I was reminded recently of the origin of the word “gaslighting.” For those of you who have not had liberal friends try to explain Donald Trump to you, “gaslighting” is repeatedly lying to someone while acting as though the hearer is losing her grip on reality. The term comes from the Ingrid Bergman movie, Gaslight, in which the husband of a concert pianist, abetted by the housemaid, tries to drive her insane by lowering the gaslight in the house and telling her she was imagining the increasing darkness.
I was struck by a fundamental truth about gaslighting — no one engages in it alone. Other people always aid in the deceit.
We were gaslighted, and not only by Donald Trump.
We heard lies all through the Trump Presidency. We heard lies from the rotating press secretaries. We heard lies from to the toadies who would parrot whatever propaganda Trump was pushing at the time. We heard the biggest lie of all repeated by Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz, and the six other Senators and 149 Republican representatives who challenged the electoral votes in two states in an attempt to have the 2020 election results invalidated. Those Congressmen argued, without evidence, that major election fraud occurred even though court after court had tossed out cases because the president’s lawyer presented no evidence of malfeasance.
For many, trying to understand what was true became hard. Living in a world where those who should have been trustworthy spouted “alternative facts” made keeping hold of actuality difficult. If psychosis means being divorced from reality, then large swaths of the populace might have been psychotic.
Knowing truth meant fact-checking and fact-checking and fact-checking again statements by media figures and elected officials at all levels of government. “Alternative facts” were not confined to the White House or the Capitol: they were spread by governors, mayors, secretaries of state, and others.
The pandemic made the lies told over the last year deadly. Because of them, large numbers of people refused to take the simplest precautions to slow down the spread of the disease. Many Americans died as a result. Many more suffered potentially permanent damage to their bodies.
By its nature gaslighting is abusive. The damage done can be devasting and long-lasting: the gaslighting we as a nation experienced during the Trump administration nearly cost us our democracy. When crazed insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6th, they acted as a result of a vicious and sustained campaign to destroy the peaceful transfer of power, a hallmark of our government.
The seditious mob that broke into the Capitol were not demonstrating but, as one of them said, “hunting.” “Hang Mike Pence” echoed through the halls. Miraculously, only five people died, and miraculously no public official was assassinated. By all accounts it was a very close thing.
Those insurrectionists have a lot of company among Trump supporters who believe that the election was stolen. Multiple polls show a majority of Republicans believe – again, with no supporting evidence – that Joe Biden’s election was tainted, his administration illegitimate.
Foiled by an intrepid journalist, the husband in the movie Gaslight did not succeed in his nefarious plot. The housemaid was confronted with her misdeeds, and the concert pianist escaped more or less unscathed. All in all a happy ending.
Too bad the gaslighters in the Trump orbit, unlike the evil husband, succeeded as well as they did.