Gaslighting: A Significant Part of Trumpism

When I watch Donald Trump, I sometimes feel like Ingrid Bergman — not European and glamorous, but unnerved, as though I’m being gaslit, as in the famous plot of her old classic movie “Gaslight.” The lights are flickering, but her character’s husband, who is secretly a seriously bad dude, is convincing her that no such thing is occurring. He is trying to get her to question her sense of reality, to think her mind is playing tricks on her — in short, to convince her that she is going slightly crazy, a tactic that can be scarily effective. Susan Dominus, New York Times, regarding gaslighting

Suzannah Weiss, Everyday Feminism, echoes the above in her article, “5 Gaslighting Phrases Donald Trump Used That Remind Me a Lot of My Abusive Ex.” After the infamous Access Hollywood tape was released, states Weiss, he voiced several manipulations, whether he knew he was doing this or not:

  • “I’ve never said I’m a perfect person, nor pretended to be someone that I’m not.”
  • “This is nothing more than a distraction from the important issues we’re facing today.”
  • “This was locker room banter.”

In the above cases, the gaslighting targets us all. But many also know what it’s like to be victimized individually, as in intimate relationships. Some of the various gaslighting techniques abusers use, as listed by The National Domestic Violence Hotline:

  • Withholding: the abusive partner pretends not to understand or refuses to listen.
  • Countering: the abusive partner questions the victim’s memory of events, even when the victim remembers them accurately.
  • Blocking/Diverting: the abusive partner changes the subject and/or questions the victim’s thoughts.
  • Trivializing: the abusive partner makes the victim’s needs or feelings seem unimportant.
  • Forgetting/Denial: the abusive partner pretends to have forgotten what actually occurred or denies things like promises made to the victim.

The gradual effects on victims are experienced in stages, states expert Robin Stern, PhD, author of The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life (2007):

  1. Disbelief
  2. Defense (against the manipulation)
  3. Depression

And the following are some of the specific symptoms that can occur among victims:

    • You constantly second-guess yourself.
    • You ask yourself, “Am I too sensitive?” multiple times a day.
    • You often feel confused and even crazy.
    • You’re always apologizing to your partner.
    • You can’t understand why, with so many apparently good things in your life, you aren’t happier.
    • You frequently make excuses for your partner’s behavior to friends and family.
    • You find yourself withholding information from friends and family so you don’t have to explain or make excuses.
    • You know something is terribly wrong, but you can never quite express what it is, even to yourself.
    • You start lying to avoid the put downs and reality twists.
    • You have trouble making simple decisions.
    • You have the sense that you used to be a very different person – more confident, more fun-loving, more relaxed.
    • You feel hopeless and joyless.
    • You feel as though you can’t do anything right.
    • You wonder if you are a “good enough” partner.

Episodes may even be banished from memory, says Shea Emma Fett, a past victim of gaslighting. “This, more than anything, is something I wish I had known,” she writes (

Some of the other things she wishes she’d known:

  • The end game is not confrontation, it’s non-engagement
  • You must confront the threat (meaning, the fears induced)
  • Gaslighting may be amplified in families, poly relationships, and other groups: “…It’s hard to stand firm when one person is trying to replace your experience, but when they have a chorus of supporters, it is nearly impossible. There is a reason why cult abuse can lead to a complete breakdown of someone’s personality.”

Bringing these three lessons back to the larger scale of the recent election, non-engagement unfortunately failed. Trump won, and we’re left to face feelings of not being safe. If we as a nation are now stuck with continued Trumpism and gaslighting, surely to be supported and amplified by his various political appointees, we must remember to remember. We must stay strong. We can only do this together.

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