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Trump and Putin have both, in their own way. participated in political gaslightingChris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg
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In the 2020 election and throughout his administration Trump has led a sustained campaign of political gaslighting. Gaslighting is defined as an “elaborate and insidious technique of deception and psychological manipulation” used to “undermine the victim’s confidence in his own ability to distinguish truth from falsehood, right from wrong, or reality from appearance, thereby rendering him psychologically dependent on the gaslighter”. Trump uses gaslighting to make American voters doubt their memory of his past actions and positions, refute basic facts and distrust reliable sources of information. The ultimate aim is to give himself a monopoly on truth.

In the last few weeks he has spread conspiracies of mail-in voting fraud and the ‘deep state’, claiming Democrat presidential nominee Joe Biden is secretly controlled by “people that are in the dark shadows” and describing a mysterious plane “completely loaded with thugs wearing… dark uniforms”. He has also accused leading Democrats of forging Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s dying wishes for her Supreme Court replacement to be chosen after the November election, suggesting Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, or Adam “shifty” Schiff are responsible. At a campaign rally last week, Trump told supporters that Covid-19 affects “virtually nobody”, just as its US death toll passed 200,000, and August’s Republican National Convention saw him lead a charm offensive aimed at African American voters, trying to uphold his claim that he has done more for the black community than any President since Lincoln. To help maintain this alternate reality, in a militant, polarised America gripped by racial justice protests and the world’s most Covid deaths, he has continued his attacks on the ‘fake news media’ that challenges it.

Trump’s gaslighting has been regularly commented on, perhaps due to abuse and mental health being more widely discussed, and terms like gaslighting entering popular use. Some of these accounts are more allegorical: therapist Stephanie Sarkis described Trump as “a classic gaslighter in an abusive relationship with America”. However, political gaslighting has deeper historical roots as a means of authoritarian control.

Throughout history, those in power have often sought to mislead and deceive people, but political gaslighting only meaningfully emerged in a modern, psychological sense under the authoritarian states of the 1930s and 40s, morbidly satirised by George Orwell in 1984. Orwell’s protagonist Winston Smith works at the ‘Ministry of Truth’, rewriting and deleting historical documents to fit the ever-changing party line.

Gaslighting was refined as a science in East Berlin, in an unassuming brown office building off Normannenstraße; the Stasi headquarters was emblematic of what Hannah Arendt called the “banality of evil”. The Stasi used Zersetzung (decomposition) tactics to psychologically break dissidents: they moved objects in their homes, stole things, turned lights on and off, wrote fake letters from and to them and disrupted their relationship and work lives. For those not targeted by Zersetzung,surveillance and the threat of informants among friends and family, along with disparities between regime propaganda and economic realities forced GDR citizens to suppress their own rationality and question their reality.

Today, Putin’s Russia is the pioneer of political gaslighting — not surprising considering Putin’s own past working for the USSR’s KGB in East Germany. Putin’s Russia is a country of maddening multiple realities, its regime ostensibly democratic and peace-seeking, but prone to poisoning political opponents and curbing civil liberties. In Russia, internet technology enables political gaslighting on an industrial scale; Kurowska and Reshetnikov have shown how Putin’s regime uses ‘troll factories’ of intelligence agents and thousands of computer-programmed bots to overload online discourse with anger, noise and misinformation, to defuse any constructive effort at opposing the regime. With useful or earnest content drowned out by conspiracy theories and vitriol, users disengage and become apathetic.

These troll factories have targeted American social media, aiding Donald Trump’s candidacy and polarization in general in the 2016 Presidential Election. It would be disrespectful to equate Trump’s political gaslighting, often chaotically tweeted from his own smartphone, with ruthless government oppression in Russia or the GDR, and Trump lacks the state apparatus that made these regimes possible. However, he benefits from an enthusiastic army of volunteers in social media, TV and punditry who help him lie, disseminate conspiracy theories and defame his critics.

Trump’s gaslighting is also helped by the surreal, uncertain conditions of America today, sufficient to make anyone feel insane. The once inconceivable fact of Trump being president, wildfires on the West Coast, a global pandemic and armed militias in the streets contribute to a sense of surreal dystopia, a glitched simulation, yet in many ways life goes on as normal; Starbucks is still open, football is back on and the ‘apocalypse’ is nihilistically memed in real time on Twitter. In working out how to frame their basic reality, voters face wildly incompatible views of America, as an oligarchic, white supremacist police state, a corrupt and unequal, but ultimately redeemable system, or the best, freest, greatest country in history.

The final goal of gaslighting is to create dependency on the abuser. When people are paranoid, angry and distrust all media: the MAGA tribe becomes an anchor of belonging and certainty.

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