We Asked a Therapist How the Hell Lawmakers Still Traumatized by The Insurrection Are Supposed to Do Their Jobs

Image: Zach Gibson (Getty Images)

A new president has taken the oath of office and a new administration will begin the work of undoing the damage of the previous one. It’s like the first day of school all over again. But despite the changing of the guard, there still remains a body of lawmakers that lived through an insurrection fueled, arguably, by their coworkers: fellow elected officials in Congress. Members like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shared that they thought they might die as a result of pro-Trump rioters storming the Capitol. Still it was expected that once the literal and proverbial smoke cleared, everyone would be right back at work in the same building where their lives were threatened. But how exactly does one work with a co-worker that may have called for violence?

To understand this better Jezebel spoke to Lorraine Gonzalez a licensed clinical social worker in New York with a background in addressing “various behavioral health diagnoses specifically related to trauma and loss.” The following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.


Jezebel: Is it accurate to call the insurrection or a traumatic event for those trapped inside or would that be hyperbolic?

Lorraine Gonzalez: Yes. Based on what I’ve seen and how those events were covered, absolutely. I mean, if the intent of individuals who stormed the Capitol was to harm and put the lives of our elected officials at risk. It was a violent act. There was vandalism, there was force used to enter and it looks like there was tactical gear and some were armed, and so I think the fair assumption is that their lives were at risk. They understood their lives to be at risk. And so they were in that fight or flight mode.

What are some of the more common ways a trauma like this can affect a person?

Quite immediately you have that fight or flight response, so physiologically there is an impact in terms of your heart rate beating faster, and mentally there can be a lot of thoughts racing. You’re really just in survival mode. I think past the trauma or past the event, one could have flashbacks. Any stimuli that reminds them of that event could be a trigger and it could create anxiety going forward. Going into that building alone could be anxiety invoking. Sitting in the office and sound or news that might be threatening would certainly lead to heightened anxiety and difficulty performing and functioning.

And what about members who were or have been specifically targeted with threats of violence by some freshman GOP members. For example, Ilhan Omar. How is she supposed to go to work with someone like Marjorie Taylor Greene, who intimated she was going to be violent towards her in a campaign ad? 

What that creates is a system where there’s no trust. You could work in a professional setting where there’s limited trust but then you don’t necessarily think your life is at risk in those situations. So at a minimum, there’s little to no trust depending on the elected official she might be working with. But it really impairs her right to feel safe while trying to do her job and represent her constituents. One of our basic human needs in order to function and in order to perform is feeling safe. It’s a very trying position where she isn’t feeling safe and she feels that there’s a risk she’ll be harmed.

[Lawmakers] might have their own struggle physiological manifestations of anxiety, but then even in terms of their performance, I think if we look at the social psychology of it, it just continues to promote dysfunction, because if [someone like Ilhan Omar] can’t perform feeling like it’s in a constructive manner, what techniques or negotiations or conversations can she have that can be constructive to really get things to happen? I mean if [bipartisanship] isn’t even an option. It just promotes dysfunction. And I don’t think I’m saying anything novel. I think that’s really what folks are concerned about is that there isn’t that ability to [work together] when [one side] is crossing that line of risking people’s lives and safety.

Do you think there’s a route back to bipartisanship if, for some reason, the members who were responsible for inciting the rioters are not removed from their position and end up having to face insufficient consequences for their rhetoric? Like they just have to pay a fine and can keep working, can we bounce back from something like that?

Well, I think you still then are having those who were the target of that threat be in a position where they are not safe and it doesn’t rectify the issue that they face on a day to day basis. And therefore, we still have this problem of—I don’t know that you can repair that level of trauma with trust. Just to draw an analogy, when there’s trauma or violation in a family unit that lives in the same household, if there’s a risk of harm to an individual the intervention is a separation so that the individual feels safe and then you work on the issue. But it really takes the person who committed the act or the threat to have a realization of their wrong and to consistently work to repair the trust. It doesn’t get repaired just because they paid a fine necessarily.

It sounds like the first step toward any sort of repair is for some people to admit they’re wrong. Knowing how entrenched some members are in their Trumpist beliefs, not so much their Republican ideology but really the ones that went hard for Trump specifically, knowing how they operate do you think they are even capable of taking that step?

It’s possible. But I think potentially what’s happening here is there’s this indoctrination of belief and it’s not necessarily rooted in fact. People are vulnerable, you know, humanity can be vulnerable to that. We see it all over the world, not just in this instance, but in terms of people being indoctrinated into certain beliefs that might not necessarily be rooted, in fact, and I think there needs to be that openness to hearing from the other side. Even if you end up remaining firm in your belief, you have that sense of boundary where you respect that not everyone feels the same way and it is not your right to cross that line and force your way. That’s the important piece. It is possible depending on their openness to hearing, empathizing, and respecting but having that boundary will determine if it will be successful or it won’t be.

Following the riots, there was the call for impeachment and during that, there was a particularly dark moment where Cori Bush called out white supremacy for what it was and called Trump a white supremacist. She did this and then she was booed by her colleagues. Meanwhile, she’s just seen a noose and several Confederate flags occupy her place of work. It’s been some time since white supremacy has been this overt and in our faces so, you know, how does a freshman Congresswoman bounce back and continue working with people who seem to sympathize with white supremacy? 

You know, when things coming out in the open and hit a certain threshold, that can spur change. We have yet to see what will come of all this. But in terms of some of our elected officials who booed any talk of this being an act of white supremacy... if the insight is not there then it’s not there. Now we have to look at why the insight isn’t there. In our system as a country, we start learning certain things very young. So from zero to five a lot of cognitive development and learning is happening and then we go to elementary school and there is more learning and indoctrination that happens there.

I think as a country we have to ensure that we’re telling the full story from early on in terms of racism and the evolution and progress we’ve made but also some of the residual consequences of decisions made early on in this country. I think that takes a lot of time and you know, admitting that something is overtly racist. We have members in our own community that are racist.

I’ve never known somebody who acknowledges being a racist until they are sort of in a position of privilege where they want to acknowledge it in order to enact reform. So I think [the response of booing] is probably a result of there not being the necessary insight. However, does it mean progress can’t be made? Does it mean that insight can never be developed? No, but there has to be a willingness and I think often times being open and willing to understand or admit fault can be perceived in certain atmospheres as being weak or vulnerable. That’s the piece that we grapple with in these positions.

Do you think because of this particular booing incident young people of color might be deterred in the long run from running for elected office? Because I couldn’t imagine doing all that work to get elected to then have these white people boo me and having to remain calm throughout.

I think it could if that is where the incident stops. But if there are alternate members in our elected body who persist and who continue to press on and demonstrate their steadfastness and resilience and persistence and progress, then there could be a different outcome. The hope is that there will be some sort of response.

Considering everything that’s happened with the coup and our lawmakers now navigating through different levels of workplace-related trauma while trying to run a country, is there room for optimism? Or should we all be taking a more realistic approach that things are going to continue spiraling downward?

It’s got to be a personal choice. Personally, I feel I don’t have an option but to remain optimistic and continue to go forward because relenting isn’t an option. When I talk about progress in my practice with any client, it’s like you have two choices, you know, and you can choose to press forward and continue on or you can choose to accept defeat. And it’s your choice and no judgment but depending on what you choose, there’s a certain outcome no matter what. If you choose hope and you choose to continue to press on, then you stay steadfast in that decision, and that’s my choice at this time.

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DISCUSSION

reader7890
Reader7890

Congressfolk anxious now about being in the building are reacting normally to a situation like that. Their lives were threatened by people with guns and zip ties and tasers who broke into the building to hurt them. Some people, like Cori Bush, are STIL being threatened. They’re having a reasonable reaction to an extremely threatening event. If they are still having the same reaction in 3 - 6 months or so, they might be diagnosed with PTSD. There are a number of PTSD treatments, some better than others.  I can recommend EMDR; it helped me immensely.