Donald Trump As a 'Gaslighter': What We Must Learn from His Manipulative Non-Apology
The moment Donald Trump’s 2005 “Access Hollywood” tape came out, the smart money knew it was all over. Whatever Trump’s response would be, with a month to go before the election there were bound to be more revelations, and things would only get worse. The burst of revelations over the past week was surprising only in its timing.
Trump’s response was also not surprising: a wholesale denial, accusing everyone else of lying, secrecy and bad faith, thus creating an alternate reality and claiming it to be true. This is a behavioral strategy known as “gaslighting.” The term comes from the classic 1944 psychological thriller “Gaslight,” in which a husband (played by Charles Boyer) manipulates a gaslight to dim and brighten alternately, while insisting to his wife (Ingrid Bergman) that it’s steady — the first of a whole series of deceptions intended to undermine her sanity, so that he can have her committed to a mental institution and claim her inheritance.
This is hardly the first time that Trump has resorted to gaslighting, or that some in the media have called him on it — but it’s still his No. 1 weapon of choice when the chips are down. At Vox, Emily Crockett wrote about Trump’s gaslighting in response to Megyn Kelly’s questions about his misogyny at the first Fox debate in the primaries. At the Texas Observer, Andrea Grimes wrote about the Trump campaign’s gaslighting in defense of Melania Trump’s plagiarism of Michelle Obama in her convention speech. And at the New Republic, Brian Beutler wrote about Trump’s gaslighting in trying to disavow his role in pushing birtherism, and his attempts to shift all the blame onto Hillary Clinton or her aide Sidney Blumenthal instead.
This current wave of denials is surely Trump’s most spectacular act of gaslighting so far. Because of that, we’d be well served to rewind the tape a bit to Trump’s brief online non-apology statement, which temporarily halted wholesale GOP defections and set the stage for the flood of revelations that followed. While countless commentators have poked holes in Trump’s so-called apology, no one came close to the brilliant dissection on Twitter by psychotherapist, activist and political analyst Leah McElrath, which included a specific identification of precisely where gaslighting entered the picture, along with other closely related dynamics.
“Trump’s statement is an eerie replica of psychological manipulations made by abusers after episodes of abuse,” McElrath began. “Let’s break it down.” That’s precisely what she did in 15 numbered tweets. McElrath’s clinical dissection was the only analysis I saw that left me, at the end, feeling completely free of all Trump’s slimy tendrils, with a perfectly clear understanding of everything he’s tried to do. She began by translating Trump’s statement “I’m not perfect” into what we might call its psychological meaning: Your expectations I behave like a human being are unreasonable. McElrath’s tweets continued:
2. “I’ve never pretended to be someone I’m not” = you fell in love with me so it’s your fault
3. “this more than decade old video” = it was a long time ago, why the fuss? you’re so unreasonable.
4. “these words do not reflect who I am” = the reality you just experienced didn’t actually happen (gaslighting)
5. “I said it … I apologize” = get over it already, I said I’m sorry, you’re being hysterical
Four crucial dynamics were highlighted here: self-excusing, blame-shifting, gaslighting and normalization of the abnormal or aberrant behavior. In a broad sense, all those interrelated dynamics could be used to describe Trump’s performance as a whole, but McElrath’s specificity is what makes her analysis particularly valuable and unusual. The tweets above highlight the appearance of those dynamics, while the remaining ones deftly track how they were elaborated, reinforced and interwoven.
9. “Let’s be honest” = you’re not being honest
10. “We’re living in the real world” = I’m sane and you’re crazy
McElrath also made a direct translation between Trump’s specific words and classic abusers’ scripts:
7. “grieving mothers … laid off workers …” = what are you complaining about? you have it good compared to others
8. “I pledge to be a better man tomorrow & will never let you down” = I’m sorry I hit you, it’ll never happen again
The clarity of McElrath’s sparse analysis was breathtaking. It was as if she had broken a spell. I no longer struggled to rid myself of feeling drenched in Trump’s excrement. I was completely outside of it, and wondering why it had taken so long. Trump is clearly aberrational, but our pre-existing institutional constraints hinder us from saying so, and from inquiring into how this is so. They favor the abnormal by normalizing how it is treated.
This normalizing begins with journalists, who have been at a loss all along about how to deal with Trump. As a result they have passively normalized his abnormality — his racism, his misogyny, his conspiracy theories, his proto-fascism, his entire spectrum of attitudes and behavior. The sheer volume and density of Trump’s lies, misrepresentations and false accusations has overwhelmed them in their attempts to present “balanced” coverage, when “balanced” coverage of such an unbalanced, abnormal individual so obviously distorts the truth beyond recognition — exactly as Trump himself wishes.
The strictures journalists normally work within — particularly what media critic Jay Rosen describes as “the view from nowhere” — impairs their ability to accurately describe Trump’s past and present actions. Furthermore, he has used those strictures against the press to his own abnormal advantage. Reporters and editors have labored to meet him halfway, and he teased them with language about fairness, and hints of praise. But anytime they brought up something he didn’t want to talk about, suddenly it was stony silence, accusations of corruption, or talk of “opening up” libel laws.
Comprehending Trump’s lies has been a particular problem — even though their sheer volume has long been recognized. But what to do about it?
There are two possible ways to move beyond this impasse, both of which have been problematic — in ways that are resolved by McElrath’s example. The first involves grappling with Trump’s lying itself, and the second involves confronting the entirety of his behavior.
Some have pointed out that Trump is a pathological liar — a liar without any social restraint. This is helpful, but only goes so far, as there appear to be different sorts of such liars. Others, myself included, have pointed to “bullshitting” as a broader way to grasp what Trump is about. I quoted from H.G. Frankfurt’s book “On Bullshit”:
[B]ullshitters seek to convey a certain impression of themselves without being concerned about whether anything at all is true. They quietly change the rules governing their end of the conversation so that claims about truth and falsity are irrelevant.
Bullshitting covers a lot of what salesmen, promoters and hustlers like Trump do — with fair amounts of self-excusing and blame-shifting, whenever the need arises — and I’d argue it’s his normal way of operating, as a candidate or not. He switches to gaslighting when the heat is really on, as he did in the examples cited above.
In one sense, the two are quite similar. Both the bullshitter and the gaslighter can use both facts and lies, especially by playing them off each other and insisting that both have equal value. But the techniques differ in at least two crucial ways: First, bullshitting reflects a fundamental carelessness, while the gaslighter is very careful in crafting their deception. Second, bullshitting may serve any number of ends, while gaslighting is specifically intended to undermine the victim or target’s sense of reality and their trust in their own perceptions and sanity. With her detailed unmasking of Trump’s gaslighting, McElrath provides a concrete framework by which his other deceptions can be measured: The specificity of her analysis gives us a good model for viewing Trump more critically in other settings.
The second way past the impasse of what to do about Trump’s constant lying was to grapple with his behavior as a whole. At some point we began hearing people, including “Art of the Deal” ghostwriter Tony Schwartz, refer to Trump as a sociopathor psychopath. But psychologists and psychiatrists can’t say things like that, at least not in public. Under the American Psychiatric Association’s “Goldwater Rule,” shrinks are ethically barred from offering opinions about people they have not personally examined, arguably for very good reasons.
As McElrath shows, other possibilities are available. One doesn’t have to treat a psychopath, malignant narcissist or otherwise disturbed individual to develop expertise in recognizing and dealing with them. In the realm of sexual abusers alone, there are vast networks of people, organizations and institutions with decades of experience in responding to the damage they do — support groups, women’s shelters, therapists, prosecutors, specialized law enforcement units and so on. Many people in these networks have similar experiences with the damage done by similarly disturbed people.
This network has many different aspects, but its common thread is that of caring — a connected concern with the welfare of others. This stands in stark contrast with the journalistic “view from nowhere” and the canons of disembodied, disinterested objectivity from which it derives. In fact, the myth of objectivity tends to obscure the fact that all knowledge is arrived at by way of subjective experience, and is always subject to further revision. Manipulators like Trump are experts at exploiting how the mythology of objectivity can help shield them from the truth.
McElrath’s analysis was exemplary, but she does not stand alone. She represents an entire realm of insight, analysis and understanding that America’s mainstream press has almost deliberately avoided, even though we have badly needed it since at least the first Fox News primary debate, when Megyn Kelly asked Trump about his record of misogynistic verbal attacks and he gaslighted her extensively in response.
In fact we needed that kind of insight an entire election cycle earlier, when Trump flirted with running against Barack Obama in 2012 and pursued elaborate “birther” theories about the president’s eligibility for office. In both cases, crucially relevant expert knowledge — derived from survivors’ experience, testimony, history and point of view — was either ignored or treated as subjective opinion, in need of “balance.”
It’s important to remember the larger context that never quite registered in the mainstream media: Trump did not simply question Obama’s birth certificate, he questioned virtually everything about him. He said that Obama “came out of nowhere,” and that “the people that went to school with him, they never saw him, they don’t know who he is. It’s crazy.” These wild, unfocused claims were thoroughly debunked, without damaging Trump’s popularity or credibility. Even after Obama released his long-form birth certificate — which Trump at first declined to take at face value — the real estate tycoon continued to demand the president’s college applications, transcripts and passport records. For reasons never made explicit, a private citizen repeatedly insisted that the duly elected president of the United States present all his identifying paperwork to him.
As many African-Americans and others have observed, that situation was both insulting and profoundly racist: A white man with no official position demanding a black man’s papers, as if he had an inherent right to do so. This perception was surely informed by black people’s subjective experience, both individually and collectively, as well as their understanding of history. But the perception that Trump’s conduct was unacceptable was not “just an opinion.” It reflected a centuries-long, multi-continent practice by which white men, regardless of their social station, could demand that black men justify their presence and existence, on the basis of documents issued by white rulers.
So the “black perspective” on the historically racist meaning and significance of Trump’s birtherism was more than just some people’s opinion. It was a historical insight, available to any and all who have a desire to know the truth. Trump’s racism is as objectively indisputable as his misogyny is. The fact that the insight into objective truth comes most clearly from people who care about the damage it does is not a disqualification. To the contrary, it is a warning that disregarding knowledge that comes from caring impoverishes our grasp of the real world. This is even more true when the subjects of caring are those who have traditionally been marginalized, ignored or dehumanized.
The conventions of “he said, she said” media discourse are meant to ensure fairness, but can crowd out real-world truth. Experts exist only to be “balanced” by other experts. Exxon and its buddies have used this ploy to delay action on global warming for decades, when an ethics of care would have long ago required planetary life-saving action. It’s not that the tiny faction of climate-denial voices should be ignored or censored. But the real-world consequences (and probabilities) of each side being right or wrong should be weighed in the balance, beyond the reach of the bullshitters and gaslighters.
What we care about matters — not just in shaping who we are as individuals but in shaping the world we will share in the future. An aberrant personality like Trump cares nothing about other people or the world — very likely he cannot help it, and is beyond our help. But a free press that justifies itself as protecting and securing a free society should be capable of understanding the role of caring in guiding us toward a fuller grasp of the truth, and a better service to our common destiny. Journalism urgently needs to reform itself, in other words, and Leah McElrath has offered us an important lesson.