Gaslighting is a manipulation strategy commonly employed by abusive spouses and narcissists: issuing systematic and deliberate lies, sowing seeds of doubt, being audaciously self-confident even when wrong, and playing the part of the victim when needed.
Now, the United States is being exposed first-hand to this psychological abuse tactic, called gaslighting, as President Donald Trump tries wielding it as a strategy for domestic political control.
The problem: Victims often aren’t aware they are under attack. When truth and reality get blurred, the path becomes smoother for a strong, yet perpetually wrong person, like Trump, to increasingly make assertions that supporters are eager to accept as fact in their desperate attempt to acquire “real” information.
Gaslighting is an insidious technique wherein an abuser manipulates and confuses a victim, leading the victim to suspend their own beliefs and start doubting their memories, judgement calls and perceptions of reality.
Psychologists adopted the term from the 1930s play “Gas Light,” as well as a 1944 film adaptation, “Gaslight.” In both versions, a murdering husband plays tricks on his wife but denies they are happening until she starts questioning her own sanity. His tactics include making noises in the attic, removing or hiding personal items and causing the gaslights downstairs to flicker and dim, all the while claiming these are figments of his wife’s imagination.
Conservative pundit Matt Lewis was among the first to associate the term with Trump in a November 2015 article for The Telegraph. Since then, numerous news sources and mental health experts have purported a similar concern that Trump and his team are attempting to gaslight the American people.
In his article, Lewis said it isn’t concerning a political figure like Trump exists. “What is concerning,” he added, “is that so many people support him.”
Lewis explained how the country’s political environment was conducive for someone like Trump to gain prominence and power. For example, “the American public no longer adheres to standards of personal decorum or protocol [or common decency] in such a way that would punish Mr. Trump’s narcissistic behavior,” Lewis said. Additionally, liberalism – such as unrest, rioting, protesting and “political correctness run amok” – helped contribute to the conservative backlash bolstering Trump.
“When we’re frustrated and fed up, we sometimes overreach just to prove a point,” Lewis said. “Donald Trump is the embodiment of this tantrum.”
Trump’s keys to success are that he shows no sign of self-doubt nor fear, compelling people to more easily believe what he tells them, even if that requires repressing their own doubts or concerns in the process.
In an opinion piece for CNN News, Frida Ghitis explained why the American people should learn the term “gaslighting” and prepare to “live with it every day” under a Trump presidency. Throughout his campaign, and now in his weeks as Chief Executive, Trump has engaged in numerous incidents of gaslighting.
Ghitis said, in general, his techniques include doing and saying things and denying them; claiming offensive statements are merely misunderstandings or jokes; blaming others for misunderstanding his intentions; and deriding their concerns as oversensitivity.
The Washington Post went into specifics, listing a few of the more egregious examples, such as when Trump vehemently denied “he had mocked a disabled reporter, despite a widely circulated video that showed him doing exactly that,” or described his presidential victory as a “landslide,” even though he lost the popular vote by about 30 million and won the electoral college by a narrow margin.
During the campaign season, someone leaked now notorious video footage in which Trump, during a conversation with “Access Hollywood” host Billy Bush, can be heard making lewd comments about sexually assaulting women. Psycotherapist and political activist Leah McElrath broke down Trump’s subsequent apology statement, analyzing line by line how it was a manifestation of manipulation tactics seen in patterns of abuse. In particular, Trump claimed “these words do not reflect who I am,” which was him effectively saying, “the reality you just experienced didn’t actually happen,” McElrath wrote.
Ghitis compared Trump’s strategy to the one implemented by President Vladimir Putin’s aide Vladislav Surkov in Russia to create “a gauzy façade where no one knew which group was a creation of the government and which wasn’t.” This strategy allowed Putting to gain almost total control of Russian politics and then establish the presence of pro-Russian militias in Ukraine and elsewhere. U.S. intelligence agencies concluded Russia also tampered with America’s presidential election, “trying to undermine their faith in the democratic process,” Ghitis reported.
Two mental health experts, in interviews with NBC News, also analyzed Trump and his team’s collective actions and patterns of behavior and how those are negatively impacting sociopolitical balance.
“The very state of confusion they are creating is a political weapon in and of itself,” stated clinical psychologist Bryant Welch, who wrote “State of Confusion: Political Manipulation and the Assault on the American Mind.” “If you make people confused, they are vulnerable. By definition they don’t know what to do.”
Neither Welch nor Robert Feldman, a University of Massachusetts psychologist who specializes in the psychology of lying, have personally examined any member of Trump’s team. They agreed, however, on the gravity of the situation, especially as it affects the public’s relationship to the press, which historically has been relied on to provide transparency and a check on government.
Countless times during his campaign and now into his presidency, Trump has attacked the independent press and claimed to be the victim of unfair coverage, going as far as to say, “I have a running war with the media,” during a visit with Central Intelligence Agency officials on his first full day in office.
By attempting to deteriorate the public’s trust in established sources of information, Welch said, “It tells them to go ahead and hate this person who is delivering bad news.”
“If Donald Trump can undercut America’s trust in all media, he then starts to own them and can start to literally implant his own version of reality,” he added.
According to NBC News, Feldman expressed how the press needs to fight back and “has a responsibility to all the time call out lies.”
Resisting means refusing to let Trump or his team get away with reporting “alternative facts” — as top Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway called them — that further compel some Americans to question and potentially doubt the reality they’re experiencing.
Combating Trump’s gaslighting strategy requires more than that, though, Naveen Joshi, a professor of cultural studies at Humber College in Toronto, expressed to The Washington Post.
“We’re going to have to read ourselves out of it,” he said. “We need multiple sources. We should be critical of everything — even the word ‘gaslighting’ itself.”
Lauren Duca reiterated this sentiment in her opinion article for Teen Vogue. She urged the public to not see the threat of deception as a partisan issue.
“Trump took advantage of the things that divide this country, pitting us against one another, while lying his way to the Oval Office,” she wrote. “The good news about this boiling frog scenario is that we’re not boiling yet. Trump is not going to stop playing with the burner until America realizes that the temperature is too high. It’s on every single one of us to stop pretending it’s always been so hot in here.”