The election of Donald Trump hasn't just brought a poorly mannered reality TV star into the Oval Office and our newsfeeds. It has also popularized the concept of gaslighting, or tricking rational people into thinking they're insane. The phrase is a reference to a 1944 movie in which Charles Boyer tries to convince his young bride, played by Ingrid Bergman, that she's nuts so he can cover up a murder and search for jewels hidden in the house they share (the house's gas lamps flicker due to Boyer's late-night searches, hence the title).
Go Google "Donald Trump is gaslighting America" and you'll find a constantly growing list of stories from outlets ranging from CNN to Teen Vogue to Vanity Fair to Refinery 29. The common thread is some variation on the theme that Trump's brazen lies, misstatements, and rhetorical sleights of hand are designed to drive us all batshit crazy by contradicting what we plainly see happening to the United States of America. At rock bottom, Trump's detractors believe there is simply no way that he could have legitimately won the 2016 election, especially against Hillary Clinton, of whom President Obama said, "I don't think that there's ever been someone so qualified to hold this office."
Yet it's not Donald Trump who is gaslighting us, but Hillary Clinton, whose complete and utter refusal to take responsibility for her loss is at the heart of what's so weird about contemporary America. You read it here first: Trump is the effect and not the cause of the ongoing mudslide that is the daily news. Ever since about 11 p.m. ET on November 8, 2016, Clinton and her allies in the media have worked overtime to provide increasingly fanciful explanations for her failure to beat the least-credible candidate ever in American history. Sometimes the apologias are conscious, sometimes not, but nobody really wants to accept what happened (in fact, even Trump himself couldn't believe it for a while, which helps explain why his transition was so incompetent). The result is a non-stop barrage of stories, some more credible than others, that Trump's win was the result of some sort of sinister machination that has undermined our democracy. Following from this interpretation every aspect of his behavior, from his bro-ing out with Vladimir Putin to his indifferent spelling and capitalization while tweeting, is just one more sign that we are living in a world gone stark, raving mad.
To be fair, Trump trades in delusion, such as his insistence that violent crime is at or near all-time highs, that massive voter fraud was the only reason he lost the popular vote, and that his inauguration was the most-viewed ever. These sorts of patently false statements do indeed constitute attempts at gaslighting. So, too, do his unconvincing denials about a sexual relationship with the porn star known as Stormy Daniels, his doctor's statement that he only weighs 239 lbs. (giving rise to the "Girther" movement), and his fanciful stories about how Japanese car makers use bowling balls in quality-assurance tests. Against such a backdrop, even the president's so-far-not-contradicted denial that his campaign colluded with Russia seems like a form of gaslighting. In fact, everything he says seems like it's intended to drive us insane or at least seriously question basic reality.
On their face, this week's exposes about Cambridge Analytica, the market-research firm that harvested information from as many as 50 million* Facebook users while working for the Trump campaign, don't just further the Trump-gaslighting narrative; they pour gasoline on it. Finally, you can hear #NeverTrump partisans and #theResistance cells all over the country scream with relief, we finally know how he won! While previous explanations have yet to be vindicated by evidence (the Russians hacked it!), widely embraced (the GOP suppressed the minority vote!), or pass the laugh test (white women succumbed to "ongoing pressure to vote the way that your husband, your boss, your son, whoever, believes you should"), the notion that Trump dialed deep into our psychographic hearts of darkness seems self-evident. As The Guardian puts it, Cambridge Analytica was not only able "to turn tens of millions of Facebook profiles into a unique political weapon," it "also attracted interest from a key Russian firm with links to the Kremlin." Christopher Wylie, the magenta-haired "data war whistleblower," is not exactly measured when he dishes on how he created "Steven Bannon's pyschological warfare mindfuck tool" that launched "an extraordinary attack on the U.S.'s democratic process."
What a gift to all of us Ingrid Bergmans suffering under the depredations of latter-day Charles Boyers! The large takeaway from the Cambridge Analytica story is supposed to be that of all the sad sacks in the Western world, Donald Trump and his former Minister of Dark Arts, Steve Bannon—currently palling around with French ultra-rightists—had super-special treachery that helped them steal an election properly owed to Hillary Clinton. We can finally rest easy knowing that, to paraphrase the final line of King Kong, "It wasn't Trump's overt racism and appeals to our basest instincts, it was social media that killed the Clinton campaign."
And yet the Cambridge Analytica angle is pretty much horseshit. Recall that the firm had a remarkably weak track record when it worked with the awful Ted Cruz campaign before getting hired by the Trump folks and that "even Cambridge Analytica didn't believe its own hype." Or that a New York Times reporter, Kenneth P. Vogel, tweeted this week, "It was (& is) an overpriced service that delivered little value to the TRUMP campaign, & the other campaigns & PACs that retained it — most of which hired the firm because it was seen as a prerequisite for receiving $$$ from the MERCERS."
In a smart piece published earlier this week, National Review's Michael Brendan Dougherty argues that the liberal-leaning solons of Silicon Valley and folks in the media are in the middle of creating a moral panic over social media now that they realize it may be used by right-of-center folks just as effectively (or not) as by left-of-center types:
Silicon Valley is working with its media and governmental critics to limit the damage to the center-Left going forward. You can see the dynamic in the way that the media generates a moral panic out of stories about how Brexit and the Trump election happened, and the way Silicon Valley responds. Fake news becomes a problem, and Silicon Valley responds by hiring progressive journalists as censors. I mean "fact-checkers." You can see it in the demonetization of YouTube videos. Or in the new sets of regulation being imposed in European countries that deputize the social-media networks themselves as an all seeing social censor.
Dougherty notes that when the Obama campaign used Facebook and other forms of social media to win its presidential races, the press swooned. Writing in MIT's Technology Review in 2012, Sasha Issenberg gushed that Obama's team had created "a new political currency that predicted the behavior of individual humans. The campaign didn't just know who you were; it knew exactly how it could turn you into the type of person it wanted you to be." That, says Dougherty, was just one more sign that Barack got it, that he was an iPod-using cool kid:
Today's Cambridge Analytica scandal causes our tech chin-strokers to worry about "information" you did not consent to share, but the Obama team created social interactions you wouldn't have had. They didn't just build a psychological profile of persuadable voters, and algorithmically determine ways of persuading them, but actually encouraged particular friends — ones the campaign had profiled as influencers — to reach out to them personally. In a post-election interview, the campaign's digital director Teddy Goff explained the strategy: "People don't trust campaigns. They don't even trust media organizations," he told Time's Michael Sherer, "Who do they trust? Their friends?" This level of manipulation was celebrated in the press.
But all of this presupposes that the reason why Trump won and Clinton lost was because the billionaire availed himself of unfair, shady, and possibly illegal information. And while there's little doubt that Facebook needs to "step up" regarding its privacy policies (in the words of Mark Zuckerberg), the reality is less interesting but ultimately more convincing. Exit polls showed that Clinton simply didn't turn out the voters she needed to in order to win. Around 136 million votes were cast and it turned out that about 77,000 of them in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and especially Michigan determined the outcome. Republicans and Democrats can reliably turn out a certain minimum number of voters; in presidential contests, the winner will be the one who either generates more enthusiasm (such as Barack Obama did in 2008 and 2012) among partisans, or doesn't completely turn off his own party members (Trump). Hillary Clinton ignored at her peril voters in states that she assumed to be locks for her.
In December 2016, Politico's Edward-Isaac Dovere* noted that Clinton managed to lose Michigan, which had voted Democratic in the past six presidential elections.* Yet "Trump won the state despite getting 30,000 fewer votes than George W. Bush did when he lost it in 2004." Dovere argues:
In results that narrow, Clinton's loss could be attributed to any number of factors — FBI Director Jim Comey's letter shifting late deciders, the lack of a compelling economic message, the apparent Russian hacking. But heartbroken and frustrated in-state battleground operatives worry that a lesson being missed is a simple one: Get the basics of campaigning right.
Clinton never even stopped by a United Auto Workers union hall in Michigan, though a person involved with the campaign noted bitterly that the UAW flaked on GOTV commitments in the final days, and that AFSCME never even made any, despite months of appeals.
Instead of nailing down every electoral vote in less-glamorous precincts, the Clinton campaign spent time raising money and running up popular vote counts in California and New York (she won the popular vote by about 3 million). The same take-it-for-granted attitude that led to her loss was on brazen display in her recent comments to an Indian audience, where she explained "I won the places that represent two-thirds of America's gross domestic product… I won the places that are optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward…. We don't do well with married, white women…and part of that is an identification with the Republican Party, and a sort of ongoing pressure to vote the way that your husband, your boss, your son, whoever, believes you should."
Whenever an election is unexpectedly close, there will always be weird things that crop up to "explain" the result. But just as with George W. Bush's razor-thin victory in 2000, the real question isn't what put the underdog over the top but how the hell the odds-on favorite managed to squander such a lead. In 2000, Bush didn't win so much as Al Gore lost. So it is with 2016: Trump didn't win as much as Hillary Clinton did everything possible to lose. And now we are paying for her loss by being treated to an endless procession of explanations that will take the measure of every possible reason except for her own incompetence, arrogance, and sense of entitlement.
*CORRECTIONS: I originally claimed that the profiles of 30 million Facebook users had been compromised. The correct figure is 50 million. Edward-Isaac Dovere's was name misstated as Edward Isaac-Dovere. I wrote, "Politico's Edward Isaac-Dovere noted that had Clinton managed to hold Michigan, which had voted Democratic in the past six presidential elections, she would be president today." As he stated, "Flip Michigan and leave the rest of the map, and Trump is still president-elect."