'Unfit: The Psychology of Donald Trump': What is gaslighting, how POTUS used it to discredit criticism?

In a documentary focusing on Trump's behavioral pattern, psychologists are revealing key facts on what makes the US president a certified gaslighter

                            'Unfit: The Psychology of Donald Trump': What is gaslighting, how POTUS used it to discredit criticism?
(Dan Partland, Art Horan)

Donald Trump's relationship with America is rather complicated. Psychologists who have been studying his behavior say it is volatile to a certain extent, where he reigns with his consistent use of manipulation, lies and abuse of power. Trump assumes the role of a typical gaslighter in this scenario, one who uses these tactics to disorient their victim (in this case, an entire nation) to the point that they are left questioning their memory, perception and judgment. In a documentary focusing on Trump's behavioral pattern, psychologists are revealing key facts on what makes him a certified gaslighter. Directed by Dan Partland, 'Unfit: The Psychology of Donald Trump' examines the 45th US President's cognizance and determines why he is unfit to serve as the leader of the free world.

Gaslighting is a tactic commonly used by sociopaths and narcissists where they get people to question their direct experiences through means of psychological manipulation. The term is derived from a 1938 namesake film and play by Patrick Hamilton, where an abusive husband tries to convince his wife of her insanity by changing elements of her environment and insisting that she is delusional. In this case, however, it is a president convincing the people of a country through persistent lying, misdirection and contradiction. The goal of a gaslighter is to delegitimize the victim's own perception and confuse or destabilize them. Karen, a survivor of narcissistic abuse, calls it "the crucial tool of abusive personalities".

'Unfit: The Psychology of Donald Trump' (Dan Partland, Art Horan)

The common deflecting statements that a gaslighter makes vary from "It never happened that way" and "You must be losing your mind" to "I did not do that" and "I did not say that". Dr Ramani Durvasula, Professor of Psychology, UCLA, described gaslighting as a form of emotional abuse, "because what you're really doing is setting out to confuse another person. When you do that, you render someone more vulnerable to you and easy to coerce because now they really don't know which as is up". And Trump's gaslighting has done just that, lead the country into a tornado of doubt, confusion and fury. While it is not a new phenomenon, this level of gaslighting hasn't been experienced probably since the Axis powers of World War II.

Gaslighting emerges when the person wants to exert or gain control and dominance over others and is a common tactic used by dictators or dictators-in-the-making. Trump's statement: “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not happening", and those from his associates like his attorney Rudy Giuliani, “Truth isn’t truth” are classic examples of gaslighting. Here, the victim is being coerced to trust the gaslighter as the only source of "true" information by telling them that others are crazy or liars. This ultimately cements the victims' faith in the gaslighter for the truth. And anybody who has noticed Trump's behavior or just observed the way he carries himself will see the many remarks that he has made can be considered as gaslighting.

'Unfit: The Psychology of Donald Trump' (Dan Partland, Art Horan)

When asked a question, Trump skillfully avoids or deflects it, call him a liar and he'll say he is "truthful to a fault", confront him with evidence that contradicts his statements, he'll merely shrug it off as "fake news". He may change the subject but he will never change the lie. An example of Trump's gaslighting on a national scale can be taken from the time he canceled a planned appearance in Chicago at the time of his presidential candidacy in 2016. Rankled Trump supporters ended up in a violent altercation with the cheering protesters. Trump's only justification for him not appearing on that day, as he said to Sean Hannity later, was that the law enforcement had advised him to cancel the rally out of safety concerns.

But the Chicago Police Department confirmed they never advised Trump to do so. Trump added, “I don't want anybody to be hurt. We want this to be a nonviolent situation," but he had been encouraging his supporters to engage in violence and even offered to pay their legal fees if they were arrested. He said his supporters only retaliated in self-defense. In 2018, Trump deployed the gaslighting technique with regard to a question about Supreme Court judge Brett Kavanaugh who had been facing sexual assault allegations. When asked if Kavanaugh would be disqualified if he lied about or mischaracterized his history with alcohol, he said, "There are bad reports on everybody", and followed that up with accusations thrown against some Democratic senators. 

'Unfit: The Psychology of Donald Trump' (Dan Partland, Art Horan)

In other occasions of gaslighting by the US president, Trump called the Russian Intervention "fake news" after intelligence agencies proved it beyond doubt, and also claimed that he had a record-breaking crowd number at his inauguration. There are dozens of more similar instances. Political journalists, who have repeatedly confronted Trump on his lies, have been subject to backlash for failing miserably. Despite the incident of a politician being caught in his lie being absolutely news-worthy, they find themselves at with short-end of the stick. Trump's confrontational issues are like no other - he doesn't behave like most people. He doesn't feel embarrassed and neither does he defend himself. Instead, he steamrolls, bullies and lies some more. In this case, journalists have signed up for a losing battle.

More recently, Trump has deployed his gaslighting skills in complaining and undermining the vote-by-mail system, which has been in practice for over a century now, because he is worried about voter fraud. He is the master of using the gaslighting tactic to discredit criticism, constructive or not. To put it allegorically, like any abusive relationship that revolves around misdirected love, Trump tries to justify his actions by saying he loves America. And since reality is subject to the influence of social pressures, it isn't too hard to be swayed by his lies.

'Unfit: The Psychology of Donald Trump' will be available on-demand on Tuesday, September 1.

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