Gaslighting America

Some Hollywood movies are useful. There’s Gaslight from 1944 – directed by George Cukor, with Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotten, and an eighteen-year-old Angela Lansbury in her screen debut. Yes, she was young once, but her part is minor. This is the film where Ingrid Bergman thinks she’s going crazy. She’s the sweet young thing who impulsively marries a worldly older man, Charles Boyer, who manipulates her for various nefarious reasons that don’t really matter much. The movie is about his methods. She simply has to be confused – so things that weren’t there before are there now, and he says they were always there. So do others involved in the plot. Things disappear. He says they were never there and never even existed. So do others involved in the plot.

Ingrid Bergman is going mad but it all works out – back then MGM didn’t make movies without happy endings. This thing is only useful because it gave us the term gaslighting:

Gaslighting is a form of manipulation through persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying in an attempt to destabilize and delegitimize a target. Its intent is to sow seeds of doubt in the targets, hoping to make them question their own memory, perception, and sanity. Instances may range from the denial by an abuser that previous abusive incidents ever occurred up to the staging of bizarre events by the abuser with the intention of disorienting the victim. The term owes its origin to Gas Light, a 1938 play and 1944 film, and has been used in clinical and research literature.

That would be this:

Sociopaths and narcissists frequently use gaslighting tactics. Sociopaths consistently transgress social mores, break laws, and exploit others, but typically are also convincing liars, sometimes charming ones, who consistently deny wrongdoing. Thus, some who have been victimized by sociopaths may doubt their own perceptions. Some physically abusive spouses may gaslight their partners by flatly denying that they have been violent.

Don’t think of Donald Trump. Hard, isn’t it? Oh well, think of this instead:

British film-maker Adam Curtis suggested in 2014 that “nonlinear” or “asymmetric” war (as described by Vladislav Surkov, political advisor to Vladimir Putin) is a form of gaslighting intended for political control.

That works. The Russians commissioned all sorts of fake news stories last year. Hillary Clinton and John Podesta were running a child-sex operation out of the basement of a pizza shop in suburban Virginia. That young fellow took a rifle there to rescue the children, got off one round, and now he’s in jail – and then Michael Flynn, Trump’s new national security advisor, deleted all the tweets where he had ranted about how awful this Clinton-Podesta child-sex ring was. Oops. His son, acting as his chief-of-staff at the time, kept it up. The Trump team told him to go away – but the damage was done. Many had been gaslighted – but we’re not all that special. The Russians had done the same sort of thing in Georgia, and then in the Ukraine and Crimea. It works.

We don’t do that sort of thing of course, unless we do:

White House press secretary Sean Spicer on Saturday accused the media of misrepresenting the crowd at Donald Trump’s inauguration in order to dampen enthusiasm for the event, getting some numbers wrong himself in the process.

“This was the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period,” Spicer said with emphasis. “Both in person and around the globe.”

He accused the media of “deliberately false reporting” both with regard to photos of the crowd that were published as well as crowd estimates.

“No one had numbers. Because the National Park Service, which controls the National Mall, does not put any out,” Spicer said.

“These attempts to lessen the enthusiasm of the inauguration are shameful and wrong,” he added.

Spicer took no questions after delivering his remarks.

He simply walked out of the room, but there were problems:

Crowds at Trump’s inauguration didn’t appear to measure up to those at Barack Obama’s inaugurations, according to the D.C. metro authority’s initial ridership estimates:…

Spicer hit the assembled White House press corps with some different numbers, though: He claimed that 420,000 people used the D.C. metro on Trump’s Inauguration Day, compared to 317,000 for Obama’s 2013 inauguration.

Those numbers simply don’t match up with what Metro has reported. According to the Washington Post, Metro said 570,557 people took trips on Friday in total, compared with 1.1 million trips at Obama’s 2009 inauguration and 782,000 at his 2013 inauguration.

It’s unclear where Spicer got the numbers he relayed to reporters Saturday evening or what measure they were based on.

Reporters at the Washington Post refused to be gaslighted, and there was this:

Aerial photos of the crowd at Trump’s inauguration had shown much open space on the National Mall when compared side-by-side with an aerial photo of Obama’s 2009 inauguration.

Spicer told reporters in the White House briefing room that Trump’s inauguration was the first to use floor coverings to protect the grass on the National Mall. He said that aerial photos framed around the area of those floor coverings were misleading because the coverings had the effect of highlighting spaces where people were not standing.

News outlets came up with photos of those floor coverings in use at previous inaugurations, and there was this:

He also said that inauguration attendees were unable to enter the National Mall as quickly as in years past due to increased fencing and use of magnetometers.

News outlets checked. No one was using magnetometers. They got statements, on record, from all the security services involved. Trump was just pissed. He wasn’t the greatest. He sent Sean Spicer out to yell at the press. Everyone was feeling a bit sorry for Sean Spicer, but a pattern was developing:

Trump, too, picked on the press earlier in the afternoon in remarks at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, claiming that from his vantage point the crowd at his inaugural address stretched as far back as the Washington Monument and “looked like a million and a half people.”

The folks at the CIA were puzzled by that. Who cares? He won. Fred Kaplan covers how that went:

Trump made the visit to Langley the first non-ceremonial event of his presidency, presumably to assure the intelligence community that – despite the insulting tweets he’s hurled their way, most recently likening them to Nazis – he supports the work that they’re doing and will listen to what they have to say.

That’s how the speech began, but before long, he turned to what remain his favorite topics: himself and the “dishonest media.” He complained that while, as far as he could tell, 1 million to 1.5 million people filled the National Mall to watch his inaugural address, the media reported that just 200,000 turned out for the event. Side-by-side images of the packed Obama inauguration and the sparse Trump crowd were widely shared on social media – including by the National Park Service. The media also later reported that the NPS was ordered to stop tweeting.

And the CIA sat quietly, in front of that wall of stars, one for each agent who had died doing the work that lets us know what’s really going on the world, and listened to this odd man:

Trump then rambled – as if this were a campaign rally instead of a morale-boosting speech in front of the agency’s most sacred spot – about how smart he is (citing as proof the fact that a brilliant uncle taught at MIT) and about how he’s been on the cover of Time magazine more often than anybody. (In fact, the title is held by Richard Nixon, which says something about what gets a president on a lot of Time magazine covers.)

He also said things that must have baffled many of the 300 CIA employees who gathered for the visit, came in on a day off to see their new boss. He repeated the line, which he’d uttered many times during the campaign, that we should have “taken the oil” in Iraq (a notion that is politically daft, economically unnecessary, and militarily all-but-impossible) and that maybe we’ll have the opportunity to do so now. He also said that he suspected most of the people in the room voted for him in the election – a comment that, whether true or not, is appallingly inappropriate to make to intelligence analysts, who pride themselves on their independence and fear political encroachment above all else.

This did not go well. He also said the press made up all that stuff about him saying they were fools and Nazis over there at the CIA. Sure, the tweets are still out there, but he’s always loved the CIA and what it does, so maybe the tweets don’t exist – except they do, and add this:

Those in the intelligence community were already anxious about their relationship with Trump before he took office thanks to his reaction to the report on Russian interference in the election, as well as his appointment of Michael Flynn, a conspiracy-minded retired general who is bitter about being fired as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2014.

Who are the good guys? Who are the bad guys? We’re all Ingrid Bergman now, but not everyone:

Top staffers in Donald Trump’s administration jumped to attack former CIA Director John Brennan for his criticism of Trump’s rambling speech at the agency on Saturday evening.

In a statement posted to Twitter on Saturday night, former CIA Deputy Chief of Staff Nick Shapiro wrote that Brennan was “deeply saddened and angered at Trump’s despicable display of self-aggrandizement” and said the President should be “ashamed of himself.”

That’s not going to happen, and Trump sent out his gas lighters:

White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus suggested in an interview on “Fox News Sunday” that Brennan was “bitter” over his replacement.

“You know, he was replaced the day before. He was not asked to hold over like Clapper was,” Priebus said. “I don’t know what’s in his head.”

He said that Trump’s visit to the agency was a “love fest,” despite the President’s repeated dismissal of the intelligence community.

It was? Reince Priebus says it was, and there was this:

In an interview on ABC’s “This Week,” senior Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway called Brennan’s response an “unremarkable, spectacularly disappointing statement” and said that Brennan “sounded like a partisan political hack.”

“I really think everybody needs to take a step back and a very deep breath and think about what their words are,” she said.

She should think about that too, but she wasn’t finished:

Senior Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway said in an interview Sunday morning that White House press secretary Sean Spicer wasn’t lying about crowd size at the President’s inauguration – he was just giving “alternative facts”:

“On this matter of crowd size, I think it is a symbol for the unfair and incomplete treatment that this president often receives,” Conway told Chuck Todd on MSNBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“You did not answer the question of why the president asked the White House press secretary to come out in front of the podium for the first time and utter a falsehood,” Todd interrupted. “Why did he do that? It undermines the credibility of the entire White House press office on day one.”

“No, it doesn’t. Don’t be so overly dramatic about it, Chuck,” Conway replied. “You’re saying it’s a falsehood, and they’re giving Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that. But the point really is—”

“Wait a minute. Alternative facts? Alternative facts?” Todd interjected, looking incredulous. “Four of the five facts he uttered were just not true.”

Conway tried to interrupt, but Todd continued.

“Look, alternative facts are not facts,” he said.

Yeah, well, how does he know? That seemed to be her point, and Kevin Drum seems a bit exasperated:

I don’t want to pick on Todd, who pressed Conway hard on this, but it was almost painful watching him try so hard to avoid using the obvious word here. Over and over, he wanted to ask why Spicer had lied, which would be the usual way of phrasing his question. On a couple of occasions he even stuttered a bit while he searched for another word. He just wouldn’t say it. So what’s the best response to Conway’s dogged unwillingness to answer questions in even a debatably truthful way? I think Jamelle Bouie has it right – “I increasingly believe that networks should refuse to have Conway on as long as she continues misleading the public.”

That’s a thought:

There’s a limit to how much TV networks should tolerate staffers who have a consistent history of viewing airtime merely as a way of promoting lies. Kellyanne Conway blew past that limit before Trump even took office. It’s hard to see what the value of having her on a news show is at this point.

Margaret Sullivan seconds that:

Ari Fleischer, a former George W. Bush press secretary, saw Saturday’s  bizarre [Sean Spicer] session for what it was.

“This is called a statement you’re told to make by the President. And you know the President is watching,” Fleischer wrote. (MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski pegged it as “Sean Spicer’s first hostage video.”)

The mainstream media, including The Washington Post, appropriately made clear note of the falsehoods about crowd size. The New York Times called out “false claims” in a prominent headline, and many broadcast journalists challenged Spicer immediately – although they didn’t get a chance to do so to his face, since he took no questions.

CNN wisely chose not to air the briefing in full, but to report on it and to show parts, providing context. Fox News showed it in its full glory, infomercial style.

Drum may be right:

Some journalists, afterward, sounded stunned at what had transpired.

“Astonishing,” said Jim Acosta of CNN. “Jaw meet floor” was the reaction of Glenn Thrush of the New York Times.

Sullivan thinks it may be time to ignore this Conway woman:

Official words do matter, but they shouldn’t be what news organizations pay most attention to, as they try to present the truth about a new administration.

White House press briefings are “access journalism,” in which official statements – achieved by closeness to the source – are taken at face value and breathlessly reported as news. And that is over. Dead.

Spicer’s statement should be seen for what it is: Remarks made over the casket at the funeral of access journalism.

As Jessica Huseman of ProPublica put it – “Journalists aren’t going to get answers from Spicer. We are going to get answers by digging. By getting our hands dirty. So let’s all do that.”

That’s a thought too, and Sullivan adds this:

There’s a deeper story here, beyond a single briefing, no matter how memorable. Saturday made clearer than ever that President Trump intends to make the American media his foremost enemy…

Trump wants a flat-out war with the nation’s media for one well-calculated reason: Because he believes it will continue to serve his political purposes, as it has for months.

Journalists should respond by doing their jobs responsibly, fairly and fearlessly, in service of the public good.

Somebody has to be the grown-up in the room. We’ve just been reminded of who it won’t be.

That’s fine, but Ezra Klein sees more going on:

There’s a strategy at work here. The Trump administration is creating a baseline expectation among its loyalists that they can’t trust anything said by the media. The spat over crowd size is a low-stakes, semi-comic dispute, but the groundwork is being laid for much more consequential debates over what is, and isn’t, true.

Delegitimizing the institutions that might report inconvenient or damaging facts about the president is strategic for an administration that has made a slew of impossible promises and takes office amid a cloud of ethics concerns and potential scandals.

It also gives the new administration a convenient scapegoat for their continued struggles with public opinion, and their potential future struggles with reality. This kind of “dishonesty from the media,” Spicer said, is making it hard “to bring our country together.” It’s not difficult to imagine the Trump administration disputing bad jobs numbers in the future, or claiming their Obamacare replacement covers everyone when it actually throws millions off insurance.

Spicer ended the statement on a warning. “There has been a lot of talk in the media about the responsibility of holding Donald Trump accountable. I am here to tell you that it goes two ways. We are going hold the press accountable as well.”

So it will be a war of facts versus alternative facts. There’s a movie about that, where the bad guy consistently transgresses social mores, breaks laws, and exploits others, but is also a convincing liar, sometimes a charming one, who consistently denies wrongdoing.

That’s Charles Boyer. We get Donald Trump, and Frank Bruni explains just what we get:

The word popped up in the opening sentence of Barack Obama’s first Inaugural Address and in the opening paragraphs of George W. Bush’s.

“Humbled,” each man said of himself, and while it was pure cliché, it was also what we wanted and needed: a sign, no matter how rote, that even someone self-assured enough to pursue the presidency was taking the measure of that responsibility and asking if he was worthy of it.

Does that question cross Donald Trump’s mind?

I don’t think so. I certainly didn’t get that sense from his inaugural remarks, and not just because “humbled” went missing. As he stood just feet from four of the last six presidents, he trashed them, talking about a Washington establishment blind and deaf to the struggles of less fortunate Americans.

He seemed to be saying that all other presidents before him were tin-pot dictators of a third-world nation – even Obama, sitting next to him – but he’d fix that, because only he could.

He characterized his election as part of “a historic movement, the likes of which the world has never seen.” Forget about his loss of the popular vote. Or his 40 percent favorability rating. Or the puny crowd at his inauguration in comparison with the throngs at Obama’s eight years ago. Trump remained a singular man on a singular mission – a legend in his own mind.

That’s one of those alternative facts too. He only thinks he’s a legend, but perhaps he was inevitable:

Every president in my lifetime has been conceited. It’s more or less a job requirement. Bush had a bloated faith in his gut and his charm, while Obama fancied himself the smartest, most soulful person in almost any room.

But they were nothing like Trump, who’s a preening cartoon. He brags like he breathes. It’s autonomic. And he gloats the way our parents and teachers always told us not to.

But that admonition predated Twitter, Facebook, Instagram. Social media have blurred the line between sharing and showing off, and they’ve turned self-promotion into a tic. In our private and our professional lives, we’re prodded to burnish our images, to advertise our assets, to sell, sell, sell. Is it any wonder, then, that we looked up on Friday to see, in front of the Capitol, taking the oath of office, a gaudy confidence man who’s all about the sale? Is it any accident?

No. Trump and his sons and eldest daughter were inevitable:

The Trumps are extreme, but they’re also emblematic of a creeping crassness and lack of restraint in public life. I think of the North Carolina Republicans who gallingly moved to dilute the governorship’s power before it could change hands from someone in their party to a Democrat.

I think of an interview that Harry Reid, the former Democratic leader, recently gave to New York magazine’s Jason Zengerle as he prepared to retire from the Senate. “I’ve done stuff no one else will do,” Reid volunteered, and then recalled – proudly, it seemed – the time during the 2012 presidential campaign when he falsely accused Mitt Romney of not having paid taxes. There was no modesty in that lie, and there’s no modesty in his apparent peace with it.

Still, he’s no Trump. Who is? Maybe Howard Roark, the protagonist of “The Fountainhead,” by Ayn Rand. Roark must defend his creative genius against the meddling of lesser mortals. Trump once described the novel as profound.

He has other Rand fans around him. Last month, the Washington Post’s James Hohmann identified a batch of cabinet nominees, including Rex Tillerson, who are taken with her philosophy and work.

Yeah, she’s back, but the real problem may be those alternative facts:

Under fire, Trump rages, rails and frequently doubles down on his convictions and even his fictions. He rearranges reality to suit his self-regard, flinging accusations of “rigged” surveys and “fake news.”

A humbler man would doubt himself, extend an olive branch to his enemies, contemplate a middle ground. But then a humbler man wouldn’t have come down that escalator at Trump Tower and proceed to say what Trump said and do what he did.

What has he been saying for eighteen months? Take any issue. Things that weren’t there before are there now, and he says they were always there – the Muslims dancing in the streets in New Jersey on 9/11 – the Mexican government sending us only rapists and drug dealers and murderers. Things disappear. He says they were never there and never even existed – the idea that the press lets us know what’s actually going on, as best as they can, and in the end there are only one set of facts.

Could that be? Soon we may never know.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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2 Responses to Gaslighting America

  1. Rick says:

    “Alternative facts”? Really!

    Okay, here’s an example of what might be called an “alternative fact”:

    “Two plus two equals one hundred and fifty three.”

    Which is about as true as anything else we’ve heard from the Trump administration in its first three days. In fact, just within the first half-hour of his presidency, up through the end of his incredibly goofy speech, Donald Trump had already earned a place as one of the worst presidents in America’s history.

    Admittedly, the Trump people said they wanted to change things when they came to Washington, and sure enough, one of the things they changed was, they did away with the tradition of trust there used to be that whatever the White House told us could be assumed to be true, at least until further investigation proved otherwise.

    I must confess, every time I see that superfluous Kellyanne Conway flash that used-car salesman smile of hers, and hear her condescendingly utter something like, “I really think everybody needs to take a step back, and a very deep breath, and think about what their words are”, I want to climb inside the TV set and punch her in the mouth. In fact, I really think she, herself, “needs to take a step back, and take a very deep breath,” and to just keep on going until she explodes.

    That might take care of the news media’s dilemma on what to do whenever this brainless pop tart offers herself up as a guest. With her “alternative facts” bullshit and whatnot, she always offers up plenty of provocative entertainment and diversionary distraction, but don’t we already get more than enough of that from her boss? As far as I can tell, she adds nothing useful to the public discourse, and could be safely ignored by the talking head shows, if they’re willing to try. If she accidentally announces something important, I’m sure the administration will find a way of getting it to us.

    Like Kevin Drum, I don’t want to be too critical of Chuck Todd’s questioning of Conway on Sunday, but I do think it would be better if he hadn’t spent so much time trying to pin her down on whether sending Sean Spicer out to nitpick on the size of the inauguration audience wasn’t a waste of precious time, instead of focusing on the more important issue of whether this administration will continue to barrage the public with these so-called “alternative facts” — which is what most intelligent people often refer to as falsehoods, and maybe even, depending on the circumstances, outright lies!

    But maybe we could quickly settle this by boning up on the terminology in the dictionary — which is not as easy as it sounds:

    true: in accordance with facts or reality

    false: not according with truth or fact; incorrect

    lie: an intentionally false statement; used with reference to a situation involving deception or founded on a mistaken impression

    fact: a thing that is indisputably the case;
    • (usu. facts) a piece of information used as evidence or as part of a report or news article;
    • (chiefly Law) the truth about events as opposed to interpretation

    But who’s “reality”? And who’s “facts”? One problem with dictionary definitions is they make it all sound so “relativistic”, despite Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous reminder that “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

    Or else, for a slightly deeper dive, maybe we should look up “truth” in Wikipedia:

    Many human activities depend upon the concept, where [truth’s] nature as a concept is assumed rather than being a subject of discussion; these include most (but not all) of the sciences, law, journalism, and everyday life.

    Some philosophers view the concept of truth as basic, and unable to be explained in any terms that are more easily understood than the concept of truth itself. Commonly, truth is viewed as the correspondence of language or thought to an independent reality, in what is sometimes called the correspondence theory of truth.

    I think a corollary to all that is, quite simply, “Hey, you can’t make this stuff up!” Believe it or not, there are many opportunistic relativists among us who believe you can make stuff up and call it truth, simply because it suits them. Many of those people are called “conservatives”.

    But one last thing that occurs to me, after seeing this and hearing about other columns lately that allude to Donald Trump’s “Gaslighting of America”:

    Given the habit of Donald Trump and his mini-me surrogates to turn any criticism back on his accusers — and also, given the fact that, once they get wind of it, all this recent “Gaslighting” talk will probably start giving them ideas — we all need to keep a sharp eye out for them starting to accuse the press itself of trying to “Gaslight America”, by us “falsely claiming” that he and his people don’t tell the truth!

    And as I said before, you can’t make this stuff up, although I’m sure that won’t prevent them from trying.

    Rick

  2. Free the TrumpRolled! says:

    SpicerFacts = PravdaFacts.

    Trump has a thin skin about the election because Trump (as informed by Bannon) knew that Trump (actually Putin) couldn’t “win” without now-standard GOP election crime in swing states.

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