Is Donald Trump gaslighting America?

Some of you may be familiar with the concept of 'gaslighting'. Inspired by an Alfred Hitchcock film in 1944, it is 'a form of psychological abuse in which a victim is manipulated into doubting their own memory, perception, and sanity.' 

I think it is already very clear that gaslighting is going to be a key tool of those seeking to lay primary blame for the divided state of the US today at the door of the Democratic Party and the Clinton campaign. 

We all know what kind of campaign Donald Trump ran. We heard it. We saw it. We were there.

On the day he launched his campaign, Trump signalled that he was going to bid for support by taking the hardest possible line against immigration, in the process suggesting that Mexico was sending 'rapists' to the United States. His signature campaign pledge was to build a gigantic wall across the border between the two countries. He called for a blanket ban on Muslims entering the United States, and regularly implied that Muslims were collectively responsible for knowing the identities of Muslim terrorists, and in the case of the San Bernadino shooting, guilty of shielding them. He willingly accepted and even cultivated the support of white supremacists and white nationalists, who viewed his campaign as a vehicle for mainstreaming their racist ideology.

With a lifetime of offensive comments and inappropriate behaviour towards women behind him, he continued to make crassly misogynistic statements during his campaign, and defended past comments about groping women without consent as 'locker room talk'. Seeking to pander to social conservatives, he spoke about criminalising abortion and made false claims about doctors who ‘rip the baby out of the womb’, carrying out abortions in the ninth month of pregnancy.

These are the facts of Donald Trump’s campaign, perhaps the most deliberately, socially divisive ever waged by a major party candidate in the United States. Now, having been elected, Trump talks about wanting to govern for all Americans and his team condemn protests while demanding that they be open-minded about how he will govern, as though they were the ones guilty of creating social division. In effect, the same political extremists and demagogues who have quite deliberately torn the social fabric asunder, want to make their opponents internalise a sense of guilt over the horrifying, abased state of political discourse.

Reasonable and moderate people are inherently more vulnerable to being made to doubt and second-guess themselves when confronted with this level of brazen hypocrisy. Trump and his political allies are relying on this fact to pull off the magic trick of making himself appear to be a figure seeking unity, being opposed by those who want to divide society.  

Democrats and moderate Republicans both need to make the most serious and determined effort to understand the reasons for what happened in 2016. They need to think hard about where Trump’s votes came from, and find a political message that might appeal to those constituencies in future elections. They need to develop strategies to regain power in future. 

But at the same time, their psychological resilience against gaslighting from the right is essential. They must resist the lie that liberals, not Donald Trump and his toxic campaign, are the ones responsible for the current nasty and deeply divided state of American politics. They will need not just political energy, but a great deal of mental strength if there is to be any prospect of their reclaiming the American polity from its abusive new custodians.

Dr Adam Quinn

Department of Political Science and International Studies

Senior Lecturer in International Politics

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.