- The GOP is Gaslighting America / Joel Mathis in The Week (here)
- Trump Apparently Thinks He’s a Master at Gaslighting / Eugene Robinson in The Washington Post (here)
- Lies, bulls**t and gaslighting: A field guide to Trump’s reality-warping mendacity / Paul Rosenberg in Salon (here)
- How to Fight the Shifting Impeachment Goalposts / Jonathan V. Last in The Bulwark (here)
- Trump is Gaslighting America Again — Here’s How To Fight It / Bobby Azarian in Psychology Today (here)
After a full year of gaslighting in the political arena in 2019, non-stop and laid on as thick as it can be laid on, I for one have had enough to last a lifetime. We’re still alive and the show must go on, but it wears a girl out. The purpose of this post is less to review instances of political gaslighting over the course of the year — the results of that would be lengthy enough to make the Encyclopedia Britannica look like a grocery list — than to consider the phenomenon and its effects as we look ahead to 2020 and beyond.
To make clear exactly what it is we’re talking about, I quote from the article in Psychology Today by Bobby Azarian, cited above:
This tactic of getting people to question their direct experience is a type of psychological manipulation scientists call “gaslighting”. A person who is gaslighting an individual or group that they have chosen to target does so by getting them to doubt their own memory, perception, and reality. Through persistent lying, misdirection, and contradiction, the gaslighter attempts to delegitimize the victim’s beliefs by confusing and destabilizing them.
This is by no means the first time Trump has used gaslighting to manipulate his supporters into doubting their reality. Calling Russian intervention in the 2016 presidential election “fake news” after intelligence agencies have proven it beyond doubt, and claiming to have a record-breaking crowd size at his inauguration, are just two examples that immediately come to mind, although at least a dozen more have been documented.
The term “gaslighting,” which is a well-established psychological phenomenon, comes from a 1938 stage play called Gas Light , about an abusive husband that tries to convince his wife she is insane by changing small elements of their environment and insisting she is having memory lapses or delusions when she notices them. While this scheme was particularly vile, it is hardly as nefarious as a state leader attempting to do the same to a whole country.
We’ve lived through so many instances of gaslighting from Trumpworld it’s become pointless to expect anything else. For my part, it’s like the Chicken Little story. “No collusion!” becomes remarkably like “The sky is falling!” and long before the start of 2019 my ears were already hardened to whatever comes from that quarter. It’s the only sensible stance for anyone holding to objective truth as the arbiter of reality. If you’re a pure ideologue then of course anything goes and you can embrace lies and conspiracy theories without batting an eye. But homey don’t play that. Ain’t never and ain’t ever gonna play that. Naughty, naughty, Mommy spank.
The immense toxicity of this phenomenon to the public sphere must not be underestimated. The person who IMHO has spoken most pointedly and convincingly about that danger is Masha Gessen, the Russian-American journalist currently a staff writer at The New Yorker and author of several immensely accomplished and interesting books. She doesn’t figure in the list of cited articles because she doesn’t call the process “gaslighting,” she calls it by another name stemming from the authoritarian reality she experienced in Russia. Gessen describes a perversion of conceptual and linguistic integrity inherent in authoritarian regimes and uses Putin’s game as the prime example. Since the United States is not (yet) an example of an authoritarian regime I think it fair to call the U.S. phenomenon by the psychological term used for that particular type of abusive behavior. The fact that it’s coupled with political reality and tends toward the same ends as authoritarianism in any of its national manifestations is hair-raising.
The first point on which to be crystal clear is that gaslighting is abuse. Psychological abuse, of the first order. I researched gaslighting because — thank God — it’s not something I’ve dealt with at close personal range. Deceit, straight up betrayal, inveterate denial in the face of irrefutable evidence — been there, done that, but gaslighters have remained outside my personal sphere. Lucky me. So I read up on the phenomenon in order to see what psychologists and psychiatrists said about how to deal with it. One of the best articles I found is by Madeleine Burry in Health (here) entitled, “If Your Partner Keeps Gaslighting You, Here’s What You Can Do,” and the final step is the clincher:
Get out—and don’t look back
You tried to address the behavior, but the gaslighter hasn’t made an effort to change. At this point, the only solution is to split; an emotionally abusive relationship is an unhealthy one. Unfortunately, calling it quits with a gaslighter is not easy.
“The breakup may provide fertile ground for more gaslighting,” says DeMaria. “Often, gaslighters ramp up their behaviors when things come to an emotional head, as they so frequently do during a breakup,” he says.
With that in mind, Gatter recommends skipping explanations and exhaustive conversations. “You’re wasting your energy if you’re looking for them to take responsibility or acknowledge or validate anything that you’re saying,” says Gatter. Instead, state simply, clearly, and definitively that you want to end the relationship.
After the breakup, Sarkis recommends complete radio silence: block your gaslighter’s phone number, ignore calls from unknown numbers, and delete emails unread. Be aware that the gaslighter may use other people—like friends you two have in common—to communicate. Clearly tell these people that you will not discuss the gaslighter, she advises, and use what you’ve learned to find a healthier relationship.
If the gaslighting shows no sign of stopping, then you stop the gaslighter, period, end of story. There is no other option. It’s that simple.
Over the course of the year I’ve become very critical of the press covering the gaslighting from the political arena because they shove it in our faces over and over again. Is it really necessary to have the abusive behavior foisted on us continually, refreshed multiple times in awareness? The answer is no. If it’s obviously gaslighting, then it shouldn’t be played back 25 times a day as a soundbyte. It can be mentioned, identified as poppycock, and then we move on to something sensible. The cable news networks continually shove that crap in our faces in the course of their broadcasts to the point that I use the mute button to shut down the gaslighting bits almost as often as I use it to shut down the commercials. Something is wildly wrong with that picture.
What’s wrong is that people aren’t taking the phenomenon seriously enough as abuse and as a psychological danger. Abuse is dangerous because it can cause massive damage. That’s why it has to stop. In a personal relationship it’s up to you as an individual to deal with the abuser and the abusive behavior. But what does an individual do when confronted by abusive behavior that proceeds from the political life of the nation itself? That’s what I call Big Trouble. The impeachment process has brought things to a new pitch of intensity. It’s finally come to a head: the very notion of evidence as objective reality is being thrown out the window by one side of the aisle in favor of instrumental ideology in the sole interest of political power. The result for the public sphere is the same kind of danger a person in an abusive relationship faces. It’s clear the gaslighters are never going to give up on the gaslighting, so what does an individual do?
A lot of the analysis at present turns up Putin and his nefarious doings as the root of many evils. I’m reminded as I watch what goes on of somebody else, perhaps even more germane to the situation: Nicolae Ceaușescu. Putin is a hard-core KGB-trained thug. Ceaușescu was in and of himself not very much — he was more the product of a system than the avatar of a particular authoritarian program. His self-promotion through a cult of personality was evidence of his lack of substance. He wasn’t smart enough to have dreamed up the system himself. He fumbled his way to power and held it due to previous corruption of the public sphere (including the judiciary and the military). Once that corrupt sphere collapsed he was toast in no time flat. Like an evil clone of the Wizard of Oz, once the course of human events pulled back the curtain and he was exposed, that was the end of him. We all know what happened as the curtain call.
That situation seems much closer to the current situation in the USA. A “world leader” who goes off at the mouth about the American public suffering from having to flush their toilets 12 or 15 times is obviously not in the same league as authoritarian big-wigs. Proper authoritarians don’t make themselves look like complete fools for the simple reason that it undermines their power base. Duuh. So if parallels are to be drawn with the figure Trump cuts both domestically and on the world stage, he’s much more in the Ceaușescu vein. His background as a continually failing businessman (think “Trump Steaks” or “Trump University”) excludes him from more momentous company. He’s stuck down with the second or third tier.
For that reason the gaslighting doesn’t work very well. Trump and his GOP loudspeakers have overdone it by a million miles. Only people hermetically sealed in the bubble of Trumpworld — “Earth 2” as Joy-Ann Reid of MSNBC rightly and hilariously calls it — react to the latest “The sky is falling!” The rest of us roll our eyes, shake our heads and think to ourselves, “STFU.” We’ve heard it all before. And yes, Virginia, facts still matter for the majority of the American population. Surprise, surprise. Three years of gaslighting haven’t turned our minds to mush, mirabile dictu. We’re tapping our fingers on the table impatiently and waiting … waiting …
The question at this juncture for the individual is how to navigate the current damaged state of the public sphere. Here’s the agenda I’ve developed for myself.
Step 1: Reduce Exposure
It’s important to keep up-to-date on what’s going on, of course, but about mid-year I decided that pushing my face frequently into the toxicity of the public sphere as it plays out in Washington, D.C. is not a good idea. D.C. is itself a bubble, a fact brought home continually as the links between individuals there come into my awareness. It’s as if the entire country consisted only of Washington, D.C. and New York City. Newsflash, kids: most of us are not used to having organized crime as a salient feature of our daily landscape (here’s lookin’ at ya, Big Apple), nor do our livelihoods hang on the edge of the Beltway with its bevy of bandits. We observe things from a distance — less salutary than the one Better Midler sang about, but a distance nonetheless. We are not sucked into the singularity of the D.C. Bubble in the way the actors on its stage are. That’s a healthy thing. We watch, we ruminate and we formulate our own thoughts in the privacy of our own homes, outside the gravitational ambit of The Hill.
At this point it’s easy to see when something newsworthy comes along just from a look at the headlines. I’ve reduced my exposure to the rest of it — the “bombshells” and the analysis and the prognostications. Nobody knows how things are going to turn out over the course of the next year and I don’t need my nervous system worn to a frazzle by keeping up with the pronouncements of the pundit class. I’m just after the facts, ma’am, just the facts. I’ll formulate my own opinion on their basis, thanks very much.
Step 2: Remain Outraged
This point comes from Masha Gessen’s advice about how to deal with a damaged public sphere (the article of hers I have in mind is here). The trick is to keep the outrage present as an anti-gravity force against the black hole that Washington, D.C. has become without the counterforce becoming so strong that you have a matter/anti-matter reaction and go up in a blast of gamma rays. To put it into the vernacular, it’s continual vigilance to “call bullshit.” Reducing exposure to the gratuitous and annoying repetition of the bullshit by the media is part of the strategy to keep the matter/anti-matter reaction at bay.
Step 3: Stay Grounded In Your Local Reality
When I’m traveling abroad and following the news in the States it’s easy to get the impression that things are going down the toilet very fast. Yet when I return to my neck of the woods things are just as I left them — the mail still gets delivered, the grocery stores still have their shelves full of stuff (that doesn’t give you diarrhea, woohoo!), and life trundles along. I don’t use those facts to lull myself into a false sense of security about nothing being wrong at the national level — that something is seriously wrong never leaves my awareness. It’s important, however, to comfort yourself with the reliability of the local. People still have to make a living. There are kids to raise. Old people die with remarkable regularity. Life has its own momentum at the local level, the national level be damned. So while it’s a bad idea to stick your head in the local sand and pretend the national level doesn’t exist, it’s an equally bad idea to forget the assurances and comforts the local level provides while the storm rages at the national level. I just need to do the mental housekeeping to keep the two levels in the proper relationship. I also use that tactic to keep an eagle’s eye on changes in the local level. If things start to go wonky in the neighborhood — power outages becoming more frequent, things on the supermarket shelves going missing, that sort of thing — it will be a clear sign that the fish is rotting from the head down and we’re in serious trouble. But you know what? People have a vested interest in making their own lives work regardless what goes on in Washington, D.C. So I don’t expect to have to queue up at the Safeway for hours hoping to get a loaf of bread before the supply runs out. If that day ever comes, I’ll have seen it coming long before its arrival and will have taken steps to get out of the way.
Step 4: Think of the Future
This is another of Masha Gessen’s tips from her article cited above. It has to be done in stages, obviously, there’s no point in blue-skying your way to 2050 with a Hallmark smile and a “tra-la, tra-la.” We’re in deep do-d0, and not just politically. The climate situation is beginning to hit home much earlier than our fine scientific predictions suggested might be the case. California has a lamentable tendency to go up in flames at the drop of a hat and now Australia is in on the act. The Greenland ice cap is melting like the stuff in a freezer with the power cut off. Venice is spending more and more time under water, threatening to become the first major submarine city in the world. These things put our political muddles into a completely different perspective once they’re taken o board as the bottom line facts they are.
But even with that dire background reality set aside for the moment, the lunacy of today is time-sensitive. The course of human history just works that way. So as long as I don’t have to queue for hours at the Safeway to get bread I can strike a stance of patience for the long-term while keeping my eye on the exits. Things change quite quickly these days. I musn’t let myself get bogged down by the present.
Curiously enough, that trick is familiar to anyone who has been through depressive episodes. When one comes along you tell yourself that it’s not going to last forever, however much it seems that way when you’re in the middle of it. We’re going through a collective depressive episode at the moment. But it can’t last forever. Nobody knows what may come next, but change is assured one way or another. Keeping a scent of the wind to see which way it’s blowing is all part of the gig.
Step 6: Stop Being Nice Inside While Keeping Up Appearances
This strategy is related to telling yourself the truth to make yourself impervious against gaslighting. Gaslighting can happen at the local level, too, of course, it doesn’t just come from our nation’s capital. I’ve perfected my Hallmark smile so that I can plaster it on at the drop of a hat as the situation requires. If I find myself thrust into the company of a denizen of the far-right bubble who insists on splatting his or her reality all over me, I remain the very soul of politeness. There’s no talking to such people and no point in trying. What you do is get them out of your experience — the only thing to do with gaslighters. So I remove myself from their vicinity in whatever way causes the least trouble. But remove myself I do.
The number of articles on the effects of political polarization on family and community life in the USA has increased dramatically over the past three years. This past Thanksgiving there were articles a-plenty about how to get through Thanksgiving dinner with your relatives without starting World War III. Keeping your mouth shut is easy enough to do, but it’s in fact caving in to the gaslighting — you suppress yourself so the gaslighters don’t have to do it for you. It works, of course, and is really the only viable approach when faced with the necessity of being in the same space with people where the truth told baldly would only catalyze that matter/anti-matter reaction I mentioned.
The strategy I’ve become comfortable with works well: exclude such people from your ambit of contact. That includes relatives, by the way. The family structure will sell you down the river just to keep the peace, it cares nothing about truth. So if you happen to be a person related to people who support policies that will result in people like you being done dirty in a major way, then ditch ’em. Simple. They don’t deserve the time or energy you are required to invest in securing their comfort, an act which only leaves them confirmed in their structural cruelty. Strategic silence is appropriate only in an emergency, not as part of daily life — unless you live in an authoritarian state and speaking up means you put your life at risk (here’s lookin at ya, Vlad). It must not be allowed to become a mode of life because it causes major damage to one’s sense of self. It’s the exact equivalent of enabling a gaslighter to keep up the abuse. Homey don’t play that. No siree.
Of course it would be delightful if the gaslighting just stopped suddenly and we could get back to a public sphere where facts still hold sway, where evidence can indeed be irrefutable, etc. etc. I hold out hope that at some point in the future before I achieve the grave that day will come. Until it does, I’ll be following my steps with my fingers crossed. 🙂