Is Trumpist election-denialism really gaslighting?
by Rob Tiller
We’re having a difficult holiday season. The pandemic is still raging, as is Trump, who seems to be trying to vandalize our democracy on his way out of the White House. I’ve been trying to stay positive and look forward to better, healthier times, but his antics are raising difficult questions.
Are there some things that we can take for granted? That is, are there certain things that we can safely assume we all agree about, where there’s no possibility of any argument — things we can call facts?
For most of my life I’ve assumed that there are a huge number of facts on which we almost all agree, with a much smaller number being things subject to debate. Even in politics, I understood there was a large foundation of agreed-upon reality, with disagreements confined to relatively small areas. Of course, I realized that there were people with completely nutty ideas, like the flat earthers and alien invasionists, but they seemed to be a small minority.
Now I’m not so sure. As of this writing, a majority of Republicans apparently still hold the view that Trump was the true winner of the last presidential election, and that the election was marred by a diabolically clever voting fraud. There is overwhelming evidence that none of this is true, and that Biden won in the ordinary way by margins not subject to any reasonable doubt.
For millions of Republicans to stand by Trump despite this evidence is not normal politics. Trump has proposed, in broad daylight, to nullify the election and illegally take over the government based on an outrageous lie, and a majority of Republicans see no problem with that. Their support has shaken my lifelong presumption as to most people’s sanity and rationality. To put it directly, it seems like a huge number of otherwise normal Republicans either intentionally or unintentionally have taken leave of their senses.
There is some possibility that this is just the biggest gaslighting of all time. Under this theory, millions of Republicans are pretending that Trump won, knowing quite well that he didn’t, in order to drive the rest of us out of our minds. Once we nonbelievers are certified as insane and safely locked in institutions, Republican elites can continue with whatever they’re planning, like eliminating all taxes for the rich, cutting all social programs for the poor, and destroying what remains of the natural world.
It Trumpist election-denialism were gaslighting, it would be dastardly, but it would make some sort of sense. But if, instead, the Trump deadenders are sincere and serious, we’ve got a really big problem: a large fraction of our fellow citizens share a strong commitment to ending democracy as we’ve known it, paired with a determination to withdraw from our previously shared reality.
This is bad. The Trump deadenders have gone out on a dangerous ledge, and really need our help. But helping them off the ledge is tricky, because they don’t think they need any help, and they’re inclined to think that anyone who thinks otherwise is a dangerous enemy.
We need experts, including skilled hostage negotiators. This problem could use the talents of our most gifted psychologists, philosophers, economists, engineers, and politicians. When we non experts are confronted with a desperate case, we can try to stay calm and project as much warmth and respectful concern as we can, and avoid making any sudden loud noises or alarming movements.
I wish I had something more cheerful to share, and in fact, I do. As we’ve been holding on through this dreadful pandemic, we’ve been watching some really good TV. Last night on Netflix we watched a fine documentary, titled Dolly Parton: Here I Am. I’ve always liked Dolly’s singing, but I hadn’t realized how hard she worked at songwriting and everything else. Her persona looks comically simple but it’s not; she makes us laugh, feel, and think. She’s amazing!