Gaslighting in Trump’s America


March 1, 2017 – The UW Daily
Gaslighting in Trump’s America

In a night of uncomfortable truths and stirring rhetoric, a political scientist, communication professor, and clinical psychologist came together and attempted to unravel a new phenomenon in American politics: gaslighting.

Town Hall Seattle hosted an event Monday night titled “Gaslighting in Government,” aiming to understand the phenomenon of political gaslighting and its role in public perception of government. To gaslight, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is to drive someone insane by making them doubt their perceptions or memories.

The term has made its way into public consciousness since President Donald Trump took office as a way to make sense of his election. The lecture aimed to understand how and why the president is manipulating public perception by approaching gaslighting from three perspectives: communication, clinical psychology, and politics.

Christopher Parker, a UW professor of political science, opened the lecture. “If you are a Trump supporter or a Trump fan, you are not going to like me when it’s all done,” Parker said to resounding cheers from the audience. Parker played a compilation of recent news clips to illustrate examples of Trump’s gaslighting. He started with the “birther” claim, the rigged election claim, and ended with Kellyanne Conway’s alternative facts statement, which he called “the greatest gaslight of all time.” He then posed a question to David Domke, chair of the UW communication department, asking what it means to gaslight from a communication perspective.Domke started by distinguishing reasonable political disagreement from outright falsehoods. There are presidents who adhere to particular perspectives, such as Franklin D. Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan, who Domke labeled as ideologically inclined.

“In the political arena, they by and large adhere to an ideological perspective, but don’t live and breathe falsehoods,” Domke said. “They say the truth as they understand it. You may disagree with these individuals, but they aren’t every day waking up and telling things that are demonstrably false.”

Domke defined gaslighting as a “dismissal for, disinterest in, and disregard for the truth.” Individuals he placed in this category of speech included Joseph McCarthy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard Nixon. “These men told outright lies, knew they were not truthful, and spent time convincing the American public on a daily basis of this,” Domke said.

Domke differentiated Trump from these men not in intent, but in skill; McCarthy, Johnson, and Nixon were far more effective in convincing the public of their lies. “Trump doesn’t have the skillset of those individuals, but he has the skillset for the media-centric culture of today that has a short attention span and doesn’t follow up on claims for evidence,” Domke said. “Trump is telling outright falsehoods that aren’t true — this is different from ideologically inclined worldview claims.”

He went on to emphasize the importance of a robust and unfettered press in checking this type of rogue power and influence. “History has shown us that when [politicians] act this way, they lose,” Domke said. “They are brought to heel and forced to come to terms with these truths politically and legally.” R. Keith Myers, a mental health professional and vice president of clinical and training services at Wellspring Family Services, spoke next.

“Clinically, gaslighting is a primitive form of projection,” Myers said. Myers went on to tell a story about the clinical approaches to suicide, murder rates, and suicide rates by race in the United States. After concluding, he told the audience that everything he had just told them was wrong, essentially gaslighting them to illustrate how it works. “All of us are vulnerable to gaslighting; all of us are vulnerable to alternative facts,” Myers said. Although everyone is susceptible to gaslighting, some people are more vulnerable than others.

“Those who have been abused and ignored and demeaned are more likely to gaslight,” Myers said. By doing this, Myers was trying to emphasize just how common gaslighting is in our everyday lives and individual relationships. “We have basically been designed by evolution to accept alternative facts and not think things through very carefully,” Myers said. The mood in the room picked up as the lecture moved into the Q&A portion of the event.

“Does Trump pose an existential threat to our democracy? Yes,” Domke said. “Is it greater than ever before? Probably not.” All three panelists emphasized the importance of reaching out to those you might disagree with to make real, lasting connections. Parker also offered the audience three ways to combat the negative effects of Trump’s presidency: expand voting rights for minorities, create space for female political leadership, and build bridges and connections with each other. “We have to take our country back, and progressives have to stand up and see Trump for the existential threat that he is,” Parker said. “It’s time for the truth-tellers to come forward and expose Trump’s foundation of untruth.”

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