What is it about Donald Trump that has motivated so many people to get out their old psychology textbooks and notes from college days to understand this bizarre man? In fact, The Donald is such a bizarre figure to the commentariat that he has become the subject of verbiage that identifies him variously as a sociopath, narcissist, and pathological liar, all the while harboring an ample amount of hypocrisy and projection.
But these descriptors for Trump only scratch the surface. For those who have discarded their psych books, rest assured. There are other methods for trying to understand or deal with the reality (or is it unreality) that is Trump.
Among the most fervent of America’s readers and viewers, those who are members of book clubs and movie groups, there are films and novels that offer teachable moments for all. As we contend with the current nightmare that is the Trump Maladministration, one book and one film come to mind that might help to promote an understanding of our current national malaise. Certainly, both are preferable than cracking open that old psych textbook if you still have it on a dusty bookshelf.
For classic movie fans, particularly aficionados of TCM, Charles Boyer might soon be in vogue again to help with that teachable moment which serves to help understand Trump.
First, absolutely no one would confuse the suave, debonair Boyer with the uncouth, barbarian Donald Trump. Yes, the smooth Frenchman who never said “Come weeth me to ze Casbah” to Hedy Lamarr in Algiers, needs to be kept in mind for the technique he used in another classic film, where he controlled another starlet of the period.
We’ll get back to Ingrid Bergmann shortly.
As for Hedy Lamarr, the actress who has been credited with inventing WiFi communication, she no doubt could hold her own when dealing with controlling males like Boyer. Chances are that she would have found Trump, by comparison, to be a marshmallow.
Though I’ve always been an Ingrid fan, for our purposes, we need to put the Swedish ingenue on the back burner a bit longer as we look at a print model many have examined recently in searching for meaning to explain the Age of Trump.
Not long ago, we saw reports that George Orwell’s classic, 1984, was selling briskly again, in light of the bizarre nature of America’s new presidential administration. First-time readers were introduced, for example, to the Ministry of Truth, where people are deliberately confused and neutralized by their government, where fake news is king, and where you just make up stuff.
For an administration that started to lie on Day One, with Sean Spicer’s claims that the Trump inauguration was the largest in attendance in presidential history, the road to perdition, err prevarication, continues unabated.
The most recent mega-whopper was the revelation about a June 2016 meeting with a cast of Russians that was centered on the subject of adoptions. In looking at the attendees, however, it seems that no one resembling Miss Hannigan or Little Orphan Annie was included in the discussions. But on the topic of adoptions and orphanages, it’s been a hard knock life for junior and his brother-in-law lately, hasn’t it?
The Trump Ministry of Truth has continued the production of lies at such a pace that the Sunday, June 23 edition of the New York Times produced an entire page of whoppers for all to see. With a banner headline that reads, “Trump’s Lies,” the Paper of Record put it this way:
There is simply no precedent for an American president to spend so much time telling untruths. Every president has shaded the truth or told occasional whoppers. No other president – of either party – has behaved as Trump is behaving. He is trying to create an atmosphere in which reality is irrelevant.
While the litany of lies assembled by the Times proves quite useful in documenting the vast expanse of Trump Inc.’s deception, the Ministry of Truth explanation for our state of national numbness does not fully address what has happened to the American populace in the Age of Trump. Add to that an atmosphere in which reality is irrelevant.
Cue Ingrid Bergmann.
In the Alfred Hitchcock thriller, Gaslight, the vulnerable Bergmann is manipulated by – guess who – Charles Boyer, who does not invite her to the Casbah but, instead, masterfully controls his wife through questioning her memory, firm beliefs, and the otherwise mundane things in her home environment. The result is predictable. She becomes confused and questions her sanity and beliefs.
Again, while no sane person would compare the smooth Boyer with the Inspector Clouseau-like Trump, both achieve the same results in their gaslighting methods: Control the conscious environment, sow doubt on alternative explanations, and make receivers of the messages vulnerable as a result.
In light of the earlier description of some of Trump’s character traits, this statement proved most interesting:
Sociopaths and narcissists frequently use gaslighting tactics. Sociopaths consistently transgress social mores, break laws, and exploit others, but typically also are convincing liars, sometimes charming ones, who consistently deny wrongdoing.
Few would label Trump as a modern-day Prince Charming. But he has been most effective in transgressing social mores (“grab them by the pussy,” “blood coming out of her wherever,” women as ‘dogs’ and ‘fat pigs’) while holding on to his core group of true believers. After all, it was Trump himself who has made the best observation about the effectiveness of his gaslighting on the populace:
“I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters,” he said in early 2016 at a campaign rally.
Unfortunately, it seems that the gaslighting that afflicts Trump’s fervent followers continues, even after mounting revelations of Russian involvement in our electoral process and hints of collusion by members of the Trump campaign, to include his son, Donald Jr., and son-in-law, Jared Kushner. “They don’t get it; the bullsh*t tornado ONLY works on their hypnotized base,” Rick Wilson, a Republican strategist, wrote recently about the true believers.
On second thought, maybe Wilson meant to use the verb gaslighted rather than the more familiar hypnotized. A report in the Washington Journal described the phenomenon in this fashion:
Despite, you know, facts to the contrary, supporters of President Donald Trump remain steadfastly behind him. They insist he’s accomplished so much in his first 180 days in office, though they can’t tell you exactly what those accomplishments are, nor how they’ve substantively impacted their lives. Still, they’re convinced that they, and the President, are winning.
As the saner part of the American nation continues to resist the broadsides launched from the Ministry of Truth, which led by its commandant identifies the sane media as fake news, who could devise something more Orwellian than that? Here, indeed, is a novel idea as we await the update to 1984.
But then we inevitably have to take one last look and return to the struggle between the great gaslighter, Boyer, and his wife, the vulnerable Bergmann. If Trump is playing the gaslighting role today against the vulnerable American people, about 40 percent of which fervently support him in his attempts to discredit any inquiry regarding Russia and its involvement with our election campaign, then we must look for a remedy to stop this unfolding national tragedy.
Near the end of the film, the character of the dogged detective, Brian Cameron (aka Joseph Cotten), appears. Like most detectives, Cotten is inquisitive – and, yes, suspicious. Soon, the detective discovers Boyer’s gaslighting of his wife, and she is rescued from the clutches of the very man who killed her aunt in his search for riches.
In our continuing American melodrama, sans film, where the bully pulpit of Theodore Roosevelt has morphed into that of a gaslighting bully, Donald Trump, who will emerge as the dogged detective that will save this country’s vulnerable 40 percent – indeed, all of us – from being consumed by that bullsh*t tornado?
His name may not be Brian Cameron or Joseph Cotten, but we desperately need and support another dogged detective as he contends with gaslighting. Robert Mueller is his name, and he’s also a damn good detective.
And so it goes.
Denis Smith is a retired school administrator and a former consultant in the Ohio Department of Education’s charter school office. He writes about education issues as well as politics and constitutional reform.
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