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, long ago, 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. Things disappear. He says they were never there and never even existed.
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? That’s because of things like the Washington Post’s Philip Rucker reports here:
The U.S. intelligence community long ago produced evidence of Russia’s illegal interference in the 2016 presidential election to try to boost Donald Trump’s candidacy. Then the special counsel investigating the matter detailed myriad ways President Trump sought to stymie the probe. And then Robert S. Mueller III testified to Congress about Trump’s conduct – and warned of Russia’s continued interest in thwarting U.S. elections.
But it is Trump who is trying to have the last word.
Seven months after Mueller’s marathon testimony brought finality to the Russia investigation, Trump is actively seeking to rewrite the narrative that had been meticulously documented by federal law enforcement and intelligence officials, both for immediate political gain and for history.
And all he has to do is claim that everything that had been meticulously documented by federal law enforcement and intelligence officials is wrong, or never even happened. If he claims that over and over and over again, then that will make it so, at least to the people who matter:
Turbocharged by his acquittal in the Senate’s impeachment trial and confident that he has acquired the fealty of nearly every Republican in Congress, Trump is claiming vindication and exoneration not only over his conduct with Ukraine – for which the House voted to impeach him – but also from the other investigations that have dogged his presidency.
This includes lawsuits filed against Trump by the state of New York over his finances as well as alleged misuse of charity funds by his nonprofit foundation. Trump sought last week to turn the page on these probes, declaring on Twitter ahead of a White House meeting with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) that “New York must stop all of its unnecessary lawsuits & harassment.”
In short, nearly every Republican in Congress will shout out in unison that they believe every word he says, even if they don’t. If he claims he never was impeached, that that never happened, they’ll agree. Andrew Cuomo, however, may be a different matter. All of those lawsuits should be shut down? Who says so? Why? Trump hasn’t worked out the details of that yet. But he can make life miserable for every citizen of New York. Cuomo may have to give in.
But that’s a minor matter:
Since even before he was sworn in as president, Trump has viewed the FBI’s Russia investigation as a dark cloud over his administration that threatened to delegitimize his claim on the office. And more than three years in, Trump remains haunted by all things Russia, according to advisers and allies, and continues to nurse a profound and unabated sense of persecution.
As his reelection campaign intensifies, Trump is using the powers of his office to manipulate the facts and settle the score. Advisers say the president is determined to protect his associates ensnared in the expansive Russia investigation, punish the prosecutors and investigators he believes betrayed him, and convince the public that the probe was exactly as he sees it: an illegal witch hunt.
And he really does believe that:
“The whole Mueller investigation was a shakedown and a disgrace. It probably should be expunged,” Trump said in an interview last week with radio commentator Geraldo Rivera, a longtime friend.
Referring to Mueller, Trump added: “I don’t call him special counsel because special counsel is not an accurate term. It’s a special prosecutor, because what he and his 13 angry Democrats – all horrible, just horrible people – what they did to destroy the lives of people that you know, but to destroy the lives of many, Geraldo, should never be forgiven, should never be forgotten, and something has to be done about it.”
Geraldo Rivera used to be married to Kurt Vonnegut’s daughter. Geraldo Rivera knows literature. He could have mentioned Captain Ahab and the big white whale to Trump – don’t go there – but he didn’t. Never forgive. Never forget. Never let it go. Never let anything go. Trump is Ahab – “Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.”
But this isn’t about a whale:
Central to this pursuit were Trump’s efforts this past week to lessen the government’s sentencing recommendation for longtime friend and adviser Roger Stone. Attorney General William P. Barr’s extraordinary intervention on the Stone case, as well as Trump’s own declaration of his right to meddle in criminal cases whenever he chooses, tested the nation’s rule of law and sent chills throughout the Justice Department, which has long shielded its independence from political influences.
The chill wasn’t that localized. He does not have that right:
More than 1,100 former federal prosecutors and Justice Department officials called on Attorney General William P. Barr on Sunday to step down after he intervened last week to lower the Justice Department’s sentencing recommendation for President Trump’s longtime friend Roger J. Stone Jr.
They also urged current government employees to report any signs of unethical behavior at the Justice Department to the agency’s inspector general and to Congress.
“Each of us strongly condemns President Trump’s and Attorney General Barr’s interference in the fair administration of justice,” the former Justice Department lawyers, who came from across the political spectrum, wrote in an open letter on Sunday. Those actions, they said, “require Mr. Barr to resign.”
Barr cannot gaslight the nation at the president’s request. Barr has to resign. This isn’t complicated:
Mr. Trump has been relatively muted. He said on Twitter that he had not asked Mr. Barr to “do anything in a criminal case.” As president, he added, he had “the legal right to do so” but had “so far chosen not to!”
But lawyers across the Justice Department continue to worry about political interference from the president despite public pushback by Mr. Barr, long considered a close ally of Mr. Trump’s.
The letter’s signatories included Donald Ayer, a former deputy attorney general under President George Bush, and about 50 former U.S. attorneys. Protect Democracy, a nonprofit legal group, gathered the signatures from Justice Department alumni and said it would collect more.
But there’s nothing there! Nothing happened! No, the gaslighting got even more intense:
Last week alone, Trump called the Russia investigation “tainted,” “dirty,” “rotten,” “illegal,” “phony,” a “disgrace,” a “shakedown,” a “scam,” “a fixed hoax” and “the biggest political crime in American History, by far.”
He argued that the probe into Russian election interference was based on false pretenses, despite a recent report from the Justice Department’s inspector general stating the opposite even as it criticized the FBI’s surveillance of a former Trump campaign aide. And he claimed, again without evidence, that Mueller, a former FBI director regarded for his precision with facts, lied to Congress – which happens to be one of the charges Stone was convicted of by a jury last November.
Absent from the president’s many public comments about the Russia investigation, however, was a warning to Russia not to interfere in the next election, or even an acknowledgment that U.S. intelligence agencies believe Russian President Vladimir Putin is seeking to do so.
None of this was true. The facts and evidence say the opposite. Who are you going to believe? That’s the issue:
Frank Figliuzzi, a former senior FBI official who also worked for Mueller, said Trump’s efforts to spin a new history of the Russia investigation are cause for alarm.
“What Trump is doing is canceling what we all have proven, what the courts have proven, as in Roger Stone, as in Manafort, as in Flynn, in a form of jury nullification at a presidential level,” Figliuzzi said, referring to former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
“The president is doing it on steroids because of the power of his office,” Figliuzzi said. “People have to see the danger in that.”
And there’s this:
Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a history professor at New York University and a scholar of authoritarianism, said she sees darker motives in Trump’s actions.
“It’s all about manipulating information and recasting the narrative to be what you need it to be,” Ben-Ghiat said. “Even more than censoring, which is old-school, rulers like Trump – and Putin is the master at this – manipulate opinion by manipulating information.”
No, no, no – facts and evidence are all relative – facts and evidence are no more than what you say they are:
Trump’s defenders said the president is wise to try to seize control of the public narrative of the Russia investigation at the start of a campaign year, and they argued that his retelling will find a sympathetic audience.
“Winners write the history books. President Trump is aware of this and realizes that unless he defines the previous three years of witch hunts, then it will in fact be the people who unsuccessfully launched these witch hunts who will define the legacy,” said Jason Miller, a former Trump campaign adviser who co-hosts “War Room,” a pro-Trump radio show and podcast, with former Trump strategist Stephen K. Bannon.
It seems that not only do the winners write history. The winners create the facts and evidence that are the raw material of history. That’s what paranoia is all about:
In private discussions with advisers and friends, Trump has long groused angrily and obsessively about the Russia investigation. The president believes he and his campaign were unfairly targeted by what he bemoans as a “deep state” conspiracy – and he faults former FBI director James B. Comey and deputy director Andrew McCabe, among others.
Trump regularly complains that Comey and McCabe have avoided jail time for what he is convinced is wrongdoing, while Stone, Manafort, Flynn and other Trump associates have been prosecuted.
Wait. He may be the one who was gaslighted here, or else he needs to change what the world sees and knows and experienced into one big golden Trump Tower:
Ben-Ghiat, the New York University professor, credited Trump with his foresight and skill.
“While Trump is impulsive and there’s always the question of, is he a chess master or is he just moving blindly out of emotion, this strategy of manipulating information and creating a false narrative are the actions of someone who thinks long-term, who thinks about legacy,” Ben-Ghiat said. “He’s a builder. He thinks about the future. And this is a story about someone building an alternate history for the future.”
And, in this election year, just how are the Democrats supposed to deal with that? The New York Times reports that they’ll just talk about other things. He has his reality. They’ll talk about the reality that most everyone else sees:
House Democrats, recovering from their failed push to remove President Trump from office, are making a sharp pivot to talking about health care and economic issues, turning away from their investigations of the president as they focus on preserving their majority.
Top Democrats say that oversight of the president will continue. And they plan in particular to press Attorney General William P. Barr over what they say are Mr. Trump’s efforts to compromise the independence of the Justice Department. But for now, at least, they have shelved the idea of subpoenaing Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser, who was a central figure in the president’s impeachment trial.
Trump wants to gaslight America. Russia is our friend, our true friend, and the American government, the Deep State, is our real enemy. And the Democratic response will be, okay, whatever, so let’s talk about health care and the economic issues. That’s not a concession. That’s a yawn and a pivot:
In a series of private meetings over the past week, and in written instructions she distributed to lawmakers Thursday before a recess this week, Speaker Nancy Pelosi made clear that the emphasis must shift.
“Health care, health care, health care,” the speaker said, describing the party’s message during a recent closed-door meeting, according to a person in the room who insisted on anonymity to reveal private conversations. She said they had to be laser-focused on getting re-elected: “When you make a decision to win, then you have to make every decision in favor of winning.”
And arguing with Trump is not winning:
The move is particularly striking given how aggressively Mr. Trump, emboldened by his acquittal by the Senate, has moved to take revenge on his perceived enemies and push the limits of his power. But just as they did before the 2018 midterm elections, Democrats appear to have decided that focusing on Mr. Trump’s near-daily stream of norm-shattering words and deeds only elevates him, while alienating the swing voters they need to maintain their hold on the House and have a chance at winning the Senate.
They can do what he cannot, let it go:
Given that the House has already taken the most powerful step a Congress can take to hold a chief executive accountable – impeachment – Democrats reason that there is little more they can do. Some say Mr. Trump brings enough attention to his conduct all on his own.
“His erratic, corrupt, unconstitutional behavior speaks for itself at this point,” Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said in an interview Friday.
And that means they’ll speak of something else:
Ms. Pelosi has been urging her rank and file to emphasize the same three-pronged “For the People” agenda – creating jobs, cleaning up corruption in Washington and, above all, bringing down the high cost of health care – that won Democrats the majority in 2018. Democrats say the $4.8 trillion budget Mr. Trump released last week makes it easier to contrast his priorities with their own.
The budget would cut funding for Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, food stamps and federal student loans. In the “recess packet” Ms. Pelosi distributed to lawmakers before they went home, she offered a list of suggested events in their districts – like visits to a senior center, a food bank and an after-school program – that could serve to highlight the impact of the proposed cuts.
“What the president has put forth is a destructive and irrational budget that intentionally goes after working families and vulnerable Americans,” the document said.
His budget does eliminate the student loan program and start to phase out Medicare and Social Security, along with food stamps and the CDC and FDA and this and that. There are those who like their Medicare and Social Security, even some Republicans, but there’s the counterargument to that, that the Deep State has been out to ruin or at least embarrass everyone’s favorite president, and, as all historians agree, the best president there ever was or will be. Trump says such things, so this will be an odd showdown:
Ms. Pelosi also brought in Steven Rattner, an investment banker who advised President Barack Obama in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, to brief Democrats privately about ways to target Mr. Trump’s economic record. Mr. Rattner showed a PowerPoint presentation, portions of which were shared with The New York Times by a person who attended, with statistics showing how income inequality has worsened under Mr. Trump, and how the economic gains during his tenure – largely in the stock market – have failed to benefit working people and the middle class.
Representative Mary Gay Scanlon, a freshman Democrat who represents a swing district in Pennsylvania, said that was what she would talk about when she was at home.
“We keep seeing more and more data about the recovery that the administration is touting, the great economy,” she said. “But what hits people who have a lot of stock holdings is not hitting the families in my district. Over half of them are underwater at the end of every month now, once they pay for health care and child care and housing.”
But it’s not that simple:
Mr. Trump has complicated Democrats’ push to change the subject by mounting a brash and highly public post-impeachment campaign of retribution, firing witnesses who testified against him and objecting to the Justice Department’s prosecution of his friend Roger J. Stone Jr. After senior officials there overruled career prosecutors to recommend Mr. Stone receive a lighter sentence, four prosecutors who worked on the case resigned. Mr. Trump then cheered the attorney general on Twitter.
“The impact of the prosecutors resigning en masse was huge,” Ms. Scanlon, who is also vice chairwoman of the Judiciary Committee, said in an interview Thursday, before lawmakers left Washington. “That doesn’t happen with career prosecutors and it signaled really serious misconduct. So we will have to look at that.”
Democrats have summoned Mr. Barr to testify before the Judiciary Committee on March 31. In a harshly worded letter sent to Mr. Barr on Wednesday, Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, the panel’s chairman, signaled that Democrats planned to question Mr. Barr about overruling prosecutors on Mr. Stone’s recommended sentence and Mr. Barr’s willingness to accept information about Ukraine from Rudolph W. Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, among other matters.
Mr. Nadler told Mr. Barr in the letter that the panel had “grave questions about your leadership” at the Justice Department.
That’s one thing they won’t let go. But he probably won’t show up. Both he and Trump might say Barr doesn’t have to show up. All the other presidents were wrong. And the Constitution is dead wrong. They don’t answer to Congress. They’ll probably change the subject back to that sort of thing. That would be masterful gaslighting, unless it doesn’t work:
Before they left for recess, Democrats unveiled a $760 billion infrastructure plan that they have said is aimed at jump-starting bipartisan talks with the administration on how to fix the nation’s crumbling roads, rails and bridges. Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster, said the plan would give Democrats something tangible to talk about in their home districts. But the chances of any election-year deal with Mr. Trump on the issue are vanishingly remote.
Mr. Garin said his surveys on impeachment showed that while most Americans were ambivalent about removing the president from office, a majority believe he engaged in wrongdoing, and committed the acts that formed the basis for the charges against him. Even so, Mr. Garin urged Democrats to follow the plan Ms. Pelosi had outlined for them.
“House Democrats need to talk about the same issues they’ve been talking about all along, which include the cost of health care and the need to lower the cost of prescription drugs, and about cleaning up government so that it works for the people and not for special interests,” he said.
But no one cares about that! President Trump has been treated unfairly! That’s what people care about! That’s the only thing people care about! But that’s not what all the polling shows. People are hurting.
So, who has been gaslighted here? Ingrid Bergman thought she was going crazy. Now the whole country may be thinking they are going crazy too. But don’t expect a happy ending this time.