The Trump administration is ‘gaslighting’ America

Mike Lofgren, a former congressional staff member who served on the House and Senate budget committees, and the author of the 2011 essay Goodbye to All That: Reflections of a GOP Operative Who Left the Cult, has another must-read essay at the Political Animal blog addressing the “alternative facts” of White House Press Secretary “Baghdad Sean” Spicer. Is Sean Spicer Gaslighting the Press?

In his first official performance as press secretary for a new president barely 24 hours after his inauguration, Sean Spicer delivered a performance that would have made Baghdad Bob look like Diogenes. Looking sour and petulant, Spicer lashed out at the media for supposedly making fraudulent underestimates of the crowds at President Trump’s inauguration compared to those of President Obama’s. He also took vehement issue with the attendance estimates for the Women’s March on Washington that was concluding as he spoke.

After delivering his angry jeremiad to the White House press corps, Spicer strode away from the lectern without taking questions. To find anything as surreal, one would have to go back to Nixon’s press secretary, Ron Ziegler, as Watergate unfolded — albeit Ziegler merely looked hapless at having to deliver balderdash with a straight face, rather than ready to bite off the heads of the reporters.

Given the marvels of aerial photography and cameras placed in tall buildings, estimates of crowds at a given venue, while never exact, are accurate in comparative terms. And since the overwhelming majority of attendees at special events on the Washington Mall arrives by Metro, the local transit authority has an exact count of the number of people who use the system on a given day. In view of those factors, Spicer might just as well have been arguing that two plus two equals five. Beyond that, the sheer pettiness of berating the press over a basically insignificant issue one day into a new administration, when presidencies traditionally seek – and generally find – at least a modicum of good will from the fourth estate, is mystifying. Why did he do it?

We have already seen Trump as president-elect engage in tweet storms over the relative viewership of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s turn as Celebrity Apprentice’s star compared to his own tenure in that position. This kind of pettiness is to be expected from him, although it is a bit disconcerting coming from a man who as of January 20 has his finger on the nuclear button.

Thus it may have been that Spicer, sleep-deprived and under pressure from the Trump Tower cabal over an issue that touched on Trump’s neurotic insecurity about his popularity, was metaphorically fitted with a vest full of dynamite and sent on a suicide mission. As a former Capitol Hill staffer with the acquired reflexes of what the German army called Kadavergehorsam (“corpse-like obedience”), Spicer would have dutifully complied and faced the tittering incredulity of the White House correspondents like a good soldier.

A quick aside for a moment. The entire congressional GOP leadership is now displaying KadavergehorsamRepublicans Now Marching With Trump on Ideas They Had Opposed:

[T]he question of whether congressional Republicans would change President Trump or Mr. Trump would change them has an early answer. Mr. Trump cheerfully addressed the group here at their policy retreat on Thursday, and they responded with applause to many proposals they have long opposed.

Republican lawmakers appear more than ready to open up the coffers for a $12 billion to $15 billion border wall, perhaps without the commensurate spending cuts that they demanded when it came to disaster aid, money to fight the Zika virus or funds for the tainted water system in Flint, Mich. They also seem to back a swelling of the federal payroll that Mr. Trump has called for in the form of a larger military and 5,000 more border patrol agents.

They have stayed oddly silent as Mr. Trump and Senate Democrats push a $1 trillion infrastructure plan, larger than one they rejected from President Barack Obama. Once fierce promoters of the separation of powers, Republicans are now embracing Mr. Trump’s early governing by executive order, something they loudly decried during Mr. Obama’s second term.

Speaker Paul D. Ryan, whose own website this week still praised the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, now applauds Mr. Trump for putting the final shovel of dirt over the accord, with the president saying he is interested in bilateral agreements instead.

Many Republicans, who have been longstanding opponents of Russia and written laws that prohibit torture, have chosen to overlook, or even concur with, Mr. Trump’s embrace of both. Even on the subject of Mr. Trump’s call for an investigation into voter fraud, a widely debunked claim, Republicans have often demurred. “The notion that election fraud is a fiction is not true,” said the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

Tea-Publicans make such good German soldiers. Corpse-like obedience to authoritarianism.

Back to Mr. Lofgren:

But there is a second explanation that could also be true without invalidating the first. The conservative-media entertainment complex, of which Trump is the culmination, has made an art form of concocting absurd, up-is-the-new-down propositions, repeating them with jackhammering relentlessness, magnifying them in the echo chamber of right-wing media, and finally reifying them into conventional wisdom among the conservative faithful. Large percentages of the Republican base regard lies about death panels or Obama’s citizenship as axiomatic truths. But with the dawn of the Trump dispensation, this technique may have mutated into something even more pernicious.

In the 1944 movie Gaslight, the villain, played by Charles Boyer, attempts to drive his wife (Ingrid Bergman) insane by manipulating small items in their home environment and insisting that she is mistaken, or even delusional, when she notices them and points them out. This kind of psychological coercion has become known as “gaslighting,” which Urban Dictionary defines as “a form of intimidation or psychological abuse . . . where false information is presented to the victim, making them doubt their own memory, perception and quite often, their sanity.”

Trump’s brazen, repeated, and unapologetic lying on the campaign trail has already caused journalists to complain that fact checkers cannot keep up with the stream of lies. They saw the danger that fact checking his statements would become futile because the falsehoods would have become so common that they would soon be normalized. Beyond that, each and every preposterous statement is an explicit fight that Trump picks with the media in order to further polarize his supporters and render their cognitive bubble even more hermetic. One can easily see Spicer’s foray into fantasy as a strategy by Trump counselor Steve Bannon to drive more clicks to Breitbart or Freerepublic.com and away from reality-based information.

Aside from reinforcing the Trump base, the next four years of non-stop gaslighting could erode the basic standards of discourse in a healthy civil society. The truly horrible thing about propaganda in authoritarian regimes is not that it convinces the true believers, but that it demoralizes opponents by saying in effect: “Yes, we know that you know we are lying, but we don’t care! We do it because we can and you can’t stop us!” As for the majority of apolitical citizens, it infects them with a corrosive cynicism and dissuades them from all forms of public engagement. Apathy may be a more powerful silencer of dissent than overt physical coercion.

Are the products of the Columbia School of Journalism up to the task of countering the coming blitzkrieg of gaslighting? Given their training, instincts, and penchant for false equivalence (“The earth: round or flat? We’ll examine the controversy after the break!”), one has doubts. Nor are the Democrats, out of altitude, airspeed, and ideas, very well placed to hold the Trump administration accountable.

It may be up to the public at large, the people who did not drink the Kool-Aid, to self-organize into their own band of fact checkers. If they cannot hold the administration accountable, they can at least hold the press to account and keep the Democrats’ feet to the fire. Beyond that, reality will intrude, as it has a habit of doing.

George Orwell said that “sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.” On the atolls of the South China Sea, the snow-bound steppe of eastern Ukraine, or the desert wastes of the Middle East, reality may very well emerge in the form of forces immune to the confabulations of the Trump propaganda mill.

14 responses to “The Trump administration is ‘gaslighting’ America

  1. On Democracy Now, Amy Goodman reported today that Sean Spicer (press secretary), Stephen Bannon (transition team leader), Steven Mnuchin (treasury secretary nominee), Jared Kushner (his son-in-law and adviser), and Trump’s daughter Tiffany are all registered to vote in more than one state.

    https://www.democracynow.org/2017/1/27/headlines/five_members_of_trump_inner_circle_were_registered_to_vote_in_2_states

  2. John Huppenthal

    President Trump’s inauguration was the most watched in history.

    That is a verifiable fact that the media did contortions to obscure in order to minimize his presidency.

    Socializing our health care system may help a few people immediately but at the cost of damaging its effectiveness for everyone pretty quickly.

    We have a health care apocalypse coming that makes your climate change hysteria look like a pleasant Sunday afternoon. That apocalypse is antibiotic resistant infections.

    • For Sure Not Tom

      Wrong. Wrong.

      Sean “Gum-Belly” Spicer said he was including online viewing. That’s not verifiable, Falcon9.

      Televison ratings were well down from Obama and Reagan’s first inaugurals.

      In person attendance was well below Obama’s and about a third of the Woman’s March the next day.

      The route was lined with empty bleachers, the mall was half empty. Pence was walking down the street waving to empty seats. That is verifiable.

      Its also without a doubt the stupidest thing an American President has ever fussed about.

      The. Stupidest. Ever.

      And a sign of what’s to come.

      • John Huppenthal

        What’s not verifiable about online viewing?

        Trump’s inauguration set, by far, an all time record for any event, breaking his own previous live streaming record by 16%.

        Who is doing the gaslighting? Not one media outlet covered this sensational record.

        According to Akamai, live video streaming of the inauguration peaked at 8.7 Tbps at 12:04 ET during the opening of President Trump’s speech, up from 7.9 Tbps at the start of the inaugural oath. This surpassed the previous record of 7.5 Tbps, which was achieved on Election Day (Nov. 8, 2016) during the evening.

        Akamai tries to give this new record some historical context by comparing it to the 2009 inauguration, which reached 1.1 Tbps

        when comparing the inauguration with other events, it still came out on top. For example, the 2016 Euro soccer tournament final peaked at 7.3 Tbps and 3.3 million concurrent viewers. The Rio women’s team gymnastics final hit 4.5 Tbps and 1.5 million concurrent viewers.

        Trump had somewhere between 2.5 and 3.1 concurrent viewers online.

        • For Sure Not Tom

          Tbps is a measure of volume, not a connection count.

          To explain, if my shower head puts out 10 gallons of water a minute, that does not mean I am in the shower with 9 other people.

          According to Nielsen, Trump’s television average total viewership during the peak coverage block was of 30.6 million. That’s less than Obama’s first inauguration in 2009 (37.8 million), President Jimmy Carter’s 1977 swearing-in (34.1 million) and President Ronald Reagan’s first inauguration in 1985 (41.8 million).

          The actual number of online viewers peaked at 4.6 million, your numbers are actually low. Donald would not be pleased with you.

          Your numbers are not just low, they are also fake, because computers are very good at counting, it’s kind of their thing. That you give a range of 2.5 to 3.1 shows that you do not understand the computer you use to spread your sockpuppetry goodness.

          The internet is 100% ones and zeroes, there are no “ranges”.

          This is an indication of people viewing content online more and moving away from tradition broadcast media and not people loving the PeeOTUS.

          So let’s take the actual number of online viewers, 4.6 million, and add that to the 30.6 million television viewers, we get 35.2 million viewers, still much less than Obama’s first and Reagan’s.

          Obama’s total viewer count for his first inauguration is 2.6 million people more than Don the Con’s.

          Next, we have the national mall less than half full and the parade route bleacher seats mostly empty.

          Nobody showed up. Most American’s don’t like your guy.

          And lastly, FOR F***’s SAKE, what a stupid thing to lie about.

          What is wrong with you people?

          • The Fuhrer needs to believe that he is loved and adored by his loyal subjects. The other disrespectful subjects must be proved to be the minority. Therefore, he would have won the popular vote except for the people who voted at least twice for Hillary. And, his inauguration event was the most watched ever. Stay tuned, more to come, most definitely.

    • For Sure Not Tom

      Oh, shoot. You got me! I fell for it.

      You’re not Falcon9.

      You said something based on actual science.

      You are correct, antibiotic resistant superbugs are going to be a very, very serious problem, much of it caused by the overuse of antibiotics in the beef/dairy and poultry industries.

      Fool me once, my bad.

      So are you going vegan, or at least organic?

    • Frances Perkins

      The Trump inauguration is responsible for Arizona 4th grade math and reading scores for African-American children to go up incredibly high.

  3. You are rather lucky, AzBM. Trump is a win-win for you. If he doesn’t do what he said he was going to do, you can nail him for that. If he does what he said he was going to do, you can nail him for that. I told you Trump would be the gift that keeps on giving…

  4. For Sure Not Tom

    I have a long time Trump fan in my immediate family who will argue with me that UFO’s of alien origin are a proven scientific fact.

    I have Trump supporters in the immediate family who have serious pre-existing conditions that want Obamacare repealed.

    I have friends and family who say “Don’t touch my Social Security, do NOT touch my Social Security, get your government hands off my Medicare”, but vote a straight GOP ticket.

    Fake news, alternate facts, these are not a problem for Don the Con. His supporters are well meaning people who don’t fully understand what they voted for.

    Fake news and alternate facts are not going to take down the PeeOTUS.

    Not while UFOs are flying over South Mountain, anyway.

    FYI, Steve Bannon is far scarier than Tiny Baby Hands.

    • I have a good friend of some 30+ years, a lifelong Republican who probably voted for Trump. I didn’t even ask. Well, this guy has fallen on hard times, he has zero savings, lives on Social Security and credit cards, has Medicare for himself and ACA insurance for his wife. His son works part time in the fast food industry and gets by with food stamps. He’s worked all his life but his job was outsourced about four years ago. He’s since tried to start various businesses as there aren’t many jobs in his town, but nothing has taken off.

      I asked him recently if he was concerned about Trump especially the possibility of losing his wife’s insurance which would be devastating. Naw, he said, Trump will be okay. He believed at the time that Trump wouldn’t be able to follow through on the more radical parts of his agenda and the GOP would only modify the ACA, not fully repeal it. He thinks everyone is getting all worked up over headlines without understanding what they mean.

      I have absolutely no idea why my friend is still a Republican other than he’s an Evangelical Christian. He’s actually a very intelligent man and it seems he would have changed sides by now.

      SMH.