The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines gaslighting as an “attempt to make (someone) believe that he or she is going insane (as by subjecting that person to a series of experiences that have no rational explanation).” Sound familiar?

As a political tactic, gaslighting has never been so uniformly and brazenly embraced than by Donald Trump and his Republican lackeys. Over the past four years, even when clear evidence proved otherwise, the Trump camp tried to connive Americans into believing that Russia didn’t interfere in our election, that immigrants are responsible for working people’s socioeconomic pains and that any journalist who dared fact-checked the president’s claims was peddling fake news. 

State Sen. Julie Gonzales

Yet, Trump’s previous gaslighting now pales in comparison to what we’re living today. Since the outset of the coronavirus outbreak, we have been told everything from “the disease is a hoax created by Democrats,” to “COVID is like the flu and nothing to worry about,” to “we have all the supplies we need and anyone who wants a test can get it.” These false claims, among countless others, have been ignorant, irresponsible and deadly. 

As a first-time candidate who ran for office as part of the blue wave of 2018, I often spoke about the ways in which structural inequality impacted our ability to create a Colorado in which everyone could thrive. Even before the pandemic, too many Coloradans were working harder than ever just to make ends meet, as rents and the cost of living continued to spiral out of control.

Many Coloradans lacked affordable health care coverage. Over half of our Colorado school districts operated on four-day school weeks. Immigrants and their families watched in horror as Trump blithely enacted policies that put kids in cages.

To think: that was normal. Those were the good times, prior to the pandemic’s onslaught. The truth is, even though Colorado enjoyed one of the strongest economies in the nation prior to the pandemic, too many working families were teetering on the brink of economic catastrophe. Crises expose inequality, and the COVID crisis laid bare the gaping chasms between the haves and have-nots in our state and throughout our nation. 

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Who will suffer the most from this pandemic? The tech billionaires and fat cat CEOs will weather this storm, but unless we act now, the backbone of our economy, essential workers — the grocery store clerks, the nursing home staffers, the janitors, the meatpacking plant workers — could bear the brunt of the gutting of our public infrastructure.

Even now, Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, had the gall to ask the public to donate to Amazon employees in need, while at the same time refusing to pay his workers a living wage and firing those organizing for better conditions.

Chances are you paid more in taxes last year than he did. But he isn’t alone; powerful corporations across the country are scalping relief funding meant for small struggling businesses, lobbying Congress for no-strings-attached bailouts and taking advantage of people’s fear and vulnerability by price gouging. 

And this is where we return to the idea of gaslighting. 

As Colorado and the rest of the nation carefully begin to restart our economy, Trump and his cronies will no doubt begin a new and potentially even more dangerous gaslighting campaign. Very soon, big business and the MAGA White House will deploy an all-out media blitz to lull you back into a false sense of normalcy.

Perhaps you’ll even doubt whether the coronavirus was ever a real threat. Trump and his supporters are now starting to protest to reopen our economy, safety precautions be damned. Trump’s re-election campaign and his corporate cronies will spend untold millions of dollars to convince you that everything is now back to normal. Hospitals weren’t really overwhelmed, undersupplied and forced to put people in mass graves; those stories were exaggerated.

The infection rate wasn’t that high; the press is lying. You were never in danger; the libs were hysterical. You didn’t see the leader of the free world promote an untested drug as a miracle cure like a snake oil salesman, you saw a crisis update. You didn’t see inequality. You didn’t see desperation. You didn’t see America fail its people spectacularly in the face of adversity, you saw America winning. 

On some level, we all probably wish we could forget that this pandemic ever happened, in the way that sometimes we wish that we could shake off the lingering effects of a bad dream.

But that would be a huge mistake. History doesn’t repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme. Colorado is now facing a $3.3 billion budgetary shortfall, and potentially a recession greater than the Great Depression. As policymakers return to the Capitol, we will be forced to reckon with unenviable decisions. 

Our unemployment insurance, housing infrastructure, public schools and health care systems were all anemic prior to the pandemic, but now with the added stress, we run the risk of these critical pillars of our state infrastructure crumbling unless we act decisively in support of the common good.

And yet, we as Colorado legislators will be limited in our options to act, unless and until Congress sets aside its partisan politics and once again works for the wellbeing of the American people and not the corporate cronies.

This is our opportunity to define, in our own terms, what this state and what our nation will look like in the next six months, in the next two years and in the next decade.

We can all celebrate everyday acts of kindness, everyday workers who are now rightly recognized as heroes, and neighborly compassion, but we also must hold cruelty, corruption, racism and gross incompetence to account. From what media we consume, to what organizations we support, to whom we vote for, we all have a role to play.

If we want a healthy environment, we must protect it. If we want stronger schools, we must fund them. If we want all Americans to make a dignified income, we must demand it. If we want affordable health care coverage for all, we must create it.  

Let us never again kid ourselves into thinking that we can go back to the way things were. We must take care of ourselves and each other, build new systems that advance equality and justice and resist the tsunami of gaslighting that awaits us. 

State Sen. Julie Gonzales, D-Denver, represents Colorado’s 34th District.

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