Gaslighting: the past, present and future of politics?
Ingrid Bergman won an Oscar in 1944 for her role in the film of the 1938 play Gaslight, in which her husband manipulates her into believing she is going insane. The term has since been used colloquially and in psychological analysis of how sociopaths and narcissists operate.
In 2016, the expression reached new highs in media coverage, this time as a way of interpreting the influence of political leaders, including President Trump, on the public.
Since then, its popularity has grown. A recent article in the New Statesman alleged that Attorney General William Barr gaslighted ‘the entire nation’.
“Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or in members of a targeted group, making them question their own memory, perception, and sanity. Using persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying, it attempts to destablise the victim and delegitimise the victim’s belief.”
To some commentators struggling to understand the appeal of right-wing populists, gaslighting is a defining feature of modern politics in the West. In a part of the world in which rational, evidence-based policy-making is increasingly rare, it is seen as an apt description of the present and future governance. It can be applied not just to individual populist leaders, but to propaganda campaigns driven by machines promoting extreme content designed specifically to manipulate emotion (see Politics and Machine Language).
One possible interpretation is that some leaders have no strategic plans and operate entirely opportunistically. David Runciman, in his review of the Mueller report, makes the case that President Trump could not ‘conspire’ with Russia because within the campaign and administration ’nothing is fixed and there are few rules’. No advice is taken and so ‘No counsel means no conspiracy’.
In other words, according to Mueller’s definition conspiracy requires ‘co-ordination’. As Runciman puts it, to ‘Someone needs to have a plan. Others need to act on it’. The Mueller report simply says ‘… we understood co-ordination to require an agreement – tacit or express – between the Trump campaign and the Russian government on election interference’.
In this account, populist leaders share a critically important characteristic: short-termism. There is no long-term strategy. The implications are that amidst the growing turmoil in trade relations we can expect policy errors. Lose-lose outcomes are more likely than ever. The same applies to UK and European politics.
From a different perspective, public anger about political inaction on climate, the risks are that little will change until and unless there is widespread cultural change.
In other words, until and unless there is a transformation, in the moment policy and gaslighting will remain a prominent feature.
Fortunately, cultural change, contrary to conventional wisdom, can be fast. The signs are there, not least, for example, in the recent surge in popularity of green parties in the European Parliamentary elections and the prominence of the Green New Deal in US presidential campaigning for 2020.
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