If you’ve never heard the term, prepare to learn it and live with it every day. Unless Trump starts behaving in a radically different way after he becomes President, gaslighting will become one of the words of 2017.
The term comes from the 1930s play “Gas Light” and the 1940s Hollywood movie version (Gaslight) in which a manipulative husband tries to unmoor his wife, played by Ingrid Bergman, by tampering with her perception of reality. He dims the gaslights and then pretends it’s only she who thinks they are flickering as the rooms grow darker.
That’s only the beginning. He uses a variety of truth-blurring techniques. His goal is to exert power and control by creating doubts about what is real and what isn’t, distracting her as he attempts to steal precious jewels.
Mental health professionals have made much of the practice, said to be a favorite of narcissists and abusive spouses. But more recently the tactical tampering with the truth has become a preferred method of strongmen around the world. Gaslighting by other means was always a common feature of dictatorships, but it has found new vogue as a more subtle form of domestic political control even in countries with varying degrees of democracy.
Now Trump has brought it to the United States. The techniques include saying and doing things and then denying it, blaming others for misunderstanding, disparaging their concerns as oversensitivity, claiming outrageous statements were jokes or misunderstandings, and other forms of twilighting the truth.
Recall the presidential campaign. By early summer, Trump had already accumulated a long list of statements he made and then denied making; enough that fact-checkers could hardly keep up. He told his supporters to “knock the crap out” of protesters at his rallies, adding “I will pay your legal fees.” When confronted with the statement, he responded: “I didn’t say that.”
After mimicking a disabled reporter and seeing the video used as evidence against him, he repeatedly denied it, claiming his opponents should be embarrassed to say he did. “I would NEVER mock disabled. Shame!” The denials continued after Meryl Streep brought up the subject this week at the Golden Globes. With the video easily available, Trump’s argument boiled down to “Who do you trust, me or your lying eyes?”
When Trump says something that outrages a portion of the population and pleases one segment, he can have it both ways. Voters eager for a tough guy president may be happy with the bully, while those who don’t like it might be appeased by the denial. In the end, few people can keep up with all the facts all the time. And as he tries to undercut the credibility of serious journalists, he makes it even harder for everyone else to find an easy path to the truth.
Just before Friday’s intelligence briefing on Russian hacks, Trump approvingly tweeted about Julian Assange’s statements denying Russian involvement. When he was criticized for trusting the head of WikiLeaks more than US intelligence professionals, he accused the “dishonest media” of claiming he agreed with Assange.
The fact is, many people hear only Trump’s version of events, and polls show many people believe even the most obvious distortions of the truth.
He’s just getting started, but compared with the man he admires so much, he’s a rank amateur at gaslighting.
In Russia, the truth became a matter of opinion under a strategy implemented by a clever aide to President Vladimir Putin, Vladislav Surkov. Surkov, who has a background in the arts, orchestrated a kind of political theater in Russia, creating a gauzy façade where no one knew which group was a creation of the government and which wasn’t.
He reportedly financed liberal groups and neo-Nazi skinheads. Russian politics became theater, and Putin gradually gained almost total control, with the independent media gradually disappearing as an alternative to journalists loyal to the government.
Russia’s false reality then moved from the domestic arena to global theater. When “little green men” made their appearance in Ukraine’s Crimea, Russia denied that there were Russian operatives in unmarked uniforms. And when pro-Russian militias emerged in Ukraine and elsewhere, Moscow claimed they emerged spontaneously in a quest for independence, even as Russian military forces moved into position in a sovereign country.
Russia even tried to gaslight US voters, as intelligence agencies concluded, trying to undermine their faith in the democratic process. And when Moscow thought Trump would lose, it planned to promote the view that the election was stolen, under the #DemocracyRIP banner, a plan whose seeds Trump had already planted.
The challenge will be a steep one for journalists and for all Americans, when so much of what comes from the next president has to be checked and double-checked. The first step is to establish when there is a gaslighting operation in progress.
Then comes the battle to hold on to the facts.