This afternoon, in a speech given to veterans at a Missouri convention, President Donald Trump had a clear message for supporters that is drawing comparisons to George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 about a totalitarian regime that wields ultimate power over its people through psychological manipulation: “Just remember—what you are seeing and what you are reading is not what’s happening.”
The statement was in reference to news outlets reporting on the impact that an escalating trade war would have on the U.S. economy, and came after his remark that, “The country is doing better than it ever has before, economically,” a statement that is simply and unequivocally not true.
This tactic of getting someone to question their direct experience is a type of psychological manipulation scientists call "gaslighting". A person who is gaslighting an individual or group that they have chosen to target does so by getting them to doubt their own memory, perception, and reality. Through persistent lying, misdirection, and contradiction, the gaslighter attempts to delegitimize the victim’s beliefs by confusing and destabilizing them.
This is by no means the first time Trump has used gaslighting to manipulate his supporters into doubting their reality. Calling Russian intervention in the 2016 presidential election “fake news” after intelligence agencies have proven it beyond doubt, and claiming to have a record-breaking crowd size at his inauguration, are just two examples that immediately come to mind, although at least a dozen more have been documented.
The term “gaslighting,” which is a well-established psychological phenomenon, comes from a 1938 stage play called Gas Light, about an abusive husband that tries to convince his wife she is insane by changing small elements of their environment and insisting she is having memory lapses or delusions when she notices them. While this scheme was particularly vile, it is hardly as nefarious as a state leader attempting to do the same to a whole country.
Gaslighting is a tactic commonly used by sociopaths and narcissists, so perhaps such behavior should be expected from Trump, who has been described as having narcissistic personality disorder and symptoms of sociopathy from a number of clinicians and research psychologists.
From the apparent lack of resistance or questioning from Trump supporters, the president’s gaslighting is clearly working, and he knows it. So what can be done to inoculate against this potent psychological maneuver? Well, first off, one must become aware of gaslighting in order to recognize the manipulation. Once you know it exists, it becomes easier to hold on to your reality when you feel confident in what you hold to be true.
But this is easier said than done for most Trump supporters, who have already been brainwashed to be suspicious of anything scientists or psychologists might have to say. The president knows that with an uninformed group of people, it’s his word against the “fake news media.” If his followers did become cognizant of gaslighting as a political tactic, he’d likely just flip the script by telling them that it is the journalists, pundits, and intellectuals who are trying to gaslight them. While this might sound absurd to some, to those with little education and mental vulnerabilities, the confusion can shake their confidence, sowing seeds of doubt that can set them down the path of questioning their entire reality.
Gaslighting on a national level is terrifying, but the best thing we can all do right now is stay calm, collected, and confident in our reality and direct experiences. When someone is making statements like, “What you are seeing and what you are reading is not what’s happening,” red flags should immediately go up, because those are the words of an intentional gaslighter.