The Trauma Coup

After the storming of the Capitol, the President of the United States has been banned from Twitter (the main way he communicates with the general public) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez put out a video in which she says in the first few minutes that she doesn't know what she's allowed to talk about, that she doesn't know how much of what happened to her she can share because of "security reasons," that she's traumatized, and that she needs to be in the care of mental health professionals. And for the first time ever, the US military announced their opinion about who the next president will be.

These events point in a related direction: the silencing of elected politicians. While they are probably not centrally planned, they seem synchronized, like a lot of people in different places are responding to related cues in similar ways. Trump getting kicked off Twitter, and the harder to pin down forces acting on AOC, come from a shared sense among many people that the thing to do with clear evidence of authorities' failure is to cover it up.

There seems to be a widely distributed sense that it's not the job of people in AOC's position to investigate and communicate to the public what happened, that there are things it would be irresponsible for her to share. But there isn't a correspondingly specific sense of whose job it would be to investigate and communicate to the public, or what recourse the public has if such an investigation is not evident. This is related to a system of coordination within which credibility is assigned not based on track records, but based on having held power. The establishment is the central power network that assigns credit based solely on demonstrated participation in and loyalty to itself.

The establishment saw the Capitol "coup" as an opportunity to step in to manage things, i.e. keep things under wraps. The "responsible authorities" who have been dispatched to respond to the attack on the Capitol are likely to either use this crisis to create a permanently expanded mandate for their own power (see: the War on Terror), or fail to investigate criminal complicity in the attack by members of government. This was an attempted coup. It seems to have been sponsored by parts of the legitimate government; apparently members of Congress gave reconnaissance tours to people who went on to lead of the attack on the Capitol. That is weird for America, and it is too weird for us as citizens to leave entirely to the "proper authorities" without getting some genuinely independent investigative journalism looking into it.

More generally, there's a widespread intuition that the "responsible" thing to do is prevent things from getting messy, to prevent upsetting news from getting out.

Betrayal trauma is a term popularized by psychologist Jennifer Freyd for the effects produced when someone is harmed by someone whose care they rely on, and is compelled to conceal this fact. The military is a well-known institutional betrayer, as is the health care system. Freyd has documented the occurrence of "betrayal blindness," in which the victims of betrayal trauma tend to develop blind spots around the betrayal as a coping mechanism, to compartmentalize their knowledge of it in order to keep up appearances for their abuser.

People with complex PTSD such as betrayal trauma acquire new behavioral patterns such as feeling compelled to side with transgressors - people who are insisting on a coverup - simply because they are transgressors. This is documented among other places in psychiatrist Bessel Van Der Kolk's book The Body Keeps the Score.

The default outcome if AOC receives conventional trauma care is for her therapists to reframe her experience as a personal trauma for her to come to terms with privately and therapeutically, not something where the details of what happened might be important for others to know about. In other words, we should expect that conventional psychiatric care would inflict betrayal trauma on her by pressuring her into participating in a coverup of the violence committed against her.

If this happens, AOC will be recruited into the "responsible behavior" pattern and be more triggerable into silencing others when they're complaining.

AOC's video talked about a power grab by nihilists willing to burn down the country so long as they win. The implication was that the violence done in the Capitol was not in defense of some specific interest, but instead strictly in the service of winning zero-sum games. The coverup we should expect is in fact a nihilistic power grab like AOC says, but the actual adversary AOC is being hounded by is not the Republican party.

This is not a partisan issue. Twitter is piling on Trump simply because he's on the outs, so it's time to disown him and throw whatever's needed down the memory hole. Notably Twitter is NOT banning Trump based on an explicit policy; CEO Jack Dorsey has disavowed even having a policy of banning Holocaust deniers, and Trump violated Twitter's supposed ban on threats of violence against other users years ago when he threatened North Korea with nuclear war. The US Military is not partisan; it's backing Biden, because that seems like the direction of stable, predictable authority right now. The US Air Force's secret plan to commit genocide against the people of China, described in The Doomsday Machine, was not a partisan plan. Psychiatry is not a partisan institution.

Some of these forces seem affiliated more with one party or another, but that's part of the coverup.

National security officials asserting the fully general right to keep state secrets and defining people not backing this up as uncredible, and psychiatrists asserting the right to decide which sorts of speech are mere symptoms of a medical problem, are different but structurally related establishments with a shared fundamental orientation in favor of coverups.

AOC has more in common with people like Peter Thiel (Both interested in life extension research! Both weirdos who don't fit well into party structures!) than with establishment Democrats, and the forces at play here are going to make it more difficult for them to talk with each other, more compelling for them to view each other as members of the enemy team. Making everything about enemy teams is a characteristic behavior of the nihilistic takeover currently targeting AOC.

Early-career people with interests see ways they could advance those interests if they were in positions of more power. But people move into power by accepting conditioning that causes them to see opportunity in bringing more people under control, instead of seeing opportunity in advancing any specific interest. Such people continue to rise in power because bringing others under control is what power is made of, not because there are specific things they intend to do with the power. That is the nihilism of power.

Among politicians, AOC seems uniquely able to speak, but it looks like she had to work through some difficulty to do so in this video, and we should expect this to get worse every day she's in the "care" of the mental health establishment. AOC has firsthand knowledge of stuff that went down at the Capitol, she has alluded to "betrayal" from within the government, and it's possible that some of the things she's seen and isn't talking about are important and incriminating facts that the public has an interest in knowing. She also has a track record of specific detailed well-executed good intentions, starting with placing second in the Intel Science Fair for life extension research, and more recently using her position in Congress to reveal information to the public about how the system works. We need to preserve this voice.

What to do

The problem here is that AOC is most likely surrounded by normal responsible people who have already been recruited into this kind of "responsibility" pattern of silencing. If so, she needs to be unsilenced. Keeping her unsilenced can include:

• Bringing a camera crew to her to make it harder to prevent her from getting her message out.

• Bringing her to a safer location, not in the custody of the national security establishment.

• Connecting her with people who are interested in the *content* of her experience as potentially relevant to their interests as citizens, not just about her feelings.

• Especially before we can reach her directly, public statements by public figures signal-boosting her, indicating that she's talking about something important and relevant to the future of the country, and that it's important to listen.

But most of all we need to have an open conversation among people trying to help, to clarify our picture of what's going on, how the silencing dynamic works, what useful resources might be brought to bear, etc.


This was originally a private letter to Daniel Ellsberg, written on January 15th. Some elements of it are no longer relevant, as the opportunity related to the immediate crisis is over. Others are clearer now than before.

On January 21, author Felix Gilman made a similar observation about the extralegal mechanism by which power was transferred from Trump back to the establishment:

a lot of people have said this but it really does feel as if the real transition took place a couple of weeks ago when they banned him off twitter, not whatever happened yesterday

Ocasio-Cortez recently tweeted;

My story isn’t the only story, nor is it the central story of what happened on Jan 6th. It is just one story of many of those whose lives were endangered at the Capitol by the lies, threats, and violence fanned by the cowardice of people who chose personal gain above democracy.

Thanks for making the space for me, and hope we can all make space for others to tell their stories in the weeks to come. And to those who wish to paper over their misdeeds by rushing us to all “move on” - we can move on when the individuals responsible are held to account.

This explicitly confirms that she has noticed people trying to silence her in exactly the way described in the letter - by framing what happened to her as a personal and private trauma to process and move on from, not as an event that might be of public importance to remember, investigate, understand, and respond to.

Related: I Don’t Want You to ‘Believe’ Me. I Want You to Listen., Childhood Memory, Quotes from Moral Mazes, Towards optimal play as Villager in a mixed game

ETA: My answers to Shauna's and Eli's questions in the comments might clear up some points, so I've integrated them with the letter above.

28 thoughts on “The Trauma Coup

  1. Sean McCarthy

    I'm very confused. Your blog usually seems pretty elucidating to me but if I had to place the text of this post without knowing the origin, I'd have guessed it was written by a completely unhinged conspiracy theorist. It feels like the main content of your posts is in unsaid implications and I am lacking way too much necessary information about your background beliefs, and possibly of news coverage that you're responding to, to understand what you're trying to say at all.

    I would like to understand, but I don't even know what to ask.

    Reply
    1. Benquo Post author

      If any claims seem actually mistaken, or to have an unclear relationship with what precedes and follows them, you might start there. If not, you might want to identify the process in your own brain that might have "guessed it was written by a completely unhinged conspiracy theorist" as extremely suspicious given the lack of any specific objection to the content or structure, and investigate it accordingly.

      Reply
      1. Sean McCarthy

        It's not really worth my time to deconstruct your post. I just thought you might care how it came across to someone.

        When I write "I don't even know what to ask", that doesn't mean I don't have specific problems with it. It means that I think there's a vast gulf in starting points and that the value to your readers would be created by you sharing yours, not by me sharing mine.

        Reply
    2. jimrandomh

      If I had to guess what the missing piece is here, that's making this hard to understand, it's this: personality types form natural coalitions, which are orthogonal to the official coalitions and are harder to spot, but are just as real.

      Reply
  2. Shauna

    I found this post very difficult to follow too, although I think I get the gist of what you're saying.

    Two things were especially confusing to me:

    "These events point in a related direction: the silencing of elected politicians. While they are probably not centrally planned, they seem synchronized, like a lot of people in different places are responding to related cues in similar ways."

    Do you think AOC and Trump are being silenced by the same forces and for the same reasons? Who are the "lot of people" you think are responding similarly, and how are they responding? What related cues are they getting?

    "The establishment saw the Capitol "coup" as an opportunity to step in to manage things, i.e. keep things under wraps. The "responsible authorities" who have been dispatched to respond to the attack on the Capitol are likely to either use this crisis to create a permanently expanded mandate for their own power (see: the War on Terror), or fail to investigate criminal complicity in the attack by members of government."

    Who are you talking about here? I get why Sean thinks this this reads like a conspiracy theory - vague descriptions about "the establishment" are the heart of any conspiracy theory. Of course, the establishment does inherently have power and sometimes one can only describe it vaguely, but some detail about which establishment figures you're talking about and what you think they're doing would be helpful.

    Sorry for the critical comment - I usually lurk and don't like to break the pattern just to go "???" at you, but given your discussion with Sean above I figured I could be more detailed about what parts of your post might be confusing to readers.

    Reply
    1. Benquo Post author

      Specific criticism is always welcome.

      I think that Trump getting kicked off Twitter, and the harder to pin down forces acting on AOC, come from a shared sense among many people that the thing to do with clear evidence of authorities' failure is to cover it up.

      There seems to be a widely distributed sense that it's not the job of people in AOC's position to investigate and communicate to the public what happened, that there are things it would be irresponsible for her to share. But there isn't a correspondingly specific sense of whose job it would be to investigate and communicate to the public, or what recourse the public has if such an investigation is not evident. This is related to a system of coordination within which credibility is assigned not based on track records, but having held power. The establishment is the central power network that assigns credit based solely on demonstrated participation in and loyalty to it.

      National security officials asserting the fully general right to keep state secrets and defining people not backing this up as uncredible, and psychiatrists asserting the right to decide which sorts of speech are mere symptoms of a medical problem, are different but structurally related establishments with a shared fundamental orientation in favor of coverups.

      Reply
  3. Eli Tyre

    > like a lot of people in different places are responding to related cues in similar ways.

    Just as a note, this clause makes a lot of things you've said makes sense, that I was confused about before. (Unless I'm still misunderstanding you, which is likely).

    Like, you're often talking about exploitative "inexplicit coordination". Do you mean everyone responding to the same cues at the same time, creating synchronized patterns of behavior? Or is that mostly referring to some other thing?

    Reply
    1. Benquo Post author

      Do you mean everyone responding to the same cues at the same time, creating synchronized patterns of behavior?

      Yes

      Reply
  4. Eli Tyre

    > The "responsible authorities" who have been dispatched to respond to the attack on the Capitol are likely to either use this crisis to create a permanently expanded mandate for their own power (see: the War on Terror), or fail to investigate criminal complicity in the attack by members of government.

    The thing that would be most helpful for me is if you could spell out a (conjunctive) story, with lots of concrete nouns, about how this could happen, and how it relates to silencing AOC. Which specific people are going to do which specific things?

    Reply
    1. Benquo Post author

      In case 1 the sorts of people who get referred to as "senior national security officials" by the New York Times tell Congress that there's a need for legislation increasing the authority of national security agencies to spy on and arrest Americans without public oversight, Congress complies, and we're back to the post-9/11 status quo before the PATRIOT act expired under Trump. Or, a large area around the Capitol ends up a permanently militarized zone. Or, the Secret Service makes it harder for members of Congress to contact the public and vice versa in the name of security. Or, the FBI starts more openly harassing people it wants to persecute, using coup response as a cover story. Or some combination of these, or something else along these lines.

      Not sure how to tell a specific conjunctive story about something not getting done by anyone, but in case 2, each person who might be in a position to investigate what happened either fails to do so, or is thwarted in their efforts from higher-ups or others in a position to block them (and denied recourse by the courts or Congress), or is discouraged from doing so by insinuations that a public investigation would be dangerous (the same sorts of insinuations that were used to prosecute people like Chelsea Manning and Reality Winner and which would have been used to prosecute Edward Snowden had he not fled the country).

      AOC seems like she's on the receiving end of those kinds of insinuations from the national security establishment and structurally similar insinuations from the mental health care establishment right now.

      Reply
      1. Eli Tyre

        This is clarifying.

        I would paraphrase:

        "It isn't that there's a secrete coalition of deep state people, who have secret meetings to plan their conspiracy. It's just that people in general are incentivized to respond to breakdowns like 911 and this event, by increasing their own influence. So we should expect influence-expanding behavior here, which we should try to stop, if possible."

        Reply
        1. Benquo Post author

          I don't think "incentivized to respond [...] by increasing their own influence" is the whole story. Early-career people with interests see ways they could advance those interests if they were in positions of more power. But people move into power by accepting conditioning that causes them to see opportunity in bringing more people under control, instead of seeing opportunity in advancing any specific interest. Such people continue to rise in power because bringing others under control is what power is made of, not because there are specific things they intend to do with the power.

          Reply
          1. Eli Tyre

            You're saying "its not just incentives, its also selection effects of the people that end up high-level roles"?

          2. Benquo Post author

            Selection for being the sort of person who accepts conditioning that changes their perceived sense of opportunity and danger, plus the actual conditioning. Kind of like the military is full of people who (a) voluntarily went to boot camp, and (b) have been changed by boot camp.

          3. Eli Tyre

            I am apparently out of comment nesting, so I'm replying to...

            > Selection for being the sort of person who accepts conditioning that changes their perceived sense of opportunity and danger, plus the actual conditioning. Kind of like the military is full of people who (a) voluntarily went to boot camp, and (b) have been changed by boot camp.

            ...here.

            "accepts conditioning that changes their perceived sense of opportunity and danger"

            I think I'd need you to unpack what you mean by that. I'm imagining you mean moral mazes type stuff? Can you give specific examples of opportunities and dangers that are perceived differently?

          4. Benquo Post author

            Can you give specific examples of opportunities and dangers that are perceived differently?

            It's not the same opportunities and dangers being perceived differently, it's wholly different things perceived as dangers and opportunities. A simple example: my sense is that the Hollywood studio system tends to try to write contracts in ways that maximize harm to counterparties, and only get money as a result insofar as counterparties want money so extracting it from them seems like it would harm them. I don't expect an artist (actor, director, etc) to be able to appeal to self-interest in proposing a win-win modification to a contract, but I do expect them to be able to get a contract modified by either winning a sadomasochistic contest or making it feel like some third party would get betrayed.

            (Relevant example that made the news recently: Harvey Weinstein was able to massively outperform the establishment at producing innovative movies people wanted to see. This is because instead of fanatically dedicating himself to making life worse for literally every artist he dealt with in every way, he instead merely devoted himself to making life worse for attractive actresses he dealt with. This resulted in movies that were less ruined. A naive person who would like to make some good movies won't even generate the hypothesis that "make actresses uncomfortable" might be someone's main motive, much less

            Friends who've pitched startups report the same thing; someone needs to be the victim for a deal to go through because VCs don't really know, on the level that's actually controlling their decisions, about opportunities that aren't made of betraying someone else. Opportunity-to-betray (in the generalized sense of betrayal trauma) is the only opportunity power can see.

            From a naive perspective, the prospect of getting money or some other specific concrete benefit is an opportunity, the prospect of losing such a thing is a danger. From the power perspective, making someone else take what they dislike or give up what they like is what opportunity looks like and the details of what's liked or disliked are strictly accidental.
            "hurt everyone I interact with.")

            ETA: I just found this in Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook, the synchronicity is too good not to include it:

            When a film mogul wants to buy an artist—and the real reason why he seeks out the original talent and the spark of creativity is because he wants to destroy it, unconsciously that’s what he wants, to justify himself by destroying the real thing—he calls the victim an artist. You are an artist, of course…and the victim more often than not, smirks, and swallows his disgust.

        2. Eli Tyre

          I don't know, why but this comment, (the one starting with "It's not the same opportunities and dangers being perceived differently, it's wholly...") was particularly clarifying to me regarding things that you've been saying. If other people are like me, I think it might be (with some editing) a helpful top-level post.

          My summary: there's are many contexts in which people are conditioned to be _worse than self-interested_, primarily aiming to cause harm to others rather than get good things fro themselves.

          Needless to say, this is a bold claim, and one that has a hefty burden of evidence.

          I guess that your story is that we end up in this crazy (from a naive perspective) situation because in a 0-sum world, you get ahead by gaining power over others, so if you're not screwing someone over, that means that you're not winning? So you learn to track screwing someone over instead of material benefit to yourself?

          That doesn't seem sufficient though. Wouldn't be better to track your interests directly, if you can? Some force needs to cause people to forget that they have interests.

          Is it easier to coordinate around hurting people than it is to coordinate around getting personal benefit for some reason?

          Reply
  5. Rand

    I'm similarly baffled here.

    AOC isn't treating this as "personal trauma". She is blaming this on the Republican party -- see her response to Ted Cruz on Twitter. And her quote at the end isn't portraying this as personal trauma: It's pointing out that members of the Republican party are demanding that we move on, and we shouldn't move on until we've prosecuted everyone culpable. This is all happening in broad daylight.

    And AOC is the last person in the world who is going to be silenced. She was previously the second last, but Trump isn't president, and losing the presidency means that people no longer have to treat you with kid gloves.

    Other things:
    1) "a lot of people have said this but it really does feel as if the real transition took place a couple of weeks ago when they banned him off twitter, not whatever happened yesterday". The real transition took place when he lost the election, Trump's attempted coup (and its outcomes) helped mitigate the concern that he'll be back in 2025.
    2) The comparison of AOC and Peter Thiel is extremely weak. They're not politically analogous – she is cleanly on the far-left end of her party, Thiel doesn't have a political home but made an alliance of convenience with Trump. (Seemingly. I haven't spent time on Peter Thiel.) AOC science fair project shouldn't factor into this.
    3) I don't know who you think is the bad guy here. It sounds like some combination of an unspecified "establishment" and psychiatry. (Hints maybe of Mencius Moldbug's (not Eric S. Raymond's) "Cathedral"? Also, I think psychiatry is Scientology's bugbear. I'm not trying to weigh you down with negative associations, just explaining the alarm bells that seem to be going off for people, including me.)

    I've read your blog before, it tends to be pretty well-reasoned. I think you could do a better job of specifying who you see as the villain here and trying to justify it.

    Reply
    1. Benquo Post author

      It took AOC something like ten minutes of talking in terms of personal trauma before she was able to start talking about the object level situation, and her body language looked to me like someone who was stunned and had to make a large effort to push through that, not like someone who's having an easy time saying what she wanted to.

      I agree that AOC is the last public figure who is going to be silenced, next in line after Trump. It also seems to me that she has more difficulty speaking than she had before, and that a plant to wait until she's been successfully silenced before sounding the alarm is simply a plan to stand by and do nothing while actually everyone is silenced.

      Reply
    2. Benquo Post author

      I don't see any person as the villain here, which should explain why you're having difficulty figuring out who the villain is.

      Reply
      1. Rand

        "I don't see any person as the villain here"

        Then whose "plant to wait until she's been successfully silenced before sounding the alarm"?

        Who has this plan? Who is trying to silence her? If not a person then what organization? And what leverage do they have to pull this off?

        Reply
        1. Benquo Post author

          Seems like you are advocating that policy, by shifting focus from the question of whether AOC is being silenced at all to the question of whether she has already been totally silenced.

          Reply
          1. Rand

            Doesn't work. I wouldn't have commented here if you didn't write the post, so you can't claim this post is about a comment I wrote on it without running into time-travel paradoxen.

            (Also, I don't see where I did that at all. But I'm more concerned about the paradoxen at this point.)

          2. Benquo Post author

            You expressed disagreement with the post's threshold for alarm.* That implies some alternative threshold you think I should have used. I articulated what the implied alternative policy seemed to me to be** and explained why I disagree with that policy.*** If I mistook your implied policy, you might try explaining what policy you think is appropriate, in positive terms, or otherwise provide an alternative explanation of your initial comment that corrects my misconstrual.

            * "I'm similarly baffled here. [...] AOC is the last person in the world who is going to be silenced."
            ** "a plan to wait until she's been successfully silenced before sounding the alarm"
            *** "is simply a plan to stand by and do nothing while actually everyone is silenced"

  6. Rand

    I didn't disagree with the threshold for alarm, I disagreed with the premise. AOC is not being silenced, she is being as non-silent as ever. I don't think you've backed up your contention that she is being silenced or even suggested who might be silencing her.

    (I guess you could call needing any evidence that AOC is being silenced a "threshold", in much the same way that there is a minimum threshold for me to believe AOC is being eaten by a bear. But I wouldn't say I have that threshold: I didn't imagine getting into a conversation about whether AOC is being eaten by a bear and hadn't really considered the possibility. So I'm scratching my head in confusion about where the bear came from, and you're talking about me implicitly setting a threshold for bear attacks. And, I guess, but what/where/why bear???)

    Reply
  7. Anonymous

    I've now watched the first 25 minutes of the AOC video. Having watched it, I find this post, and the urgency it evokes, bizarre.
    The video seemed like run of the mill tribal signaling and political grandstanding. (She makes some points that I broadly agree with and some that I roll my eyes at, but it doesn't seem any different in kind from every other public statement by a politician.) I don't see why you think it is evidence for some kind of institutional silencing pressure. (Separately from whether such pressures exist).

    Her talking about trauma, here, reads mainly as a instance of the pattern of a leftist pattern of claiming legitimacy for one's perspective because of the harm one has endured. It doesn't seem particularly notable or interesting. And nothing seems particularly notable about her demeanor or body language (it actually reminded me slightly of my sister).

    And the main thrust of the video seems to be verbally "shoving" Trump and the other Republicans.

    (And, every time she says the word "frankly" it's like a flag for "I'm exaggerating, or at least asserting something that isn't a literal, verifiable, fact.")

    Reply
    1. Eli Tyre

      Oh. This was from me. I don't know why it was labeled "anonymous." I guess that I deleted the cached text on accident, or something.

      Reply

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