Gaslighting 101: What to Expect From Trump on Climate Change

Gaslighting tends to follow when intimidation is no longer acceptable. — Everyday Feminism

One of Trump’s most extreme and unpopular characteristics — one of the main reasons so many of us just assumed that he couldn’t get elected — is his viewpoint on the issue of climate change. Trump has said that he believes climate change is a hoax invented by the Chinese. In a spectacular display of gaslighting, he later said that he was just joking about that.

Good one, Donald. As if it is somehow better that he sees the entire issue as a joke — but that is neither here nor there. What are some of the other things that Donald Trump has said about climate change?

  • He has claimed that it is a “money making industry,” and has called it a “tax” — the implication being that some people are making climate change up because it benefits them financially, or perhaps that the Government is using it as an excuse to take money from citizens.
  • He has blamed progressive policies aimed at fighting climate change for killing jobs and has said that he wants to dismantle the Paris agreement.
  • He does not have a comprehensive platform on environmental issues, but has said that he thinks the government is wasting money on climate change, and would rather see federal funds go towards things like desalinisation of ocean water and better fresh water infrastructure.
  • Although he has repeatedly stated in one way or another that he does not accept the scientific evidence for climate change, he has also repeatedly downplayed his climate change denial, making an appeal to ignorance about “how much there is that we don’t know,” and the “need to investigate all possibilities.”

Most recently, Trump was called out in the media for flip-flopping on his climate change positions, but for anyone who has really been paying attention to him on this issue, it was just more of the same, more gaslighting.

During an interview with the New York Times, he appeared to backpedal on several of his previous statements, saying that he had and “open mind” about the Paris agreement, and that he believes there is “some connectivity” when asked about the link between human activity and climate change. These statements were so far from anything he had said before that many even wondered if they had somehow gotten the wrong idea about Trump.

We all wake up and read in the morning paper that Trump is suddenly being reasonable about the scientific evidence for global warming. Within a day or two of this same interview, the press was reporting that in his first 100 days in office Trump is going to end funding for climate change programs and ease restrictions for the fossil fuels industry.

You’re not alone if you’ve found yourself wondering what was real and what was not on more than one occasion with Trump. It seems to me that is exactly how you are meant to feel. There comes a point where all-caps tweets and a constant single-minded denial of reality no longer cut it — when staring into the camera and telling a bald-faced lie about something you said is going to draw too much scrutiny to be effective. That kind of strategy might be enough to curtail the concerns of Republican voters, but it isn’t going to play well on the world stage, with everyone’s eyes and ears on the what President is planning to do.

In all likelihood, the world won’t just swallow a set of policies built on the premise that climate change is a hoax invented by the Chinese. This would be met with too much resistance. The President has to publicly explain to everyone what he is doing and why, and if it comes up in conversation at any dinners with foreign dignitaries at the White House, you can bet that he’s going to say that he was just joking about all that.

What the world might swallow though is the idea of inevitability — an idea put forth by a climate change denial think tank from Chicago, the Heartland Institute — that there is nothing we can do to prevent climate change.

The Trump administration’s approach to the issue of climate change has already been spelled out in full, if you piece together the bits and pieces Trump has said into something resembling a cohesive environmental policy plan. For example, supporting desalinisation of ocean water as a solution to drought, as opposed to combating the reality of climate change by reducing emissions, is akin to saying that we are too late — we can’t do anything to prevent these droughts and extreme weather conditions anyway, so why are we so worried about what the fossil fuel industry is doing? We should really be worried about clean drinking water, preparing for a Mad Max style dystopian future, because we’re already screwed.

This is why so many have labelled Trump’s ideology as “fascist” — this kind of fatalistic self-interest that we so often hear coming out of his mouth, founded on an appeal to ignorance, is at the heart of how he controls others and gives his power the appearance of legitimacy. In his essay on fascism, Umberto Eco describes the suppression of analytical thought and intellectual disagreement as a core characteristic of fascism.

No syncretistic faith can withstand analytical criticism. The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism. In modern culture the scientific community praises disagreement as a way to improve knowledge. For Ur-Fascism, disagreement is treason. — Umberto Eco

Under fascism, as with gaslighting, we must be given the option to accept the new reality that we are presented with before our old reality is overwritten. The ideology does not allow for debate or disagreement, so the reality we are given must be, at the very least, plausible, otherwise the agenda cannot be advanced.

For too many out there, it is simply not possible to accept the idea that climate change is “caused by the sun,” the preposterous notion put forth by the Heartland Institute and other climate change denial think tanks. Evidence for the link between human activity and climate change is growing stronger, and in certain circles awareness of the science behind climate change has become so prevalent that suppressing the knowledge may even be impossible. We’re not just talking about U.S. voters here anymore — how is Trump going to maintain relations with other world leaders, for example, if he continues to espouse beliefs that are widely regarded by the scientific community to be about as credible as alien abduction stories?

But this kind of stigma is not a problem for Trump. We’re talking about a man who has essentially never had to recant a single thing that he has said, no matter how extreme or preposterous it was. Instead he just denies that he ever said it, or claims that he was “joking.” Under fascism, even one’s personal convictions and beliefs are mutable to suit the situation, so long as the dominant narrative of self-interest is preserved.

I expect that we will see a lot of shifts in the story Trump tells us about climate change. We will see less and less virulent denouncing of scientific opinions, and more and more uncertainty. Less about hoaxes and the Chinese, and more about how much it costs, how there is nothing we can do anyway. The inevitability narrative has already been prepared — Trump can safely accept that humans are causing climate change if he continues to assert that he believes that none of our efforts to stop it are going to do any good. This puts him in a much better position to push his anti-scientific agenda.

So please, do not take comfort in the fact that Trump has begrudgingly accepted that there is “some connectivity” between human activity and climate change. There is still no scientific basis for any of his beliefs on the matter, any targets that he may agree to, nor any environmental policy positions he may adopt. You are being gaslighted, but the good news is once you have spotted it, you can stop the pattern of abuse.

Do not forget, and do not let others forget that Donald Trump is a big proponent of conspiracy theories and anti-scientific thinking. Remind anyone who thinks that Trump is starting to “make sense” that he claimed to have seen thousands of Arabs in New Jersey celebrating the destruction of the World Trade Centre after 9/11. Remind them that Trump was at the forefront of the “birther” movement for years after Obama had already released his birth certificate. And most importantly, remind them that Trump said that he thinks climate change is a hoax invented by the Chinese, for the benefit of China.

Maybe he never really believed any of these absurd notions, but that is even worse. If he said that climate change is a hoax and never really believed that it was, then the only possible explanations are ill intent. Someone would only say something so extreme to stoke the fears of conspiracy theorists, gaslight his enemies, and selfishly advance his own interests with no concern what the cost would be to everyone else. The worst we can do is to forget that he ever espoused such outrageous beliefs, and allow our reality to be overwritten — to accept Trump at his word when he claims to have an “open mind.” Everything that Trump says must be questioned, and we must work to shed light on and expose his pattern of abusive behaviour.