One month ago Donald Trump tweeted a series of bizarre accusations that Barack Obama wire tapped Trump Tower during the election. The charge was complete nonsense. And yet, in the weeks that followed Trump’s surrogates have engaged in a jaw-dropping exercise in confabulation, attempting to find something — anything — which can provide some sort of corroboration for the man’s paranoid and utterly baseless delusion.
(Please keep in mind that this is only one example of the wider phenomenon. Whether it is Trump claiming 3 million people illegally voted, or that his inauguration crowds were the biggest, or that human-induced climate change is false, or that Trump knows more about ISIS than the generals, or that Mexico will pay for his stupid wall, or that everyone will have healthcare, or that Obama is responsible for the latest Syrian gas attack [the same Obama who, Trump claimed, founded ISIS] or that Obama wasn’t born in the United States, or … the list goes on and on and on.)
By and large, the media is forced to go along for the ride. And in a quest for “fairness” they enlist those paid Trump surrogates to appear on panels to offer serious commentary on the latest iteration of Trump’s mind-numbing, narcissistic ignorance, delusion, and base stupidity.
At this point I think of two terms, gaslighting and shifting baselines. In the 1944 film Gaslight the villain named Gregory (played by Charles Boyer) attempts to convince his new wife Paula (Ingrid Bergmann) that she’s insane. One of his methods is to alter the flickering gaslights that illumine their house at night. He then denies that he can see any change in an effort to get Paula to begin questioning her own reality. The plot gave rise to the term gaslighting, a technique of psychological manipulation in which one individual leads the victim to question their reality in order to attain power over them.
In December 2016 Lauren Duca published in (of all places) Teen Vogue an outstanding critique of Trump titled “Trump is gaslighting America“. Just over two months into Trump’s presidency, the corrosive impact of his narcissistic, post-truth persona on the public square is increasingly visible as Trump surrogates continue to debate “wiretapping”.
The second term is shifting baselines, and this refers to the phenomenon that normalcy changes over time. For example, in a world of increased pollution, a beautiful day may be one where you can simply see the sun through the smog. Even now I can see Trump — his vulgarity, his delusions, his narcissism, his complete lack of a moral compass or gravitas — as shifting baselines across society in a range of areas: government, public service, the media, and so on.
The shared problem with gaslighting and shifting baselines is that Trump is treated as normal. He isn’t. Nor is the Trump age in which we live. But how best to counter it? A couple days ago Vox.com posted this short video which provides the way forward: satire.