The term “gaslighting” comes to us from a play called “Gas Light,” written in 1938 by British playwright Patrick Hamilton. The play focuses on an abusive husband in the 1880s who convinces his wife that she is going crazy. One of his methods is lowering the gaslights and telling her it hasn’t gotten any darker. It’s all in her imagination.
Donald Trump has been playing this game on the American people, or at least a meaningful portion of it, for five months now. Telling us that Trump University was a success. Telling us that he only worked with the mafia because everyone in his business had to. Telling us that his campaign manager Corey Lewandoski never touched Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields. Then telling us so what if he touched her.
In Hamilton’s play, the essential element is that the husband is capable of controlling the environment. If the house is the only world his wife knows, then by subtly adjusting its lights and objects, he can make her question her own remembrance, even her own sanity.
Even the staunchest Trump critic has to admit that he has controlled the environment of this election cycle. He turned the great brown hope of the GOP into George Lopez tossing out one-liners while destroying his presidential hopes. He made Jeb Bush, the scion of a great conservative family, look small. He took the mighty Chris Christie who can tame angry New Jersey protesters and made him a teddy bear sidekick.
Relying on Charm to Deceive You
The gaslighter has to be charming. The game doesn’t work otherwise. We have to trust people in order to deny what our senses tell us. When Trump said nothing happened between Lewandowski and Fields, Trump’s charm carried weight.
Now that Lewandowski has been arrested and video shows that his account is patently false, Trump is lowering the lights. Well, he says, she touched me too, can I get her charged? He says, well, how do we know she didn’t already have those bruises (which she photographed the next day). As the lights dim, those most tragic figures, cable news anchors, fall into his frothing sea of who knows what the hell happened?
In Hamilton’s play, there is a detective called Detective Rough. He takes a dim view of the abusive husband’s explanations. He thinks the poor woman is being taken for a ride. And he works diligently to find out exactly how. He tries to figure out what the abuser has to gain. And he finds something.
Sadly, Hamilton was much better at exposing the conjuring of gaslighters than today’s media. Time and again the news media has given Trump a pass when he says things that are flatly false. Trump knows very well that he is not winning the lawsuits against him regarding Trump University. In fact he recently complained about an unfair Hispanic judge who was hurting his case. Faced with blatant falsehoods, however, the haircuts just continue their interviews.
Don’t Agree To Disagree
When Trump says he was against the war in Iraq from the beginning, then audio shows he did agree with it, that has to be dealt with. When a journalist says “You said this,” and then he argle bargles about celebrity and “who knows what anybody said,” that journalist needs to shut down and focus straight on that. This happens approximately never.
What actually happens is that the interviewer finds some subtle way to express admonishment to viewers, but smiling Donald keeps on smiling. They move on to another subject—agreeing, as it were, to disagree. As if both points of view have validity, when in fact one is demonstrably false. It is in that moment, when they move on to the next subject, that Trump wins.
This moment occurs every time Trump is interviewed. At a certain point the anchor gives up. So what if he’s lying and we know it. We have to get along here. And maybe I’ll look like I’m a bully, like that Megyn Kelly, if I press it too hard. Maybe freaks on Twitter will look for every picture of me. Maybe they will call me a whore and pretend I slept with my boss. That’s exactly what happened to Amanda Carpenter. But who knows, right? It’s all a rich tapestry.
In the play, Detective Rough eventually discovers that there are illicit riches in the couple’s attic. It was the abusive husband’s lighting of the attic lamp in search of this treasure that dimmed the house’s lights. So the wife wasn’t crazy. He was up to something. But what he was up to only benefitted him, not her. She was the victim of his smiling lies.
Cut Him Off
The way to deal with a person who is gaslighting is to cut them off. Full stop. There is no negotiation. There is only a severance, at least until the abuser can deal with reality. Thus far the news media has been unwilling to cut this cord. But if Trump lies and you know it’s a lie, you have to stop the interview. When he points at a red wall and calls it blue, you have to shut down the feed.
Sadly, a reality-based philosophy of journalism has yet to emerge. But I would suggest one principle for its creation. When someone insists a lie is the truth they must accept reality, or they must not be invited back. I know there is a lot of money to be made out of Trump. I’ve made some. But he is telling us things that are not true.
The major news outlets are unlikely to become more like Detective Rough. They do well with Trump’s ugly lies. But we don’t have to. We don’t have to be gaslighted. “Gas Light” was written in 1938. Surely, almost 80 years later, we aren’t more susceptible to the scam it describes.