“What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.” These words were spoken by Donald Trump in a speech on July 24, 2018, and seemed to come straight from George Orwell’s “1984.”
The novel describes a dystopian future when the “Ministry of Truth” exerts “reality control” and insists that “the evidence of your eyes and ears” must be rejected in favor of the dictates of the Party. Trump’s pernicious statement is a dangerous turn, as Esquire’s Jack Holmes explains: “Lies that are not merely lies, but instead serve to destroy the very concept of truth, are a cornerstone of any authoritarian playbook.”
The Washington Post has counted more than 3,000 false or misleading claims made by the president as of May 2018, averaging six to nine per day. From “alternative facts” to “fake news,” the daily barrage of lies has the effect of gaslighting an entire nation. Gaslighting is the attempt of one person to overwride another person’s reality. It is a tactic used for gaining power and control.
The term gets its name from a 1938 play and 1944 film “Gaslight” starring Ingrid Bergman, in which her husband would secretly dim the gaslight, but when she commented on it, he insisted she must be crazy. And he convinced others she was insane as well.
Thus, gaslighting is a form of manipulation through persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction and lying in an attempt to destabilize and de-legitimize a person or group of people. The underlying message is always this: What you know to be true is not true.
The Trump administration is intent on imposing a xenophobic, white supremacist, homophobic, misogynistic, climate-change-denying, authoritarian agenda on our nation and the world. Name-calling and stereotyping are other forms of gaslighting, as they assign a demoralizing identity to a person or group.
The long-term effects that this bullying and abuse will have on the collective psyche of our nation remains to be seen, but are certain to be felt long after this presidency ends.
The Judeo-Christian tradition has another name for gaslighting. It’s called breaking the Eighth Commandment. “You shall not bear false witness” is the commandment that involves what Martin Luther called “sins of the tongue ... lying and evil-speaking.” People of faith and nonreligious people of goodwill need to understand what is happening and how to counteract the effects of gaslighting.
Clergy have a particular obligation to educate and support their congregants who are being subjected to the psychological trauma of gaslighting (even if people don’t recognize it as such, or are unwittingly assenting to it).
How do we counter gaslighting? First, we must call it what it is, call it to accountability, and be counter-models of radical integrity.
Second, when someone is brave enough to share their feelings about what’s happening in our nation, don’t belittle them, or think of them as “snowflakes.” Show compassion, because it’s likely that this is dredging up experiences and emotions from their past or exacerbating what they’re already subjected to in their lives. Reassure them that they are not the problem, that they are a good person, and that they are strong enough psychologically to resist what is happening.
Third, help others to self-differentiate and find communities of resistance. Self-differentiating means being able to separate feelings and thoughts, to base one’s responses on logic rather than emotions. Self-differentiating, together with working with a trusted group to resist evil and bring about positive change, helps make you stronger, clearer, more directed, more differentiated, and equipped to exercise agency in your life.
When we do this with others, it frees us up to work together to help those who are, in Jesus’ words, “the least of these” — the ones most at risk from this administration.
Above all, be assured — and assure others — that we will get through this together by keeping intact our honor, integrity and compassion.
Leah D. Schade is a professor of preaching and worship in Lexington. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.