members of Congress are elected to represent, and who are, at this moment, suffering from a pandemic and a devastating economic recession?

AOC herself has suggested that people who ask such uncomfortable questions may be “attempting to minimize, discredit or belittle the accounts of survivors.” Yet there is another way to approach this that takes nothing away from the pain experienced by survivors, but which examines why, at this precise moment, public accounts of grief might be useful to the American political establishment. In a moment of crisis the Democratic Party has latched onto the popularity of AOC & Co. as a way of offering something in the meantime to the American public: personal experience media mascots—reality TV stars whose currency is trauma and grief.

Despite the Biden administration’s early promises to heal a divided country, both Republicans and Democrats in the House have proven reluctant to offer lower-income Americans basic coronavirus relief, namely in the form of a $2,000 stimulus check, an initial Biden promise that has since been chopped down to $1400, after months of hand-wringing. This paltry olive branch may surprise some Democratic voters, many of whom support progressive economic policies and believe they have finally found champions in Washington through AOC and younger progressives, such as Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, and Cori Bush. Although AOC and the squad won their congressional seats on platforms that initially supported increasingly popular left-leaning policies, like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All, it’s questionable whether they have the leverage—or the genuine desire—to battle party leaders like Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, who prefer more pro-business and less redistributionist agendas. In fact, less than two years after running for Congress on a platform that called for forcing a vote on universal Medicare, AOC has recently claimed that the idea is untenable, given that “the Dem votes aren’t there yet.” Instead, the congresswoman says that she is expending her political capital to push for pragmatic reforms, like a $15 federal minimum wage—another Biden promise that has ceased to stand the test of time.

A still from Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s video recounting the events of Jan. 6, 2021
A still from Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s video recounting the events of Jan. 6, 2021YouTube

The appeal of emotional narratives in party politics is nothing new. One only has to recall Jimmy Carter’s bucolic peanut-farming past to understand how much American voters love a good underdog story. Donald Trump was never shy about inserting emotional drama into politics and even ran on his own kind of underdog platform, as a Washington outsider who could take down the establishment from the inside. AOC, then, finds herself in an interesting historical moment. As a frequent target of right-wing attacks that are often both personal and hyperbolic—she is an ANTIFA rioter singlehandedly turning America communist—the congresswoman has legitimate grounds to address the abuse directed at her.

And yet, AOC’s status as victim and target has kept her in the spotlight and added to her aura of legitimacy; paired with her youth, charisma, and vulnerability, she has mass appeal with a broad swath of the American people, many of whom also feel victimized, for a host of reasons. In practice, her popularity and her presentation of victimhood are not easily separated. A savior of the left and a bogeyman for the right, AOC’s cult of personality—her very role as celebrity politician—makes her a person worthy of criticism. While she and the squad might still continue to push for progressive economic policies and incremental reforms, the more attention and influence they attract for emotional performances that voters are encouraged to see as identical with progressive politics, the more likely it is that they will focus future efforts on symbolism over substance. We already witnessed a preview of this over the past year, with the iconoclastic campaigns to remove certain Dr. Seuss books from shelves, as well as the tearing down of Confederate-era statues last summer. These battles over representation may be important to many people but they will have very little long-term impact on the structural conditions that shape the things ordinary people care about most: their paychecks, job benefits, health care, and schooling for their kids.

A line can be drawn directly from the pitched battles over symbolic representation that played out last year (while corporate profits and jobless rates both soared), and AOC’s recent emotional House testimony. Barricaded inside California Congresswoman Katie Porter’s office during the Capitol riot, the 31-year-old New York congresswoman reportedly told Porter, “I just hope I get to be a mom ... I hope I don’t die today.” Broadcasting live on Instagram weeks after the event, AOC told her story to millions of Americans, in which she compared her reaction to the experience of hiding from the protesters to that of a reaction she had to a past sexual assault.

In an essay about trauma politics, the theorist Mila Ghorayeb writes:

Experiences are subjective, and accounts of experiences are sometimes unreliable ... People lie about grave things. This is an uncomfortable truth, particularly when trauma and pain are involved. When 15-year old Nayirah al-Sabah cried in front of congress [in 1990] about witnessing babies being removed from incubators by the Iraqi army, one would appear to be a monster if they called her a liar. But her testimony, which persuaded American political officials towards warfare, turned out to be false.

If there is anything we can take from such an event, it is that the words of political actors, even the good ones, do not always have to be taken at face value. Thus, it is neither cynical nor conspiratorial to consider whether the Democratic Party, which controls the White House and both houses of Congress, is exploiting AOC’s accounts of trauma and grief in order to force through a domestic agenda that claims to be fortifying the sacred institutions of government against future Republican insurgents, while using “war on terror” language to target any American as a potential national security threat.

As Ghorayeb continues, trauma politics are a highly effective political strategy:

[Trauma politics] favour those that are more comfortable sharing their personal history ... The personal nature of this form of political discourse makes contesting facts a matter of personal attack rather than genuine truth-seeking. It forces us to contend with one’s personal and subjective narrative rather than material social and political circumstances ...

The end result of trauma politics, intended or not, is that its victims find themselves encased in bulletproof glass, as if, due to their experiences, they are immune from criticism and justified in doling out whatever punishments will best heal their wounds. In the aftermath of the Capitol riot, AOC tweeted that “survivors are watching. Loved ones are watching ... Speaking vitriol towards other survivors hurts you & your loved ones.” This statement renders any criticism of her and the Democratic Party dead on arrival. But it also does something else—it lays the groundwork for a new moral and cultural order, one that has the potential to be more punitive than the one preceding it. One could view AOC’s Instagram videos as a way of conditioning her supporters, many of whom are young and well-intentioned, to turn on friends, relatives, and neighbors in the name of a murky friend-enemy distinction between terrorist and terrorized.

The “Karen” phenomenon from this past summer is a good indicator of how future transgressions from established left-liberal norms may be punished by those in power. In an age where everything that is said can be screencapped, filmed, or traced, it is simpler than ever to identify individuals’ psychotic breaks and emotional outbursts, share them online, and get the offenders fired or blackballed. In terms of bringing the Capitol stormers to justice, billboards have been popping up on highways, imploring Americans to report tips on those affiliated with the event to the FBI. One wonders what role AOC’s televised floor session, with lawmakers sharing their teary accounts of the event, played in the public fervor to label the Capitol protest attendees as “domestic extremists” and to promote becoming an FBI informant as a virtuous act.

A trauma- and grief-based politics that deals more in retribution and less in understanding is bound to come untethered from beliefs that nurture a healthy society. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the same left-wing activists who supported police abolition over the summer want to see those same police round up right-wing Americans and give them a proper punishment.

AOC, as a media-savvy celebrity politician with millions of social media followers, has a degree of cultural power that few other politicians enjoy—a power that has increased dramatically as the coronavirus pandemic forces schools, work, and the social world online. Because our lives are now lived screen to screen, our ability to differentiate friends from celebrities becomes more difficult. If we wake up to AOC on Instagram and reply to her on Twitter after dinner, is she not just as real to us as the people in our lives? This exercise in bonding, regardless of intent, inclines us to defend her with the same tenacity that we might reserve for a close friend or a family member.

The following months will be crucial in terms of which direction the Democratic Party will move. Will AOC, as the party’s media figurehead, wholly abandon the tolerance and empathy that is part and parcel to the Bernie Sanders socialism she once stood for, or will she uncritically push a punitive political agenda on the American people, under the guise of protecting the vulnerable? Unfortunately, the wheels may already be in motion.

Scott Wordsman is a writer and teacher from New Jersey. His essays can be found in The Colorado ReviewLIT MagazineMap Literaryand elsewhere.