Gaslighting, The Political Tactic of our Time
Not Just An Interpersonal Dynamic
Gaslighting. Most of us know what it means. And many of us have been its victim. Gaslighting is most often associated with personal relationships, but its insidious nature is also evident in the social and political realms.
Wikipedia defines gaslighting as a form of psychological manipulation in which a person or a group covertly sows seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or group, making them question their own memory, perception, or judgment, often evoking in them cognitive dissonance and other changes, including low self-esteem.” It is important to note that the definition includes both individuals and groups; both can be targets of gaslighting.
That may be why the term gaslighting is now being applied to the tactics of politicians like Donald Trump. A particularly effective, albeit opaque, aspect of gaslighting used by our president is that of projection, a psychological defense mechanism, and therefore unconscious, which involves projecting one’s rejected, undesirable feelings, thoughts or personality qualities onto someone else. Examples include calling people “nasty,” “liars,” “not very smart,” “ weak,” and even “racist.” Such comments distract people from recognizing those same qualities in him. Projecting weakness, incompetence and inferiority is especially effective with people or groups who may already be vulnerable to self doubt or prone to being scapegoats.
The term gaslighting has its origins in a 1938 play, Angel Street, by Patrick Hamilton, which was adapted into a movie, Gaslight, starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. The film chronicles the descent of a young woman (Ingrid Bergman) into a severe state of self doubt at the hands of her husband, who works tenaciously and systematically, for his own purposes, to erode her sanity. He does so by making subtle changes in the environment (dimming the gaslights, for example) and then denying that anything has changed. Since its opening in 1944, the term has entered the public lexicon as a real thing.
Gaslighting and Intimate Relationships
Psychologists were the first to define gaslighting as an interpersonal dynamic between two people, often a romantic couple, in which one partner is manipulated into doubting their sense of reality. The term has since expanded to include other kinds of relationships.
As a psychological concept, it was analyzed in several professional journals and finally popularized in Robin Stern’s 2007 book, The Gaslight Effect, which describes gaslighting as a phenomenon of “mutual participation” between “gaslighter” (perpetrator) and“gaslightee”(victim). However, Stern placed responsibility on the“gaslightee” to fix or get out of the relationship. This, of course, ignored the existing power differential in relationships between men and women.
More recently, Dr. Jennifer Sweeton, a Stanford- and Harvard-trained trauma specialist, defined Gaslighting as “a ‘sneaky, difficult-to-identify form of manipulation (and in severe cases, emotional abuse)’ that results in the gaslightee questioning his or her own perception, experiences, and even reality. In severe cases, this psychological warfare can result in the victim becoming dependent on the gaslighter for his or her own sense of reality.” This is essentially what happens in the movie Gaslight, when Ingrid Bergman’s character begins to question what she sees and to depend instead on her husband’s sense of reality.
A 2017 article in Psychology Today says, “Gaslighting is an insidious form of manipulation and psychological control. Victims of gaslighting are deliberately and systematically fed false information that leads them to question what they know to be true, often about themselves. They may end up doubting their memory, their perception, and even their sanity. Over time, a gaslighter’s manipulations can grow more complex and potent, making it increasingly difficult for the victim to see the truth.” Victims of gaslighting often describe feeling “crazy” during this time. Some have no idea, even afterwards, what to believe since their ability to trust their own judgment has been severely damaged in the process.
Who Are Gaslighters?
So what kinds of people tend to be gaslighters? Psychologists say narcissists are likely candidates because they are more invested in getting what they want, regardless of the needs of other people, and then feeling no remorse. According to Sweeton, the gaslighter generally holds the following beliefs, either consciously or unconsciously:
- It is acceptable to override another person’s reality
2. People can be controlled and possessed
3. Being challenged is unacceptable
In recent years, the phenomenon of gaslighting has been evident in cases where certain groups lack social or political power. According to Sweeton, the following examples fall into this category: the genocide of Native Americans, the watering down or erasing of aspects of slavery, the invisibility of bisexuality, and what she calls “The Matilda Effect,” wherein women’s scientific accomplishments are erased from history books. The term is taken from a book by Ellie Irving about a young girl who undeservingly loses a science competition and learns that her grandmother, an astrophysicist, had her discovery of a planet stolen from her by her boss fifty years before. Matilda sets out to set the record straight.
Early on, it was believed that women were almost always the victims of gaslighting because they lacked the power held by men in relationships and in society a a whole.
Gaslighting as a Social and Political Construct
Paige L. Sweeta, a postdoctoral fellow with the Inequality in America Initiative at Harvard University, claims that gaslighting is primarily a sociological rather than a psychological phenomenon and should be “understood as rooted in social inequalities, including gender, and executed in power-laden intimate relationships.” She argues that abusers mobilize gendered stereotypes to win over their victims and says gaslighting could not exist “without inequities in the distribution of social, political and economic power.”
For gaslighting to be effective, the victim must hold the gaslighter in high regard (as is often the case in romantic relationships) or project power onto them. The gaslighter takes advantage of this power inequity. For example, politicians, like Trump, feel they can attack others with impunity because of the enormous power of their position. In Trump’s case citizens, as well as other governmental officials, are fearful of fighting back. Disagreement can result in being fired, publicly attacked, ridiculed or threatened.
A 2017 Medium article by Xanj noted that gaslighting is fueled by any attempts at confrontation or dismissal of the gaslighter. “In response to being called out, a gaslighter will try to weave an even more intricate web, sometimes a nonsensical one,” says Xanj. “As their sense of control slips, the attempts to regain it might reveal a desperate, fearful individual grasping at straws.” We recently witnessed this after Trump’s tax returns were revealed and he was then diagnosed with Coronavirus. Instead of backing off, he amped up his diminution of the effects of Covid, despite the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.
Beating Down the Opponent
Tenacity and repetition are critical components of gaslighting, particularly in politics. Lying, denying and twisting reality to deceive and gain control is a classic characteristic of gaslighters. The idea is to wear down the victim by constantly challenging what they believe to be true. Repeated claims that news is fake, science is fake, the coronavirus is a hoax (nothing to worry about here folks!) are typical examples of undermining people’s judgment and encouraging them to doubt what they can clearly see and hear for themselves.
Two related tactics are perpetual lying and denial, overt or implied. Recently, Vice President Pence, in a televised debate with Senator Kamala Harris, claimed that the Trump Administration going forward would be making policy on the basis of science, yet refused to acknowledge that the state of the environment posed an existential threat or that decisions about the coronavirus were currently adhering to the dictates of medical experts (which clearly they were not). He then blamed Presidential hopeful Joe Biden for being anti-science. Such comments can feel crazy-making.
A certain amount of truth-twisting is not uncommon in politics. Most politicians inflate or bend the truth at times, but we have never seen the degree of serial lying that we are witnessing today. Remember that gaslighting is defined as a form of psychological manipulation in which a person covertly sows seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or group. It involves consistent lying, denial, projection and obfuscation.
The ultimate danger of gaslighting is not just insanity but death. In the modern era we have seen cult leaders skillfully guide their followers into collective death. In the same way, we are being asked today to tempt death by ignoring warnings to wear masks at rallies for the purpose of lauding a leader who cares little about the effects on his fans. For some, that may indeed be a death sentence. In personal gaslighting relationships, victims of gaslighting have been known to commit both literal and figurative suicide as they slip into deeper and deeper levels of perceived insanity. The willingness to put one’s life at risk was highlighted in a recent interview with a Trump supporter who, when told about the dangers of not wearing a mask, said, “If I die, I die.” She was willing to go to her death in support of Donald Trump, claiming she was free to do so.
Sometimes, if lucky, the victim of gaslighting may be rescued by a loved one and encouraged to seek treatment. But who can rescue an entire group of people, let alone a deeply polarized nation, from mass self destruction? How do we wake a collective willing to go to their deaths (or force death upon others through irresponsible acts) rather than awaken to the spell of gaslighting? This November we will know if help is on its way.