Midway through Gaslight, a 1944 creepy noir psycho-thriller, the female lead confesses to her husband that she’s losing her grip, unaware that the scumbag is systematically trying to drive her crazy.
“Suddenly, I’m beginning not to trust my memory at all,” iconic Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman, who won an Academy Award for her performance, murmurs in breathy tones.
Yo, Ingrid, join the club.
As Donald Hair Boy approaches his second month in office, mental-health professionals and political journalists alike increasingly describe his vast and growing collection of lies, distortions, and manipulative e-communiqués under the rubric of “gaslighting.”
Derived from the Bergman star-turn movie, the once-obscure psychiatric descriptor is an early betting favorite to become Word of the Year (a Google Machine search returns 382,000 hits for “Trump gaslighting”); this would follow the Oxford Dictionaries’ 2016 selection of “post-truth” for its “association with … the phrase ‘post-truth politics.’”
You could look it up.
Sanity flickers. To gaslight, according to Oxford, is to “Manipulate (someone) by psychological means into doubting their own sanity.”
In the film, an estimable Charles Boyer plays a cruel and greedy sociopath who woos and weds Bergman, and then begins to torment her into doubting her own sanity by stealing or hiding small objects — jewelry, his watch, a painting — and then, mon dieu!, finding them in her possession. The title comes from some business about gaslights in their Edwardian-era London home that flicker and darken in seeming randomness, which she views as more evidence she’s going nuts.
As a political matter, Trump today apes Boyer while we, your average American voter, are reduced to channeling young Ingrid.
All governments lie, of course, as I.F. Stone memorably noted, and the media battles against every president. Historically, however, such differences focus on particular facts or interpretations of them — not about the nature of reality itself. Trump has taken things to a new level, with a constant message that truth is a matter of opinion, not facts.
In a notable piece in Psychology Today, clinical psychologist and author Dr. Stephanie Sarkis set forth 11 criteria that illustrate gaslighting; research and reporting has highlighted it among physically abusive spouses, sociopaths, narcissists, school bullies, and foreign dictators (hello, Vladimir!). Alas, the nexus of behaviors resembles the diet of daily dreck served by candidate and President Trump.
Among other things, a gaslighter consistently will:
“Tell blatant lies.” (After being elected in a landslide, despite my opponent’s millions of illegal votes, the largest crowd in history saw me inaugurated!)
“Deny they ever said something, even though you have proof.” (I was always against the Iraq war and never made fun of a disabled reporter!)
“Project” and “tell you everyone else is a liar.” (Crooked Hillary! Lyin’ Ted!)
Take “actions [that] do not match their words.” (I’m going to drain the swamp — just ask my People’s Cabinet!)
“Wear you down over time.” (The Pulitzer Prize–winning PolitiFact now lists 376 Trump statements, of which 70 percent are rated “mostly false,” “false,” or “pants on fire,” while 16 percent are “true” or “mostly true.”)
Bottom line. The most troubling aspect here is that hard-core supporters, confronted with such fact-checking efforts, paradoxically double down, perceiving them as confirmation-bias proof of Trump’s claims.
Conservative talk-show host Charlie Sykes quit his job in the middle of the campaign, expressing regret that years of right-wing attacks on MSM helped create the atmosphere that yielded Trump.
“The cumulative effect of the attacks was to delegitimize those outlets and essentially destroy much of the right’s immunity to false information,” he wrote in the New York Times.
“(The) more the fact-based media tries to debunk the president’s falsehoods, the further it will entrench the battle lines,” he said. “What we’re seeing is an attack on credibility itself.”