The term started cropping up during the presidential election cycle: gaslighting.
Melissa Jeltson mentions the “power of gaslighting” in her article claiming Donald Trump is conning the entire country. Susan Dominus of the New York Times talked of Hillary Clinton using Donald Trump’s gaslighting techniques against him during one of the debates.
Post election, the term has gained momentum to describe the current state of our “post-truth” society. The surprisingly savvy Teen Vogue asks “Is Donald Trump Gaslighting America?” Frida Ghitis writes “Donald Trump is ‘gaslighting’ all of us,” on CNN.
But before we discuss the merits of the case, lets back up a bit.
What is gaslighting?
The term originates from the 1944 film Gaslight, starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer (based on the 1938 Patrick Hamilton play Gas Light). In the film, a husband (Charles Boyer) manipulates his wife (Ingrid Bergman) into believing that she is losing her mind. The term “gaslighting” began being deployed in the psychological sense in the 1960s and 70s, coming to mean “the action or process of manipulating a person by psychological means into questioning his or her own sanity.”
Bryant Welch’s book State of Confusion inaugurated the use of the term “political gaslighting” in 2008 to discuss the tactics of psychological and mass media manipulation through which politicians seek to gain power.
So my question is: are we, as a nation, being gaslighted by President Trump and his administration?
Psychology Today has an article about recognizing whether you are being gaslighted. Here’s what they have to say are some classic methods of manipulation; I consider how they may or may not apply to our current state:
- They tell blatant lies
Two words: alternative facts.
What is the point of bold-faced lying when everyone knows what the truth is? Well, Stephanie Sarkis writes that this kind of lying sets up a precedent: “Once they tell you a huge lie, you’re not sure if anything they say is true.” This has the impact of keeping people unsure and “off-kilter.”
- They deny they ever said something, even though you have proof.
As Teen Vogue highlights, President Trump went to the CIA and denied saying negative things about the organization, even though it is all on the record. The continued lying and causes the press to have to go back and restate the “truth” which thus calls it into question. A big part of gaslighting is manipulating the victim into questioning your own reality. “Did I ever really hear it?”
- They use what is near and dear to you as ammunition.
This was how Donald Trump won the election. He preyed upon people’s fears, especially people in rural America. According to the Pew Research Center, over 65 percent of rural Americans say that they are worried about immigrants taking their jobs and that jobs are scarce on the ground in their community. Moreover, 33 percent of rural Americans believe that their children will be worse off than they are. So when Donald Trump came in telling them that only he could save them, the voters listened.
- They wear you down over time.
Sarkis likens this to a frog slowly being cooked in a frying pan; if you turn up the heat slowly, the frog doesn’t know what is happening. If this is the case, if we are being gaslighted, then we have only begun to see the destabilization of journalism and the way in which information is conveyed by this administration.
- They know confusion weakens people.
The destabilization of the media is only part of the problem here. We as a nation are confused. Typically, when candidates run for office, they lay out detailed economic, political, and social policies. We are clear on their plans. Donald Trump threw out that playbook, and no one knows what he will do next.
- They project.
Sarkis writes: “They are a drug user or a cheater, yet they are constantly accusing you of that. This is done so often that you start trying to defend yourself, and are distracted from the gaslighter’s own behavior.” I am having flashbacks of Hillary Clinton’s email scandal and the new information that his staff continues to use private email servers.
- They tell you or others that you are crazy.
Telling the American people that he doesn’t think Hillary Clinton is “all there.” Calling Bernie Sanders a “maniac” and a Communist. Calls Megyn Kelly “crazy” and “unwatchable” after she challenges him on his sexist remarks. “The gaslighter knows if they question your sanity, people will not believe you when you tell them the gaslighter is abusive or out-of-control,” Sarkis writes.
- They tell you everyone else is a liar.
In his very first press conference as President-Elect, Donald Trump kept saying that he was in a “room full of liars.” If the media is lying, then no one knows who is telling the truth. Then we all start believing what the gaslighter says.
In this post-truth, alternative fact, fake news world that we live in, it is easy to start questioning the nature of our reality. Maybe he didn’t really say that. Maybe we really are crazy. No. We know that the world we live in is full of half-truths and manipulation, but we also know the things that are true.
So seek out news sources that you know are reliable.
Listen to people when they speak from their own personal experiences.
And be vigilant when you see these techniques being employed by politicians and psychological abusers alike: gaslighting is real.