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The gaslighting of America

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The president of the United States this morning:

This is basically the OJ Simpson trial, if there was a home security camera video of Simpson committing the murders, and Simpson had the technological ability to keep screaming “Watch the video!” at tens of millions of people every day.

Also someone would be explaining to Simpson that he didn’t have the right to be represented at a grand jury proceeding, and that freedom of the press includes . . . oh what’s the point?

[S]omething different is going on here, and if it persists without penalty, it may have—even compared with the many degradations that the Trump era has inflicted on American politics—the most degrading impact of them all.

Not only are Trump and his defenders sidestepping the most basic facts, not only are they undermining the primacy of facts as the foundation of debate and democracy, they are turning gaslighting—a form of psychological manipulation to make people question their own perceptions, memories, views of right and wrong and reality, so as to make them more and more dependent on the manipulator—into a permanent political condition. If this continues, everything in politics—domestic and international—dwindles into pretense and theatrics. The people and their leaders become mutual enablers in an ever-deepening cynicism. It’s not that nobody can trust anything any politician says again; it’s that mistrust becomes assumed as a given.


It is stupefying—or maybe it is completely predictable—that a self-obsessed showman like Donald Trump has led us into this rot. The question is whether any prominent Republicans will snap their comrades out of the spell.

I’m so old I remember when this was a description of life in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia:

“In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true. … Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.”

Hannah Arendt, THE ORIGINS OF TOTALITARIANISM

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