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You may have heard the term but don’t quite understand its meaning.
The term is “gaslighting.” That’s when someone, usually a man, does something morally wrong, then denies having done it, even repeating the offense in the act of denial. He furthermore questions the sanity of the person calling out the wrong.
A tit-for-tat pattern forms, and repeats, until it takes the shape of a downward spiral. There are two common outcomes. One, everyone except the person who committed the moral wrong, usually a man, starts to feel insane. Two, the person who committed the wrong, in making everyone around him feel insane, holds a place of power.
Or so he thinks.
The conventional wisdom is gaslighting us.
That’s what’s been happening over the last few days. Donald Trump made horribly racist statements over the weekend about four House Democratic women of color. These women, standing up for themselves, said his statements were racist.
Trump then denied they were racist, adding another racist statement while in the very act of denial. The women again called him out. A tit-for-tat pattern formed, and repeated, until it took the shape of a downward spiral in which everyone lost.
Or so we’re told.
We’re also told it’s the president’s political genius to get the Democrats so worked up they rally around four women of color so that the entire party risks alienating “centrist” voters who don’t care for these women of color. The idea is that Trump is setting a trap for his 2020 rivals. Stand with the party and risk alienating “moderates”; or stand idle and risk alienating the party. That all the candidates have rallied around these women of color would seem to prove Trump’s plan is working. That the House voted last night to condemn the president would seem to be further proof.
But what if I told you all this is nonsense?
What if I told you people know a moral wrong when they see it? What if I told you the president is losing this fight; indeed, the Democrats are winning? What if I told you this strategy has never worked for him even though pundits keep saying it does?
If I told you all that, I would be telling you a “counter-narrative,” as we say in journalism, a story about American politics that runs counter to conventional wisdom in Washington. While counter-narratives are not always true (they can be bullshit, too), this one is, and because it is, the conventional wisdom is false. But it’s not just that.
The conventional wisdom itself is gaslighting us.
It’s making us all feel insane.
The politics of morality is far simpler than cable news pundits suggest. When a person of power and stature brags about grabbing women by the pussy, when he accuses the press of being the enemy of the people, when he maligns judges and the rule of law, (when he breaks the law!), when he claims Mexicans are rapists, when he confiscates children, when he tells citizens of color to go back to wherever they came from—that’s bad, and the result is and has been the most unpopular president of our lifetimes. Trump’s aggregated approval rating has been 41-42 percent since mid-February!
Two-thirds of Americans believe Trump’s horribly racist statements were “offensive,” according to a new USA Today poll. Put another way, 68 percent of Americans are not falling for the idea that Donald Trump is some kind of political genius. Moreover, 58 percent of Americans said his remarks were “un-American.” That’s a BFD.
This poll is in keeping with electoral reality. The president scorched the earth with anti-immigrant rhetoric before the 2018 midterms. Some said it was genius. The Democrats won more than 40 House seats, the greatest blue wave since Watergate.
Even a poll debunking the conventional wisdom, however, can be used to prove the conventional wisdom. It’s generally accepted as true that it doesn’t matter what Trump does. He won’t lose support among Republicans. And indeed, a majority of GOP respondents (57 percent) agreed with the president’s horribly racist statements.
But what about the 43 percent of Republicans who didn’t? That’s a big big chunk. Add the margin of error (3-4 points), and that’s nearing the midpoint of the survey, meaning there might be close to half of Republicans who are not fully on board with the president, at least with respect to these recent tweets. While the conventional wisdom makes a fetish of “partisan divides,” the president is revealing at least potential for a consensus view. And, indeed, it makes sense given his historic unpopularity.
Trump believes he’s winning when he gaslights us. He’s losing.
Conventional wisdom doesn’t reflect that. It’s gaslighting us, too.