It has been three quarters of a century since Gaslight (Cukor, 1944), filled its first audiences with eerie vibes that have not diminished with passing generations. Having stood the test of time due to intriguing plot, superior acting, and solid movie making, the film Gaslight continues to have a lasting impact on viewers, especially those who can apply its meaning to current events. Patrick Hamilton, a little known British playwright, wrote the original play, “Gas Light (known in the United States as Angel Street),” in 1938 (“Gas Light”, 2017), and unknowingly coined a term that has survived to become, most recently, part of American political jargon.
Gaslight has become a verb
This [1944 MGM] version of Hamilton’s tale was so popular that it made the word ‘gaslight’ into a verb, a popular shorthand way to describe anyone’s attempt to make another person doubt her sanity by presenting falsehood as reality (Susman, 2014).
The term “gaslighting” has been used with increasing frequency over the past year while Americans endured a most volatile presidential election. Similar to the term, “kool-aid-drinker,” “a derogatory term for an individual who votes for a candidate or a party against their common sense” (“Examples of Political Jargon”, 2017), gaslighting, as it is currently being used, is a derogatory term to describe a political candidate with an election strategy designed to deceive voters. Yet, Amy Glynn (2017) suggests that “Gaslighting is not synonymous with ‘lying.’ “
Donald Trump and Mike Pence have been accused by many well-meaning pundits of gaslighting the nation. Hear me now: Donald Trump is not mentally sophisticated enough to gaslight a ham-and-cheese sandwich. Might our President and Vice President have lied? Oh yeah. And all gaslighters (and most politicians) do.
Yet, a number of others, including political cartoonist Ben Garrison (2016), believe that gaslighting is the term that fits:
Hillary, like many sociopaths, uses a form of abuse known as ‘gaslighting.’ The word originates from a 1944 film, ‘Gaslight’ starring Ingrid Bergman, in which she is tormented by her husband who is trying to make her doubt her own memories. She is made to feel confused and mistaken. She questions her sanity and her ability to remember things correctly.
This is the same tactic Hillary uses. She will lie to our faces and inject ridiculous narratives designed to replace the facts that we know. For example, Russia is to blame for hacking her—forget that this was disproven. She wants us to forget her server was illegal and she and the DNC rigged the primaries against Bernie. The focus moves to boogeyman Russia, whom she complains is backing Trump. Such a lie comes from left field and can be so ridiculous that it’s disconcerting. It knocks people off their center as they began to consider such outrageousness. That’s gas lighting.
And, from a comment on an article following a September presidential debate (Dominus, 2016, Sep 26):
There is a big difference between the republican nominee’s pattern of lying in a gaslighting fashion and what Hillary did in the debate. His pattern can’t be separated from his personality. Hillary used trigger words as a political tactic, and it worked. She has self control; he doesn’t (EASabo, 2016, Sep 28).
Following the November election, many have expressed publicly their intense resentment towards the victor, President Donald Trump. As an example, Lauren Duca wrote an an op-ed in Teen Vogue Magazine entitled, “Donald Trump is Gaslighting America,” which implies that our US President is a con artist who manipulated the 62,979,879 people who voted for him (Duca, 2016).
‘Gas lighting’ is a buzzy name for a terrifying strategy currently being used to weaken and blind the American electorate. We are collectively being treated like Bella Manningham in the 1938 Victorian thriller from which the term ‘gas light’ takes its name. . . .
To gas light is to psychologically manipulate a person to the point where they question their own sanity, and that’s precisely what Trump is doing to this country. He gained traction in the election by swearing off the lies of politicians, while constantly contradicting himself, often without bothering to conceal the conflicts within his own sound bites. He lied to us over and over again, then took all accusations of his falsehoods and spun them into evidence of bias.
At the hands of Trump, facts have become interchangeable with opinions, blinding us into arguing amongst ourselves, as our very reality is called into question.
Duca’s article was spread far and wide. There is surely no greater compliment to a writer than to be quoted, cited or shared, so Lauren Duca must be flattered with the evidence that former CBS News anchor Dan Rather has proudly shared her article on his Facebook wall for over 2 million followers to read. Vanity Fair, another of Condé Nast’s brands along with Teen Vogue, shared her article on their FB wall as well. Since this was not the first writer to point to President Trump’s manipulating Americans, one has to wonder if Duca and others adapted the article from a central source for news media that originally branded the President a gaslighter.
- US News and World Report. Nicole Hemmer, ‘Trump Is Gaslighting America” (2016, Mar 15).
- Huffington Post. Melissa Jeltsin, “Donald Trump Is Successfully Conning the Entire Country” (2016, Mar 16 – note: this appears to be the first to link President Trump with gaslighting).
- The New York Times. Susan Dominus, “The Reverse Gaslighting of Donald Trump” (2016, Sep 27).
- Everyday Feminism. Suzannah Weiss, “5 Gaslighting Phrases Donald Trump Used that Remind Me a Lot of My Abusive Ex” (2016, Nov 14 ).
- CNN. Frida Ghitis, Opinion Contributor, “Donald Trump Is Gaslighting All of Us” (2017, Jan 16).
- Your Story. Varsha Roysam, “Will Trump’s Presidency Be a Remake of the Hollywood Film Gaslight?” (2017, Jan 20).
- Washington Post. Erik Wemple, “Donald Trump Attempts to Gaslight the CIA” (2017, Jan 21).
- NBC News. “Some Experts Say Trump Team’s Falsehoods Are Classic ‘Gaslighting’ (2017, Jan 25).
- LA Times. Editorial board, “Our Dishonest President” (2017, Apr 2). This is a 5-part series that includes, “Why Trump Lies,” and “Trump’s Authoritarian Vision.”
The list above is just the tip of the iceberg. So ubiquitous is the message that the President is a gaslighter that it made its way to memes posted on social media. The particular one shown here was posted by multiple Facebook friends.
One would have to be living in a barrel not to know that this kind of information is being circulated relentlessly among Americans.
However, not everyone agrees that the term ‘gaslight,’ even as it is a derogatory term, is an appropriate or accurate link to the actions of the President. Paste Magazine writer Amy Glynn (2017, Mar 23), quoted earlier, interprets the act of gaslighting as a private one between two individuals under a facade of a trustworthy relationship.
By definition, gaslighting is personal, intimate, and can only be done to you by someone you trust. A gaslighter is a specialty narcissist or sociopath who uses intimacy, personal approval, knowledge of the specific details of your life and personality, and importantly, isolation, to unhinge you. All Bergman’s Paula would have had to do to foil Anton’s gaslighting campaign was go outside and talk to the neighbors; she’d have discovered in short order that she was completely sane. Corporations and governments (and hey, cults!) can (and do) use propaganda. They can employ false advertising. They can tell you that you’ll go to hell if you don’t do as they say. They can promise to erect an impenetrable stretch of masonry from San Diego to Key West. They can lie through their teeth. But that rapidly swelling volume of ‘fake news’ on the Internet that people swallow without question? Not gaslighting.
Supporting freedom, not elimination, of expression
I agree with Amy Glenn’s interpretation of gaslighting. President Trump’s apparent impulsiveness, and fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants style of leadership does not satisfy the strict definition of gaslighter on par with the sinister Gaslight character, Gregory Anton. President Trump’s supporters, well aware of his character flaws, political inexperience, and other shortcomings, still voted with eyes wide open.
And, what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. While Hillary Clinton certainly has her share of people accusing her of lying, I do not interpret her behavior as a true gaslighter either. Clinton offended approximately half of America’s citizens by calling them “a basket of deplorables,” which was a direct insult to the people she intended to lead. Gregory Anton was a little more genteel than that.
To another Clinton controversy, the attack on the US Embassy in Benghazi, Libya on September 11, 2012 was initially blamed on a YouTube video, Innocence of Muslims, created by filmmaker Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, who was publicly shamed by Obama’s White House while Clinton was Secretary of State. Clinton, along with the White House she served, was willing to sacrifice this man in order to divert America’s attention from this tragic event with its loss of American lives. Since this diversion was done on a national scale, and not individually, it would not be gaslighting.
During her hearing before Congress, sponsored by the Benghazi Select Committee, Clinton presented arguments that Yesmeh (2015, Oct 22) describes as impeding the investigation:
Hillary Clinton’s blatant strawmen arguments stand as an impediment to this [US Congressional] investigation. In a testy exchange between Rep. Leon Acton Westmoreland and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, her calculated strategy reared its ugly head.
‘No one ever came to me and said shut down our compound in Benghazi,’ retorted Clinton. The ambiguous phrase ‘no one’ is a symptom of standard Clintonian evasion. Functionally, it is a throw-away phrase. This statement means nothing at all; it’s word salad, filler language manifested as a defense mechanism.
The congressman from Georgia bluntly undercut the absurdity of Clinton’s obfuscation. ‘I’m not saying shut it down. I’m saying protect it,’ asserted Westmoreland.
Throughout the hearing, Clinton has suggested that diplomatic envoys assume the responsibility of risk while they serve their country abroad –effectively a non-answer.
Americans took sides, and chose who they wanted to believe as they watched Clinton testify for several hours. Clinton did not gaslight us. She did whatever it took to hold on to power.
Did Americans really believe that a video could be the single cause for inciting the middle-eastern region, and that the region otherwise would be supportive of America? An article in Salon magazine (Greenwald, 2011, Jul 13) had reported:
Given that it is anti-American sentiment that, more than anything else, fuels Terrorism (as the Pentagon itself has long acknowledged), we yet again find the obvious truth: the very policies justified in the name of combating Terrorism are the same ones that do the most to sustain and perpetuate it.
And, from the The Guardian (Abdul-Ahad, 2012, Sep 14):
Very few of the people setting fire to the German embassy in Khartoum, attacking the American school in Tunis or torching a KFC in Beirut will have even seen the Innocence of Muslims. If the prophet had really been insulted, you would see 100 million in the streets.
And another (Greenwald, 2012, Sep 14):
Intense Muslim animosity toward the US, including in Egypt, long pre-dates this film, and the reasons aren’t hard to discern. That’s precisely why the US supported tyranny in these countries for so long: to ensure that the citizens’ views, so contrary to US policy, would be suppressed and rendered irrelevant.
Nakoula Basseley Nakoula’s unfortunate experience as scapegoat has rendered him disillusioned with America’s ideals: “I don’t believe in democracy anymore. I don’t think there is a such a thing as freedom of speech” (Yesmeh, 2016, Sep 14).
Still, with the anti-Trump voters and those believing that Clinton would do great things for women and children, 65,844,954 people chose to stand with her, which was almost 3 million more votes than her opponent.
Meanwhile, back to our movie, Gaslight. If anyone has any doubt about the influence of movies, this evidence should put that notion to rest. Further, long may we live in a country where writers, filmmakers, and artists have the freedom to express thoughts and opinions of our leaders without fear of personal retribution by the government. May protestors in our country always enjoy the right to respectfully march in solidarity for their cause. Despite recent disturbing incidents that show otherwise, should we be so lucky to live in a country where its citizens are tolerant of opposing views. May future generations of Americans recognize that this is a true definition of freedom—an antonym of the term taken from Gaslight.
Abdul-Ahad, G. (2012, Sep 14). Anti-western violence gripping the Arab world has little to do with a film. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/sep/14/embassy-attacks-salafis-jihadists
Dominus, S. (2017, Sep 27). The Reverse-Gaslighting of Donald Trump. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/27/magazine/the-reverse-gaslighting-of-donald-trump.html
Cukor, G. [Director]. (1944). Gaslight [Motion picture]. USA: MGM.
Duca, L. (2016, Dec 10). Donald Trump is gaslighting America. Teen Vogue Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.teenvogue.com/story/donald-trump-is-gaslighting-america
Examples of political jargon. (2017). Your Dictionary. Retrieved from https://examples.yourdictionary.com/examples-of-political-jargon.html
Fox, M. (2017). Tall tales about Trump’s crowd size are “gaslighting”, some experts say. NBC News. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com/better/wellness/some-experts-say-trump-team-s-falsehoods-are-classic-gaslighting-n711021
Garrison, B. (2016, Nov 6). Hillary’s gas lighting, new Ben Garrison cartoon GrrrGraphics on WordPress. Retrieved from https://grrrgraphics.wordpress.com/2016/11/06/hillarys-gas-lighting-new-ben-garrison-cartoon/
Gas light. (2017, Apr 3). Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gas_Light
Ghitis, F. (2016). Donald Trump is ‘gaslighting’ all of us. CNN. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2017/01/10/opinions/donald-trump-is-gaslighting-america-ghitis/
Glynn, A. (2017, Mar 23). Zeitgeist by gaslight: How a 1944 George Cukor classic gave us one of 2017’s most misused words. Paste Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2017/03/zeitgeist-by-gaslight.html
Greenwald, G. (2012, Sep 14). US media angrily marvels at the lack of Muslim gratitude. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/sep/14/egypt-nbc
Greenwald, G. (2011, Jul 13). US more unpopular in the Arab world than under Bush. Salon magazine. Retrieved from https://www.salon.com/2011/07/13/arabs/
Hemmer, N. (2016, Mar 16). Trump is gaslighting America. US News. Retrieved from https://www.usnews.com/opinion/blogs/nicole-hemmer/articles/2016-03-15/donald-trump-is-conning-america-with-his-lies
Jeltsen, M. (2016). Donald Trump is successfully gaslighting the entire country. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/donald-trump-lies-gaslighting_us_56e95d21e4b065e2e3d7ee82
Los Angeles times, editorial board. (2017, Apr 2). Our Dishonest President. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from https://www.latimes.com/projects/la-ed-our-dishonest-president/
Roysam, V. (2017, Jan 20). Will Trump’s presidency be a remake of the Hollywood film “gaslight”?. Your Story. Retrieved from https://yourstory.com/2017/01/trump-presidency-gaslighting/
Susman, G. (2014, May 9). ’Gaslight’: 7 Everlasting legacies of the Ingrid Bergman classic. AOL Moviefone. Retrieved from https://www.moviefone.com/2014/05/09/gaslight-everlasting-legacies-ingrid-bergman/
Weiss, S. (2016, Nov 14). 5 Gaslighting phrases Donald Trump used that remind me a lot of my abusive ex. Everyday Feminism. Retrieved from https://everydayfeminism.com/2016/11/gaslighting-trump-abusive-ex/
Wemple, E. (2017, Jan 21). Donald Trump attempts to gaslight the CIA. Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/erik-wemple/wp/2017/01/21/donald-trump-attempts-to-gaslight-the-cia/
Yesmeh, J. (2015, Oct 22). Benghazi Hearing Live Blog: The Latest. Daily Wire. Retrieved from https://www.dailywire.com/news/607/hillarys-benghazi-strawman-joshua-yasmeh
Yasmeh, J. (2016, Sep 14). Remember The YouTube Filmmaker Hillary Blamed For Benghazi? Here’s What He’s Doing Now. Daily Wire. Retrieved from https://www.dailywire.com/news/9154/remember-youtube-filmmaker-hillary-blamed-benghazi-joshua-yasmeh