The Real Reason Republicans Call Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez a Liar | Opinion

In the days following Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's visit to a detention facility in Texas and her harsh criticism of the conditions there, some on the political right took to repeatedly calling her a liar. Perhaps the quintessential example was a syndicated op-ed by former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (published both by Fox News and by Newsweek) in which he claimed that "it took Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's visit to the border—and her dishonest comments afterwards—to help me understand how profoundly vicious, cruel, and dishonest she is."

Naturally, one expects such a bold opening claim (doubling as rightwing clickbait,) to be followed by evidence. It was not. Not only did Gingrich offer no support—and I mean absolutely none!—for his claim that AOC's post-border visit comments were "vicious, cruel, and dishonest," he did not even identify which particular comments he found problematic. So make no mistake about it, Gingrich's op-ed and much of the conservative backlash in the same vein is not an argument, it is a personal attack. It is shameless name-calling.

Now, Ocasio-Cortez does not need me or anyone else to defend her. She is quite capable of defending herself, which she promptly did on Twitter with the following tweet:

Ah yes, now Newt & the GOP are resorting to calling me a liar.

Who else do they call liars?

- 96% of scientists who agree on climate change

- Millions of Americans they locked up in the War on Drugs

- #MeToo survivors

So I'll take it as a compliment. Thanks.

Owned! Since Ocasio-Cortez has already pointed out the baseless, reckless, and harmful nature of Gingrich's claim, I want to turn my attention to something else, which is how such a claim comes to be made in the first place. Now, obviously, I can't know the former House Speaker's intention, but I can reflect on the social context that would give rise to such an inflammatory and unsupported article. Doing so, however, requires a brief detour through something called "medium theory." So, I beg readers' indulgence as I do so.

Medium theory is a body of research in the field of media studies that suggests technologies of communication are not merely something in our environment, but rather they constitute the very basis of our social environment. Medium theory (aka "media ecology") is premised on three fundamental assumptions: (1) every technology of communication has relatively unique and identifiable features; (2) those features foster and create a particular type of communication environment; and (3) the ensuing communication environment filters how we see the world.

A few years ago, I published an essay titled, "The Age of Twitter," utilizing the perspective of medium theory to explain how Twitter was transforming our communication environment, by making our discourse more simple, impulsive, and uncivil. My case study to demonstrate this argument was Donald Trump's Twitter feed, though at the time he had not yet been elected president. What I could not have known when I wrote the piece is that Twitter's importance and influence as a technology of communication would be totally eclipsed by another technology of communication in a few short years.

That technology is Donald Trump. I understand how strange it is to refer to a person as a technology of communication, but it is consistent with the view of the famous Canadian medium theorist Marshall McLuhan, who saw communication mediums as "any extension of ourselves" and our senses. Here's what I'm suggesting. Donald Trump is not merely something in our social environment; he is our environment (at least for the moment). Consequently, much of the public discourse in our social environment is filtered through the technology or medium of Donald Trump.

So, what are the defining features of this communication technology? Since I don't have the space to discuss them all, I'll focus on the most important one. Donald Trump is, first and foremost, a bully. He consistently employs the tactics of threat and intimidation to get what he wants. Much of his foreign policy, especially his trade policies and tariffs for instance, appear to be premised on bullying other nations. A central tool in the bully's rhetorical arsenal is name-calling, which seeks to silence dissent and scare onlookers into obedience. Donald Trump's practices and policies of bullying have been so effective that he has bent the entire GOP to his will. Indeed, to resist one must abandon the GOP altogether, as Representative Justin Amash recently did.

Increasingly, I am seeing these same tactics—threat, intimidation, and name-calling—used across our media landscape, though they are especially prevalent and pernicious on social media. These tactics are aimed not just at their targets but also at onlookers and observers. They're not aimed at debunking an opponent's arguments or presenting a more pertinent set of facts. They are designed to keep others in line for fear of being the next target of attack. This, tragically, is what much of our public discourse in "The Age of Trump" looks like. It is in this (and only this) context that comment's like Gingrich' comments begin to make "sense"—which I mean extend the sensibility and sense-making qualities of the technology of Trump.

Brian L. Ott, professor of communication studies and director of the TTU Press at Texas Tech University, is co-author, with Greg Dickinson, of "The Twitter Presidency: Donald J. Trump and the Politics of White Rage."

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​