WASHINGTON — Sometime in the past few years, the left became obsessed with “gaslighting.” Derived from the 1944 movie “Gaslight” starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, the term means not just lying to someone’s face but also persuading them that they don’t see what you both plainly do. It’s a bit like the Jedi Mind Trick, but gaslighting comes with a special implication: that the target is not merely deceived but also driven mad by the deception.
The left has complained about gaslighting since Donald Trump took office, but last weekend, progressive wunderkind Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez apparently decided to try a little gaslighting of her own.
The freshman representative from New York’s 14th District, having promised her supporters a Green New Deal, spent her first weeks in Congress working on legislation to that effect — well, actually a nonbinding resolution, but it’s the thought that counts. When the resolution she drew up with Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., was ready to be unveiled, her office fired off an informational list of “frequently asked questions” to the media. Hilarity ensued.
Someone in the Ocasio-Cortez office had forgotten to remove a parenthetical note clearly meant for internal consumption: “We will begin work immediately on Green New Deal bills to put the nuts and bolts on the plan described in this resolution (important to say so someone else can’t claim this mantle).” Even more embarrassing, the FAQ implied that the deal would ultimately ban air travel and scour the country clean of cows.
It was an inauspicious launch for the signature new initiative of the Democratic Party’s signature new star. Instead of confessing that they were still learning how policymaking works, Ocasio-Cortez apparently decided to just pretend it hadn’t happened — not in the sense of ignoring the gibes and hoping to live it down but in the sense of an Obi-Wanian “these are not the droids you’re looking for.”
An Ocasio-Cortez adviser claimed that the document was fake, and when that ploy was laughed off cable news, Ocasio-Cortez and her chief of staff tried to convince Twitter that the FAQ’s most risible parts were fake; or if not fake, misconstrued; or if not misconstrued, part of a brainstorming document that had never been intended for publication, and the fact that they’d sent it to major media outlets was no reason to believe that they meant it.
The performance had the artless charm of a chocolate-smeared kindergartner denying any knowledge of the missing cupcakes. But after the past two years, who’s to say it won’t work? Democrats, in particular, should confront that possibility, and be terrified.
Travel back with me to 2015, for an eerie and poignant moment: Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, deciding he has no path to the Republican presidential nomination, uses the speech announcing his withdrawal — his last few minutes in the spotlight — to beg his fellow no-hopers to “clear the field” so that “the voters can focus on a limited number of candidates who can offer a positive, conservative alternative to the current front-runner.”
Walker clearly saw what was coming with Trump much earlier than most people; he also saw the solution. Trump never commanded a majority of Republican primary voters. He commanded a plurality only because too many candidates were splitting the major Republican constituencies.
If the field had winnowed earlier, Trump would have lost. Instead, through arrogance, through narcissism and through disbelief, the party’s leaders dallied until Trump’s momentum was unstoppable, and a hapless outsider at the head of a minority faction had somehow taken over their party.
After the cease-fire, most of those Republican leaders would end up cravenly capitulating to Trump, to the lies, the incompetence, the vulgarity. Indeed, last month Walker said he planned to chair Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign in Wisconsin. Terrified of his voters but not quite able to bring themselves to endorse his behavior, Republicans have mostly settled on pretending it’s not happening. Thus, the GOP is both a victim of Trump’s gaslighting and its guiltiest accomplice.
Now Democrats may confront a similar threat. Privately, they may be horrified by Ocasio-Cortez’s slapdash approach to policy; angry about her intraparty aggression; disgusted by blatant and juvenile falsehoods. Publicly, however, they wish to court her voters, so the kid gloves mostly stay on.
That may be the practical response, if not the admirable one. But before they chart that course, Democrats should ask their Republican counterparts — privately, behind closed doors — whether they wish they’d spoken up a little sooner, a little louder and in unison, to put down the insurgency before their party, and their dignity, came entirely unglued.