Gaslighting the Country

by Jerilyn Bowen

The 1938 play Gas Light tells the story of a man who contrives to make his wife believe she’s losing her wits by dimming the gas-fueled lights in their home on the sly and insisting that her perception of the dimmed lights is a misperception. In our times gaslighting is widely recognized as one of the principle strategies employed by narcissists to undermine and control the people with whom they have relationships.  By assuming an air of authority and calling into question the feelings, intuitions, interpretations and responses of their intimates, the narcissist maneuvers to make their unfortunate victims doubt their own sense of reality, thereby psychologically disempowering them so that they will go along with the narcissist’s hidden agenda of domination and emotional exploitation.

What plays out at the interpersonal level of human interaction can be magnified to apply to the collective level.  And has been.  Across the globe, here and abroad, the diabolical tactic of gaslighting is a key feature of the disinformation playbooks of state authoritarian forces.  The aim is to undermine any reliable public standard of truth by which these bad actors can be called to account.  In situations where they can’t supplant the truth with their lies, they settle for generating doubt about what is true and what is not.  That allows them to escape accountability by creating a narrative in which it’s a matter of competing interests vying with one another for dominance rather than a matter of lawfulness, honorable action, and objective evidence.

Does this sound vaguely familiar?  Or perhaps not so vaguely.  The fact is, every blessed day our country is subjected to a massive special ops gaslighting disinformation campaign by Trump and his gang of fast talking co-conspirators all decked out in suits and ties and adorned with titles like Attorney General and Secretary of State.  As the impeachment process closes in on the man who fronts their cartel, they circle the wagons to combat the indisputable, ever mounting evidence of his crimes.  Their defense-by-offence war is waged not by disproving the charges against their clearly unfit, corrupt, and deranged leader, but rather by attacking and attempting to discredit those who dare to speak the truth about him and by calling into question the Constitutionally mandated impeachment proceeding itself.  They can’t prevail on the substance of the matter so conspire to create uncertainty in the public mind about the source of the evidence and the legitimacy of the process:  Fake News and Witch Hunt on steroids, in multiple permutations. Their covert goal is to destroy any collectively agreed upon basis for determining what is what.  They aim to sow confusion, distrust,  division, and media punditry that amplifies their message.  Along with that, they spin a spell to summon up a false equivalency scenario in which the impeachment is depicted as merely partisan politics at work–merely one set of politically-motivated players competing against another set, merely one Superbowl team scrimmaging against another Superbowl team for the championship, with no ethical issues at stake.  Which turns the question at hand into a matter of loyalty to your team rather than a matter justice.  Or the future of democracy in America.

An Alice-in-Wonderland plunge down the rabbit hole of absurdity without any of the fun, one might say.  Or not, depending on how dispiriting the barrage of the day has been.

Behind the scenes yet always in plain view, Trump applies his pitchfork to the hind ends of his surrogates to force them to prove their loyalty by giving all their all in his defense.  Retrospectively, the Brett Kavanaugh performance before the Senate Judiciary Committee serves as a scintillating example of what he’s mandating. Like Kavanaugh, Trump’s non-apologetic apologists on the impeachment front lines come out shooting from the hip, Method actors all, full of righteous indignation on his behalf, as if they were fighting the good fight for a noble cause.

Meanwhile, by stark contrast Democratic spokespeople for the most part speak with caution, keep their eyes on the polls, and rarely make the case for impeachment with the eloquence it deserves or the emotion it should evoke in those who see what’s at stake.  Martin Luther King they are not.

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

These lines from a prophetic William Butler Yeats poem come to mind.   In “The Second Coming” Yeats foresaw a time when “the centre cannot hold” because there’s no longer any basis for faith in a meaningful order in the universe.  Though he had a different frame of reference than we do 100 years later, in the present purely transactional Trump Republicanism we are indeed facing ruthless forces that seek to rip the very fabric of our nation to shreds as they shed all vestiges of scruple in their pursuit of dominion by the few over the many for profit.

Let it be said that the Democrats in the House of Representatives do not lack all conviction.  They are rising to the occasion by pursuing every avenue of investigation open to them under the law.  Chair of the House Intelligence Committee Adam Schiff and his Democratic colleagues act as responsible statesmen and women, displaying admirable resolution and dignity in the midst of the madness; they deserve our respect and support for that.  If only they’d let the fire in their bellies burn bright and put forth an inspiring vision of what the majority of Americans deeply treasure, believe in, and want to preserve.   And if only they’d unmask the Trump disinformation offensive for what it is, in no uncertain terms.

Perhaps we should thank Trump for filling in that gap by being such a dimwitted self-referential bumbler, he’s made what’s afoot here clear to all with eyes to see and ears to hear.

And perhaps we grassroots nonviolent foot soldiers better be about fighting for our convictions as passionately as Trump’s high rolling bellicose Method actors do in their impersonation of a heartfelt commitment to the Great and Powerful Ozman who’s pulling their levers behind the curtain in plain view.

Truth will out, they say.  Nowadays, though, it needs a lot of help.  The gaslights are  flickering.  We are not taken in but many are and it’s up to us to maintain a critical mass of sanity in the public sphere.  That’s what keeping the faith is about.  And keeping the faith is in the end the only thing that can hold us together as a people.


Sources referenced in article        

 Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland:

–Yeats poem “The Second Coming”:

Wonderful Wizard of Oz book:

Wizard of Oz film:

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