In 1944, the movie Gaslight hit American theaters, a remake of a British film released several years earlier. Starring Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman in an Academy Award-winning performance, and in her screen debut, an 18-year-old Angela Lansbury, Boyer’s character marries Bergman’s character after a whirlwind romance. Shortly after their marriage, Bergman begins to experience bizarre and unexplainable events, becomes isolated from the outside world, and imagines a rivalry with the young maid (Lansbury).
Since the movie lends its name to the modern term “gaslighting,” revealing the twist here is no spoiler. Bergman’s opera-singer aunt had been murdered earlier in the film. Boyer is the murderer; his plan is to drive Bergman crazy and obtain her power of attorney so he can claim the jewelry he left behind after the murder. The plot is thwarted through Bergman’s chance meeting with a police officer (played by Golden Age stalwart Joseph Cotten) who remembers Bergman’s aunt and starts investigating the unsolved murder.
The dictionary now defines “gaslight” as to “manipulate (someone) by psychological means into questioning their own sanity.” The goal is maintaining power over the gaslighted, who is rendered psychologically and emotionally unable to mount a defense. The tools of gaslighting are telling blatant lies, denying a statement once said, saying one thing and acting the opposite, sowing confusion, projection, divisiveness, telling the target he or she is crazy, and—even as the liar lies—telling the target that everyone else is a liar.
No points for guessing where we’re going next. Donald Trump uses these behaviors proudly; neither he nor the Republican Party make the slightest apology for it. Indeed, it is precisely because Trump is so skilled at these manipulations that only similarly malignant gaslighters, narcissists, sociopaths, and manipulators can survive his administration. The White House is like the Star Trek episode where Captain Pike is captured for the alien zoo, only this zoo is full of the most poisonous Americans imaginable.
Hence, the daily White House scene plays out like a season of Survivor where the contestants have rabies. Former Chief of Staff Reince Priebus said in 2018 about his time in the White House to “take everything you’ve heard and multiply it by 50.” In Trump’s White House, John Bolton—nearly universally considered a “seasoned bureaucratic infighter”—reported feeling like he had escaped a “pinball machine.” Priebus and Bolton’s White House stints didn’t even overlap. But at least Bolton and Priebus got out. America is not yet so lucky.
Trump bombards with prevarication. The Washington Post’s fact-checking staff recently released a nearly 400-page book on Trump’s “assault on truth,” amassing over 16,000 lies since his inauguration. The attempt to fact-check the lies is noble, but belies a larger point. Trump is conditioning his followers to accept his alternate version of reality. Then, he diverts them from alternative sources of information; hence, his repeated assertions of reputable media as “fake news” and, more ominously from a historical perspective, as the “enemy of the people.”
The Trump organization then produces carefully scripted and tested agitprop to reinforce the alternate reality Trump demands. And under the extreme pressure placed on Republicans to conform—to insist the emperor has clothes, despite all evidence otherwise—fact-checking itself becomes a seditious act. The fact-checking is the fake news. Not coincidentally, this is also how cults operate.
Likewise, Trump denies things he has said, even if he has been recorded saying them. He’s done this since his campaign days, even denying his attacks on John McCain’s heroic war record. Later, but in COVID-19’s early days, Trump insisted that governors were requesting equipment they didn’t actually need. When later asked about it, Trump denied saying it. He said it. Trump claimed COVID-19 would go away with the heat of April. Then he claimed he didn’t say that. He claimed COVID-19 was like the seasonal flu. Then he denied saying that. Now, he says it’s the “Kung Flu,” and a roomful of soulless Republican youth cheer.
Similarly, Trump will say things then do the opposite. During his campaign, Trump promised “insurance for everybody.” But the health-care plan famously defeated by a late-night “thumbs down” from a tumor-stricken McCain (who’s the hero now?) would have increased the number of Americans without health insurance to 25 million. Even now Trump insists he supports insuring Americans with preexisting conditions, but is currently directing DOJ to challenge Obamacare—whose signature provision is requiring the coverage of preexisting conditions—in federal court.
Trump’s ability to sow confusion, if not outright anarchy, may be unmatched. Just two days ago, Trump trade “advisor” Peter Navarro declared America’s trade relationship with China dead. After stock futures collapsed at the news, Trump resurrected them an hour later by reassuring that the trade deal was intact. The next day, Trump repeated his “Kung flu” crack, and members of what can only generously be called Trump’s foreign “policy” team were comparing China to Stalinist Russia. Indeed, Trump’s sole consistent foreign policy appears to be domestic race-baiting.
Trump’s arbitrary Crazy Ivans are likewise destructive. At the height of the pandemic, Trump suddenly declared that he wanted to see churches full of people on Easter Sunday. This was the point at which he appeared to determine—entirely arbitrarily—that the pandemic was over. Predictably, the virus dissented. And now Trump ignores COVID-19 altogether, even as yesterday (June 24) saw the highest number of cases recorded to date. There will be no second wave, as the first will never end.
Anarchy reigns at the personnel level as well, where administration turnover is unprecedented and would likely be higher if Trump had filled all available positions in the first place.
Trump is the ultimate projector, which suits Republicans who have been projecting for a long time. Republicans used to explain to me that Hillary Clinton couldn’t be trusted because she was in “Putin’s pocket,” and easily manipulated. Well.
Trump’s campaign against Joe Biden suffers from projection issues as well. Trump—the man who not long ago urged hydroxychloroquine and bleach injections on a scared and shut-in nation—claims that it’s Biden who is not quite all there. The last time Trump made this claim, minutes later he proved his electoral fitness by proudly drinking a glass of water with one hand.
Meanwhile, Trump’s China sclerosis at least limits his ability to attack Biden on the subject—Trump’s friendly relations with the world’s worst dictators are no secret. The event precipitating Bolton’s dismissal was Trump’s Camp David invite to the Taliban, of all people. And yet, Trump insists that Biden is somehow unable to handle the Chinas, North Koreas, and Turkeys. Fair enough. Trump does handle them, if all too well. Do you know anyone who doesn’t like Elton John?
But Trump makes no mention of electing a president to work with, you know, allies. And in some sense why should he, because both Trump and his party feed on divisiveness, combat, and rivalry, as other columns have described. Trump simply treats other nations as an extension of how Republicans treat their neighbors.
In January 2020, Gallup reported that Trump had set a new standard for partisan “polarization,” garnering the support of 89% of Republicans and 7% of Democrats. Jim Mattis emphasized this point in his recent denunciation, calling Trump “the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people.” Mattis’s only mistake is to believe this is some sort of unique Trumpian character flaw. Far from it. Republicans must divide, because they must conquer. Not persuade. Not empathize. Not understand. Not learn. Not think. Just conquer.
One result of this blood mania is that the list of dysfunctions befalling Trump’s management style would fill a book—and there is one! When recently asked about administration turnover, Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany explained that Trump was modeling Lincoln’s “Team of Rivals.” Yeah, wrong book. But in “Team of Vipers,” former Trump aide Cliff Sims reported that Trump kept an enemies list made up of—members of his own administration. Not even Nixon reached that level of paranoia and distrust.
And finally, when he is called out on his dysfunction and manipulation, Trump uses stigmatization to dehumanize. Mattis has become the “world’s most overrated general.” Former Chief of Staff John Kelly was “exhausted” and “slinked” away from the job. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is “dumb as a rock,” which, if nothing else, begs the question of his replacement’s comparative intelligence. Bolton is now a “wacko” and “incompetent.” Steve Bannon is a “loser.” Short-term communications chief Anthony Scaramucci is a “nut job.” It’s no mistake that Trump decries immigrants from “shithole” countries for the same reason.
But all of this begs a question for Republicans and their party, one becoming more and more pertinent as Joe Biden’s lead expands: If you don’t deliver Trump the victory he craves in November, what’s he going to start calling you when the time comes?