Trump’s plot to gaslight his way to victory
- Credit: AFP via Getty Images
BONNIE GREER on the president's sinister strategy to hoax a nation.
Wednesday was ironing day when I was growing up, and the day that my late mother watched what are now known as 'classic' films. I would join her, my eyes glued to the screen as I hung up or folded what she had ironed.
One of our favourite films was Gaslight. It starred Ingrid Bergman in the role that won her a Best Actress Oscar; and also starred Charles Boyer and a fabulous Angela Lansbury, almost at the end of her teen years.
The plot involves a man in Victorian London who is slowly driving his young wife insane. He is the murderer of her aunt. This is unknown to his young wife, and what is also unknown to her is that he is after the jewels of her late aunt that he cannot find.
As a result of this obsession, he attempts to drive his wife insane by telling her that the flickering gaslight that she sees constantly does not exist.
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He makes her believe that she is delusional and that she cannot trust her own senses. She gradually agrees and begins to doubt reality itself until she is saved by a police inspector who confirms what she knows.
The term of psychological abuse known as 'gaslighting', in which the victim is convinced that what they see is either not what they think it is or, worse still, does not exist, is named after this film. The film itself was known as arguably the best example of this abuse... until the presidency of Donald J. Trump, King Of the Gaslighters and Gaslighter-in-Chief.
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Now, with the presidential elections due on November 3 and Trump trailing badly in the polls, he has one last chance to do what he has done best as president: to gaslight America.
His goal is two-fold: to make the American people believe that the coronavirus is no big thing. And that the presidential election will be rigged; corrupted; null and void; pointless.
The current approval ratings of the real estate mogul and reality TV star do not indicate that he will be returned to the White House.
Only Truman had worse numbers at this point in the election cycle. And, while he was re-elected, the two presidencies are not the same.
Truman represented the rough and ready 'on the job' style that was encapsulated in the slogan he picked up from one of his supporters on the 1948 election campaign – 'give 'em hell, Harry!'
His more intellectual-seeming opponent in that race, the Republican Thomas Dewey, came across as cautious. More presidential.
The pollsters of the day liked that look and believed that the voters did, too. So they did what is known as 'herd', make a choice – as they did for former secretary of state, former senator from New York, and former first lady, Hillary Clinton. Truman's opponent looked great on paper.
But it is important to know the 'signature' of an election. What makes voters actually go to the polls.
In 1948, they wanted the robustness and 'can do' attitude of Truman. They did not want an intellectual, a thinker.
In 2020, the indications are that the American people want someone to help and reassure them during this pandemic. Someone to make them believe that Americans can come together and defeat the thing. That kind of belief is bedrock American.
So this autumn's contest will not be the 'build the wall' election, nor the 'it's the economy, stupid' election, nor even the 'law and order' one. It will be the Covid election. And the only way that Trump can turn fortune in his favour is to continue to gaslight the nation, to tell them that everything is a hoax.
And Americas are susceptible to this because Americans like to be gaslighted. It can be said that the US itself is a prime example; the most successful triumph of gaslighting that the world has ever known.
The early settlers were convinced that the West was basically empty; that the lands they sought to occupy were awaiting them; that any idea of other people there was a kind of an illusion that could be brushed aside and eliminated.
Later, the Civil War and the Confederacy, rather than being seen as acts of treason and sedition, became instead part of that myth, that romance known as the 'lost cause'. Out of it the West and the Western were born.
Trump takes this idea and feeling and mashes it up into a poisonous brew of Confederate statues, guns, and right-to-life.
He presents his presidency as the true mission of the nation. Trump gaslights the republic by constantly saying that the news is 'fake news'; that there is no killer virus or, if there is one, China personally made up a batch for America; that Latinx people are murderers and rapists; that he has been the best president for black people since Lincoln. That 'overseas' is a sinister compendium of interests devoted to the subjugation of the US. Except for Great Britain, which is really England, which is really Boris Johnson ('my friend') and the Queen ('a tremendous woman').
The Apprentice was created by NBC for Trump and his persona. Let me correct that: it is all persona. As his niece, Mary Trump, points out in her book on her uncle, there is little inside of Trump. And what is there is smashed up, broken. But this time, he may have made a mistake, hence his last trick of gaslighting and sowing doubt before November 3. He says this election will be the 'most inaccurate and fraudulent in history' and 'a great embarrassment to the USA'. He has even floated the idea of postponing it.
The problem with that notion is that neither the president, nor anyone else at the federal level, controls the election of the country's president.
The republic is called the United States because each state is sovereign. They have come together, in the words of Benjamin Franklin, 'to form a more perfect union'. Each state jealously guards, through its attorney general, the right to run the presidential election. It is the states that elect for president and vice president. Each state, by popular vote, chooses the team for the White House. And according to its population, each state has a certain number of votes added to the electoral college.
The nationwide popular vote does not elect the occupant of the Oval Office, as many of us who had forgotten our grade school civic lessons, rediscovered to our horror in 2016. So, while Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, among the highest in history, Trump won the college, where the winner takes all.
And Trump won the states that gave him the win: those in the so-called Upper Midwest: Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan, where his margin of victory was often by less than 1%.
In hindsight, 2016 was not about experiment. It was about change. This year will be about whether the nation wants to go forward in these unprecedented times with the present occupant of the White House.
And all that man now has is that flickering gaslight that he is wielding, his increasingly desperate attempt to make the American people doubt what they know is happening to their country.
Napoleon, when told about the prowess of one of his generals, would ask only one question: 'But is he lucky?'
Donald Trump is lucky, without a doubt.
But a killer virus is on the loose and it will remain to be seen whether he can erase that fact. If he can, he wins. If he cannot, it's 'Don Voyage'.
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