The Gaslighting of America

A scene from “Gaslight,” about a narcissist’s sadistic manipulation of his wife

There were these two couples who liked to spend time together and had been doing so for many years. They were good friends. They never discussed politics. They just enjoyed each other’s company.

Then one weekend at the beach, one of the women says something a bit political. The other couple raised their eyebrows and silently communicated, “let’s not go there.” Then later in the weekend, the woman’s husband dropped a political comment into the conversation. They were fishing, the other couple realized, and they let it go.

A few weeks later, the political woman calls her friend and says something along the lines of, “You can’t have been happy these past few years with Obama.” To which the other woman says, “In fact, I have.” And her old friend says, “Oh, my dear, but Trump’s going to make us so safe. We really do have to keep those people out.”

Now the other woman is flustered and can’t believe she’s having this conversation. She responds, “But if you watch the news…” And her friend says, “Oh, my dear, that’s all fake news.”

Will this friendship survive? Time will tell. But the nation may not. In fact, it will almost certainly be forever changed.

What emboldened the couple to bring up politics after so many years? It’s very similar to what hardcore Christians do:  they were trying to save their friends. Not religiously, mind you, but socially. You’re one of us, they think, and we love you. We want to make sure you understand what’s best for you. At the end of the struggle, or after the Rapture for those who go for that sort of thing, they want their friends to be there, alongside them. Not in the gulag.

Okay, they don’t consciously foresee a gulag. But, you know. You should be on our side, because it will affirm to us that we’re not racists/bad people for thinking this way…

And there’s the crux. Somewhere in the back of their mind, Jiminy Cricket is trying to shout at them, but they’ve applied a gag. They don’t want to hear him. They don’t want to think that they’re wrongfully judging and condemning whole groups of people. Trump’s narrative is so soothing, so appealing. Why, of course we want to be safe. Of course we don’t want Americans to be killed by terrorist attacks. This is the substance of the gag, and the more external validation they can get for it (by having their friends and family agree with them), the stronger it becomes.

Germans during the Reich were no worse than we are, fundamentally. Yes, there were the hard-core Nazis who fervently believed. There were liberals (socialists, communists). And there were good people in the middle who were also easily gaslighted, led along the path to think, “Maybe they’re right about those people, after all.”

Those people.

The moment you have an “Other,” you have a problem. The Other can be dehumanized (they’re more like animals than people; they’re subhuman), delegitimized (Islam is not a religion; it’s a political system), and stigmatized (they want to destroy us; they’re lazy; they steal our jobs). If you are afraid of the Other, if your so-called “safety” is endangered by the Other, you are more likely to do terrible things to the Other in the name of “self-defense.” This happens over and over, and still, we have not learned.

The people who are actively congratulating Trump and howling for the blood of the Other, in any form, are lost. Trump’s narrative is affirming their prejudices, and they are grateful to him that they can now attempt to elevate their piteous selves over people who have done them no harm. Microaggressions are now macroaggressions, once again, with mostly white men and some white women confronting minorities everywhere. And they have the gall to proclaim that they are not racists. They do not see themselves, and they probably never will.

But the real danger lies from the middle, from those who would never berate a Muslim person in public, but who quietly nod their heads in growing agreement that, yes, these people are a problem, and we should keep them out. Today it’s the Muslims and the Mexicans (the only illegal immigrants that seem to matter in this conversation). Tomorrow, though, the question will become:  why not the gays? Why not the Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, atheists? Why not the disabled, who will be plainly visible on the streets if the GOP undercuts their safety net much more. Anyone who is different from the specified norm will be at risk, because once people start looking for the Other as a scapegoat, the target list only grows.

The Trump administration is playing the hand of an authoritarian demagogue. In true gaslighting style, they will push their narrative with, “Who are you going to believe? Me or your lyin’ eyes?” And some people will believe that CNN is fake news, that real journalism cannot be trusted, that the Bowling Green Massacre really happened, and only Trump can keep them safe. Too many people have an insatiable need for a Messiah to save them, and Trump is happy to let them think he is The One.

The good news is that some Germans resisted. It is due to their efforts that some Jews and others escaped the Holocaust. Not every mind is easily gaslit. The would-be authoritarians know this, too, and dissent will be silenced as much as possible, either on social media, on the street, or on the floor of the Senate (hats off, Elizabeth Warren).

I don’t know what’s going to happen, but let those who have eyes to see and ears to hear take heart and stand firm. It’s going to be a rough few years, but perhaps we can birth something better at the end of it. The only way we can do that is to stick together as one and give no energy to the idea of an Other. Remember, the founding fathers chose this for our motto:  E pluribus unum — Out of many, One.

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