The Gaslighting of the American Left

During the inauguration ceremonies on Friday pictures started circulating on the internet comparing the size of Obama’s crowd to Trump’s and it was clear that Trump was unable to summon the same amount of enthusiasm as the man he replaced. The following day Sean Spicer, the new White House press secretary, took to the podium and told everyone that it was the most watched inauguration in American history. In the hours between those events the 30-odd percent of the country that still supports Trump started making up their own stories. They said that of course Trump’s supporters didn’t go to the inauguration, they have jobs. They claimed that people were too afraid to go because of roving bands of angry liberals. This was all in service of a single narrative: Trump is popular.

The world can see that this is simply not the case. The crowds were obviously down from Obama’s years. The statistics showed that Metro ridership was down from both of Obama’s inaugurations. More importantly, we know for a fact that Trump has the lowest approval rating of any day 1 president in history and his day 1 approval rating was lower than a lot of presidents’ lowest-ever rating. There simply aren’t a lot of people who are enthusiastic about Donald Trump. The Trump enthusiasts also, crucially, don’t live in DC, New York, Boston, Philly, or the closest high population centers. Trump wasn’t likely to get the enthusiastic reception of Barack Obama even if all of the factors were in his favor.

Still, not only did Spicer stand up and tell us the crowd was yuuuge, he took it that one extra step and claimed it was the largest crowd in inauguration history. This is not in service of showing who has the bigger dick, at least not entirely. It is, instead, in service of something the Trump has been doing since he entered the race: gaslighting.

For the three people on the internet who have never heard the term, “gaslighting” is a term used to describe abusive behavior. The abuser does or says something to the abused and then when the abused fights back the abuser denies ever having done or said the thing in question. The end goal of gaslighting is to get the abused to begin questioning their attachment to reality and ability to trust their own senses and memories.

Gaslighting is also an effective tactic for totalitarian regimes. George Orwell illustrated it beautifully in Nineteen Eighty-Four, where the Ministry of Truth’s entire job was to scrub out any memory or knowledge of anything that wasn’t the current party line. People were given truth according to whatever was most convenient for the government and removed from any ability to independently verify facts for themselves. Nineteen Eighty-Four shows end-stage gaslighting, as society as a whole has lost the ability to process its own facts and instead simply believes whatever Big Brother says.

Kellyanne Conway doubled down on the tactic on Sunday morning when she declared that Sean Spicer was simply using “alternative facts” in making his inaugural numbers claims. There’s an old saying attributed to Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” In this way we manage to turn an obvious falsehood, formerly known as a “lie” into a thing that is true if you just look at it the right way. It removes yet another level of reality from the conversation.

This is what the American left will have to cope with throughout Donald Trump’s presidency. It’s something that the American left has been coping with for a long time. The internet has simply made it possible to see everything for what it is.

So this is four paragraph-ish things from Ron Paul blaming the election of Donald Trump on the left. It’s a fairly standard bit of gaslighting against the left and I chose it literally because I remembered seeing it somewhere and it was easy to track down. There’s a longer piece-and-response here if you want to read even more unhinged rhetoric.

Let us dispense with one thing immediately: Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by three million votes. She lost the Electoral College because of approximately 80–100,000 votes cast in the states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania or, alternately, a far too optimistic view of the state of play in Florida and North Carolina.[1] 100,000 votes isn’t even a rounding error in 3,000,000. Hillary lost because of statistical noise that happened to be located in specific places that could magnify it because our presidential elections are based not on the will of the people but an institution specifically designed to put its thumb on the electoral scales in order to support the institute of slavery and convince slave-owning states that, yes, they could ratify the Constitution without fear of losing their precious human property.

It’s basically like Major League Baseball vacating the Chicago Cubs’ World Series win and handing the trophy to the Cleveland Indians because they discovered Kris Bryant wore the wrong kind of cleats. Neither side wants to hear this because it’s a goddamn fluke. It’s flipping a coin one hundred times and having it land on heads eighty times. It seems unbelievable because we “know” that it’s supposed to land on heads half the time and tails the other half, but the difference between statistical probability and outcome in real-world scenarios is as different as the terrain is from the map. The left wants the outcome to be meaningful because losing with a three million vote edge shouldn’t happen. The right wants the outcome to be meaningful because they’re desperate to justify their hatred of Hillary and avoid staring into the abyss of the onrushing demographic death of American conservatism as we know it. Everyone wants their own convenient narrative for what happened to be true so they can declare themselves a genius.[2]

So let’s look at Ron Paul’s little bit of gaslighting.

The first paragraph sets it up perfectly. Trump’s election is the left’s fault. It completely ignores that there were a whole lot of people who, y’know, wanted to vote for Trump.

The second paragraph makes some actual interesting points but makes them in the most accusatory possible way. First of all, the left didn’t stay silent. Second, Obama inherited some of that war he was in for his entire term. Excused the NSA? Yeah, I’ll buy that to a certain extent, but I think it’s more of a, “What the fuck are we supposed to do about it?” excuse than a true, “Yeah, we’re okay with you doing this,” scenario. As for the bits about the “imperial presidency” and “activist judiciary,” those are just libertarian canards. The presidency started gradually amassing power with Andrew Jackson, took on quite a bit with Abraham Lincoln, and has really been chugging up that hill since Nixon. Most Americans don’t really know what powers the president is supposed to have and gathering extra powers to the Oval Office is an enthusiastically bipartisan practice. It’s also hard to argue with a straight face that people voted for Donald Trump because they wanted to see a lessening of presidential power. He spent the election basically vowing to argue by fiat. Finally, an “activist judiciary” is simply a judiciary that rules in a way the person making the claim doesn’t like. When the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage it was judicial activism. When the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights act it was simply following the Constitution. See how that works?

The third paragraph is where the gaslighting really kicks in. The left has “poisoned America with vicious identity politics.” Worse, it’s with a “deeply false narrative of racism, sexism, xenophobia, and privilege.” So of course the left was going to lose. They’ve been lying through their teeth.

Meanwhile, over on the Republican side the winning candidate started his campaign by claiming all of the Mexicans coming over the border are criminals and rapists. That very first thing that caused the country to think Donald Trump’s big mouth would disqualify him in the eyes of the voters disproves two of Ron Paul’s four “deeply false narrative[s].” It’s impossible to claim there’s no sexist narrative after the media dug up Donald Trump’s hot mic moment on Billy Bush’s Bang Bus and Trump’s supporters added “grab her by the pussy” to their vocabulary and wardrobe. Privilege, of course, is a thing that doesn’t exist according to the privileged.

The most important thing to keep in mind through all of this is that all politics are identity politics, especially today. Trump supporters didn’t change their Twitter handles to include the word “deplorable” because they were against Hillary Clinton’s economic policies. They identified themselves as a thing because Hillary Clinton was against it.

By saying that identity politics are invalid the right attempts to destroy the most important aspect of the left’s counterpoint. The Affordable Care Act is a good thing and repealing it is going to result in tremendous expense. But there’s a more visceral, personal reaction to losing the ACA that’s felt most acutely by women. The ACA had provisions for birth control and made things like prenatal care more accessible for poor women. By reducing this sort of objection to a candidate and a party that wants to gut and repeal the ACA to mere “identity politics” the right is, once again, denying the actual truth of the situation and denying that the left has anything worth saying.

And it’s not like the right doesn’t have identity politics. 81% of Evangelical Christians voted for Donald Trump. Whether they held their noses and ignored his complete lack of family values doesn’t matter. A vote for Donald Trump was a vote for Christian values simply because a vote for Hillary Clinton was a vote against Christian values. And what are those values? Controlling women’s reproductive rights and stopping gays, mostly. That’s identity politics. It’s a negative identity, yes, as it’s voting to say, “I’m not like those other people,” but if someone identifies themselves as a man because they’re not a woman then that’s a fucking issue of identity.

In the days after the election the media was filled with stories of poor, rural folk who voted for Trump because they felt that the world has left them behind. This, too, became the fault of the American left. On the one side you had eight years of Barack Obama getting the Affordable Care Act passed and getting the economy turned around from the complete shambles left by the passing of George W Bush. On the other side you had the Republicans spending eight years saying that Obama was a failure and the economy was worse than ever before. This one was an especially neat trick, since the Republicans have been gaslighting their own base for years and have slowly ghettoized their base into only consuming news from AM talk radio, Fox News, and the deeper holes like Breitbart to the point where they see CNN as liberal propaganda. Now, all of the sudden, the fact that the Republican rank and file have turned right-wing propaganda into their primary news source is also the fault of the American left for not properly understanding and educating people who don’t even want to listen to them.

The worst thing about all of this is that the gaslighting isn’t just coming from the right. There’s plenty of it coming in from the far left and Libertarian left. Every single time someone confidently claims that Bernie would have won it’s gaslighting. We cannot say for certain what would have happened, but we do have some facts at our disposal. Hillary Clinton won the primary by nearly four million votes. Hillary Clinton was far more popular across the various demographics of the Democratic Party than Bernie, who was primarily the candidate of white liberals. They also always claim that Bernie would have won because in head-to-head polls with Trump Bernie had the edge. But the day before the election the polls also showed Hillary winning in a laugher. So why should some head-to-head polls for a theoretical contest taken in April matter even the slightest bit in November?[3]

There are facts out there. Hillary Clinton won the primary. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. Donald Trump is tremendously unpopular and the Republicans are going to trash the country.

65 million of us did our jobs on November 8th. We voted for Hillary Clinton. It doesn’t matter whether any individual vote was cast because, like me, the voter actually likes Hillary Clinton and thought she’d make a good president or the voter put a clothespin on their nose because they were terrified of Donald Trump. The voting booth has a box, not an enthusiasm scale.

It’s time for everyone who’s blaming the American left for Donald Trump to have a good, long look in the mirror. This fiasco isn’t on us. We’re the ones who tried to keep it from happening. This is on the smart conservatives who knew Trump was an awful choice but couldn’t bring themselves to make a mark beside any box that didn’t have an R next to it. This is on every sanctimonious asshole who couldn’t sully their conscience by voting for a flawed but good candidate on the grounds that she’s not perfect.

Mostly, though, it’s a goddamn fluke. It’s numbers that everyone expected to break one way instead breaking another. It’s the Electoral College time bomb, that gift from the Founders that keeps on giving. It’s a demographic clusterfuck that says 13,000 people in Wisconsin matter more than a million in Illinois and 30,000 in Michigan matter more than a few million in California.

Oh, and every time there’s another big march like the Women’s March last Saturday and someone asks, “Well where were these people on Election Day?” we already know the answer. They were most likely voting. For Hillary Clinton. Just like the majority of voters.

[1]There’s an interesting narrative here that explains the general Democratic hang-up on Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. First, they were close. Second, those states are viewed as being reliably blue. One of the stories from the waning days of the election is that Bill Clinton, one of the finest political minds this country has ever produced, directly told Hillary’s team that they were in danger of losing Michigan and really needed to up their game in that state or they were going to lose the whole kit-and-kaboodle. Hillary’s teams internal numbers showed what everyone else expected to see: that Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania were safe. They also, apparently, showed that North Carolina and Florida were safe.

The story here is of a political campaign that had decided to believe its own press and ignore the advice of one of the most qualified people in the country. Bill Clinton is an old-school, retail politician who can smell the direction of the wind and didn’t like what his nose was telling him. Yet the Clinton campaign ignored all of that because of polls and tried to run up the score by campaigning in obviously-not-going-to-turn-blue Arizona and allowed Trump to sneak in and steal Michigan. North Carolina, meanwhile, sure as hell comes across as a story of good, old-fashioned voter suppression, as the North Carolina Republicans actually celebrated how their policies were keeping early voter turnout among black people low.

[2]I will note that this outcome did actually support something that I had said. But I was also one of the people who chose to look at the polls on FiveThirtyEight and ignore those three magic words: margin of error. So I guess I can call myself a special kind of dumb: I saw it coming but didn’t realize it.

I also need to temper my original piece up there by pointing out that the Clinton campaign did put together an unapologetically progressive platform. It was just drowned out by idiots screaming about emails. And since Trump’s election and the continuing cavalcade of bad news it does seem like the Democratic Party has, indeed, woken up. They’re not picking battles and throwing stuff aside because it won’t make for good optics. They’re actually bucking up and fighting back. It’s just too bad that it took president-elect Donald Trump appointing Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education for us to see actual backbone in the Democratic Party.

The answers to my despairing question at the end are now appearing: Cory Booker, Kristen Gillibrand, Maggie freaking Hassan as the second-coming of Barack Obama, Chris Murphy, hell, why not Al Franken? There will be options.

[3]I, personally, am of the opinion that Bernie was the opponent Trump wanted in the general election. In the waning days of the primaries when it was obvious to everyone but Bernie’s dead-enders that Hillary had the election in the bag Trump started calling for debates against Bernie. On one level I think there was a sort of weird political maneuvering to delegitimize Hillary, but on another level I think Trump’s instincts told him that he had a better chance of beating Bernie in a debate than Hillary. The actual presidential debates proved that Trump had no shot. Hillary was a stone-cold killer with an icy stare and Trump was flop-sweat personified.

Bernie, though? Bernie has a lot of the same faults Trump does, at least when it comes to debate. Bernie is thin-skinned and can be taken off of his game. He’s also primarily a one-issue guy who comes across as being woefully unprepared when he has to talk about anything outside of his specific political bugaboos.

In general I think Bernie was a bad candidate for the general. He was a one-note candidate who seemed to join specifically to try to pull the Democrats over to the left and succeeded beyond his wildest dreams because he was carried by the same wave of, “Hey, let’s elect an outsider!” that elevated Trump. The problem with Bernie is that he started believing his own press at the end of the primary, just like Hillary at the end of the general. He wasn’t going to win. He was never even all that close. It was, quite frankly, a miracle that he was still in the thing by the time the primary swung around to Illinois and he should have dropped out after that or, especially, after New York. But, and this is where Bernie’s thin skin comes into play, by then he’d decided that he had been wronged. The campaign went from the cordial contest of the early days where the two candidates used each other to make their cases better to a Bernie rage party that presaged the general and poisoned a certain percentage of his supporters against Hillary.

As for those head-to-heads against Trump? Well, we’ll obviously never know what actually would have happened, but I will say this: Donald Trump would have hung the words “Communist” and “Jew” around Bernie’s neck. If you think the candidate who played dumb when asked if he’d disavow the endorsement of the KKK and then hired Steve Bannon as his campaign manager and White House Chief of Staff would have had any compunction running a campaign on anti-Semitism and Cold War Red Scare tactics you’ve got another think coming.

And let’s not ignore the 800 pound gorilla in the room: Bernie only activated white voters. He spent a lot of his time in the primary alienating the non-white part of the electorate. Donald Trump won the white vote. I can, quite frankly, envision any number of scenarios where candidate Bernie would have ended up getting crushed by Donald Trump. Bernie’s free college platform did not resonate with the Republican base. They’re the ones who are against giving poor kids milk, after all.

And now we get to the weird bit at the end where I become a busker. If you liked this consider purchasing my new estory: “Horror in the Holy Land.” It’s a fun bit of historical fiction available on Kindle or Nook. There’s a bit of a teaser here. I also have a tip jar.

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