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GOVERNING BY GASLIGHT

Updated: Aug 21, 2020

June 17, 2020


Don't listen to your instincts. Listen to me.

Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman in the 1944 classic movie, GASLIGHT

"The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!"


That's the actual wording of a tweet sent by our President on February 17, 2017.


People familiar with the 1944 movie "Gaslight" know what that means. In the film, the husband of a young woman attempts to convince her that she's imagining things she hears and sees, like the flickering of the gaslights in their home.


I'm not the first to suggest that our President regularly uses the classic gaslight technique on us, the people he was elected to represent and is supposed to be looking out for. When reporters or others confront him, he frequently says, "No, I never did that," or even, "You did that," sometimes even when there is video or other evidence to contradict him.


But turning the tables has often benefitted him. In the time it takes editors, fact-checkers or others to return with proof that he did do or say it, he can change the conversation entirely (another strategy he favors), making the whole issue moot. Or he can say, "I was joking" or "I was being sarcastic," something no one else can technically disprove.


But most of all gaslighting serves to plant a seed of doubt — in the minds of witnesses, and maybe in the mind of the person who raised the issue in the first place. When reporters confront the President in public and he says, "You're a lousy reporter and you produce fake news," some people are going to believe him.


And that statement — issued from the White House lawn, the Rose Garden, or some other authoritative setting — will reinforce a now-familiar theme with this President: the news is biased, mistaken, weaponized against him, and false. Fake, as he likes to say.


Trump insists 99% of the media — also the majority of Americans, and most of the world — are against him. He's just fighting back.


Casting doubt is what gaslighting is all about. The person doing the gaslighting doesn't have to convince you you're wrong; he just has to convince you with his bluster, his certainty, or his anger, that you may be wrong. That the truth is not what you've been convinced it is.


Gaslighting is a sign that you (or in this case We, the People) are in a seriously bad relationship. Mental health practitioners consider it a form of abuse. Goodtherapy.org explains, "One of the most common reasons people 'gaslight' is to gain power over others ... Gaslighting is about control. As gaslighting progresses, the target often second-guesses their own memories and thoughts."


Trump's cries of "fake news" are growing tinny, to be sure Especially this week. But a lot of damage has already been done.


Just ask CNN reporter Jim Acosta, a frequent target of President Trump. Acosta, author of The Enemy of the the People: A Dangerous Time to Tell the Truth in America, has been repeatedly threatened with violence by Trump supporters. Among the fates wished upon him by them: decapitation, castration, being beaten to death, and being set on fire.


The truth (that word again!) is that if someone in power keeps repeating the same thing often enough, some people will believe it. To a segment of America, Trump is a hero. People who disagree with him, who challenge him, who disprove his frequent lies, are threatening to that segment because they can't tolerate uncertainty. A seed of doubt maddens them.


Trump is happy to reaffirm their certainty, over and over again, by urging them to doubt what they see and hear. It's not he who is lying. It's everyone else. It's the media.


It's always the media.


Adam Zyglis, courtesy of Cagle.com


Facts can be proven. That's why Trump doesn't like them.


In a democracy, as in any good relationship, truth can be proven. Either it can be corroborated by evidence (video, for instance — like the horrific video of Derek Chauvin killing George Floyd), or by an authority, or an eyewitness, or someone whose objectivity is well-established.


Sometimes truth bursts out all at once, like it did in the case of George Floyd. Sometimes it emerges slowly and becomes irrefutable with the passage of time. It's the accumulation of evidence that proves the point — which was also the case with George Floyd, one of a series of starkly similar tragedies occurring over a period of less than 10 years.


In courts of law, in government, and in what's known as the court of public opinion, those are the ways truth emerges. Nowadays ordinary people are able to collect evidence by recording events, and cell phone records exist to back them up. Likewise the media now attends and simultaneously records events that used to be written up after the fact. Whether street demonstrations, White House briefings or the State of the Union address, the media is seen in attendance, typing on laptops and holding microphones out to interview subjects. There can be no doubt that what they say is happening is, in fact, happening.


That may be why Donald Trump has such venom toward the profession. If his strategy is to persuade the American people (his bosses, if you want to get technical), that he is to be believed over the media, then it kind of sucks for him that what goes on the airwaves contradicts him.


Remember when he said his inauguration crowd was the biggest in American history?


And then people saw this?




One way to handle discrepancies between two "truths" is to turn on the questioner. Make the people believe the media is lying, not him.


Thus did Trump attempt to gaslight the American public by insulting NBC's Peter Alexander on live TV, calling him "a terrible reporter" — something no other President has ever said to a member of the press.


Trump told PBS's Yamiche Alcindor that reporters like her are "why nobody trusts the media anymore."


He told an AP reporter to "stop asking wise-guy questions" and rebuked Fox News' Kristin Fisher for "being so horrid in the way y0u ask a question."


ABC's Jon Carl was "a third-rate reporter" who would "never make it"; he called reporter Paula Reid of CBS "a fake" and chided CBS's Weijia Jiang, "You ought to be ashamed."


When CNN's Jeremy Diamond questioned whether the Trump administration should be praising itself with more than 40,000 Americans dead of coronavirus, Trump replied, "You don't have the brains you were born with." Which makes no sense (!) but you see where I'm going with this.


When our bully President isn't berating individual reporters, he fires salvos at news outlets — CNN is a favorite target — and at the profession as a whole: "You're fake news. I wish we had a fair media in this country. I've had the most unfair press in history" — all exact quotes.


He singled out The New York Times --, which he has referred to as "my paper," ostensibly because he's a native New Yorker -- in a 2019 interview: "[It] treats me so unbelievably terribly."


Now the media is apparently to blame for the low numbers at Trump's first 2020 campaign rally, which he held on Saturday to a crowd of about 19,000 inside the BOK Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma.


“Radical protesters, coupled with a relentless onslaught from the media, attempted to frighten off the president’s supporters,” campaign spokesperson Tim Murtaugh announced after the event, which some might say was actually quite well-attended — I mean, considering COVID-19 numbers are rising fast in Tulsa, and the event was held indoors and largely mask-free; considering six Trump campaign staffers just tested positive, and that attendees had to sign waivers promising not to sue if they contracted the virus at the event.


But attendance was nowhere near the million mark that Trump aides predicted last week. It now seems pranksters on Tik Tok and elsewhere on the Internet sent in hundreds of false registrations, but even so, the numbers would not have been there. Maybe the, you know, liability waivers, and corona, and all that.


Plus the rally was low-key, as Trump rallies go. And Trump was reportedly pissed.



Plenty of seats were available at the Tulsa rally this week. Photo: PublicNewsUpdate.com



But really, the numbers wouldn't have mattered, and here's why:


1, no matter what actually happened, Trump will lie about it afterward. He will change the numbers, or blame someone (the media for sure, the protesters, Obama, the governors of "blue states", Antifa, the Chinese, etc.), or lash out at someone over it so he looks powerful again, or pretend it didn't happen, or say Joe Biden was the one with the small crowd and the lackluster supporters.


2, he's not going to win anyway.


There, I said it. And others know it too. They, too, heard everyone say in 2016 that Trump couldn't win. They reeled when the impeachment left him in office, even after confirming himself that he'd done what he was accused of. Hell, most people thought the Access Hollywood tape would be the end of him.


Although all of us certainly thought he should fall to the bottom of the ocean all those times, some deep-down spidey sense kept whispering he might come bobbing back up to the surface. As he did.


But I (we?) feel he's done now, and there are a few huge reasons for it: our coronavirus numbers, the failed economy, his callous response to the recent protests. Any of those would surely be enough.


But there are also a thousand smaller reasons: his ineptitude, his instability, his obsessive tweeting, his profanity, and his "quid pro quo" tactics with the governors over PPE.


And then of course the emoluments, the justice department, the bone spurs, the bunker, and the constant whining about what a victim he is, he who victimizes others at every turn.


And so much more.


But I believe the main reason Donald Trump is on his way out is one he himself would hold against a public figure, most especially a President: there's nothing new left in his playbook.


Gaslighting only works while the victim believes you. Once they're onto you — say when, like Ingrid Bergman, you find the missing jewels in a drawer — the groveling man on the floor no longer has any hold over you.


Watch the final scene of GASLIGHT here. Courtesy of Fandango Movieclips.

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