In the 1944 film Gaslight Gregory Anton, played by Charles Boyer, tries to convince his wife, Paula, played by Ingrid Bergman, that she is going insane. His plan is to drive her mad, have her institutionalized, gain her power-of-attorney, and recover some valuable jewels, gifted by the royal family to Paula’s famous Aunt Alice, now dead.
The title of the film refers to Gregory’s manipulation to make the indoor gas lights dim and brighten, which Paula notices, but which Gregory claims is nothing but her imagination. Such tricks and deceits are how Gregory plans to convince Paula that she is mad.
Borrowed from the film, gaslighting today means using deceit to lead people to question their own sanity. The simplest way to see gaslighting operating in our politics is to watch Republican politicians and supporters of Donald Trump tell us not to believe what is right in front of us, not to believe what we see with our own eyes.
Many of our fellow citizens, perhaps as many as 74 million, have done just that. Despite all evidence to the contrary, despite the defeat or rejection of 61 of 62 court cases brought by Trump and his associates claiming election fraud, and despite the certification of the presidential election results in all 50 states, including certification by Republican governors and officials, Trump and his Republican enablers insist that the election was stolen from him. Eight Republican Senators and 139 Republican Representatives voted, even after the invasion of the Capitol on January 6th, to decertify the presidential election and the victory of Joe Biden. They did so on the basis of nothing but lies and gaseous rhetoric.
The evidence-free basis for their position is that the presidential election was rigged. Democrats cheated. Voting machines were tampered with. Votes for Trump were mislaid or destroyed. Fake ballots for Biden were added to his total. A lifelong winner like billionaire Trump cannot suddenly become a loser. Those who believe any or all of this have been gaslit.
This gaslighting continues. Fifty-eight percent of Republicans believe the attack on our Capitol on January 6th was instigated and carried out by Antifa. Don’t believe what you can clearly see in the videos of the insurrection: waving Trump banners, MAGA hats, bullhorn-shouting in support of Trump, Confederate flags flying, and t-shirts with Trump’s face front and back. That’s all a ruse by the clever Antifa mob. Ignore as well the growing evidence, through FBI arrests, of weeks of insurrection planning by leaders and insurrectionists from the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers…hardly staunch supporters of Antifa.
Republican gaslighting in the states dims our outlook on democratic elections and illuminates the lengths that Republicans will go to to gain and maintain power. On the basis of the “Big Lie” that the election was stolen from Trump and on the basis of big little lies of rampant voter fraud, Republicans across the country are trying to pass laws not only to suppress voting, but also to overturn elections.
In 23 states controlled by Republican legislators and governors, Republicans have rolled out what one observer called a “tidal wave of voter suppression.” They are pushing over 253 bills to limit mail-in voting, limit access to polling places, curtail early voting, impose strict ID requirements, restrict voter registration, and enact aggressive voter-roll purges. Not surprisingly, given Republicans’ past actions, such restrictions fall heavily on communities of color. The rationale is simple: Throw up roadblocks to voting, and turnout will go down. That favors Republican candidates.
Consider, for example, steps taken by the Republicans in the state of Georgia, now apoplectic after losing two Senate seats to Democrats:
On February 26th the Republicans on Georgia’s state Senate Ethics Committee voted to repeal automatic voter registration in the state. Five million of the state’s 7.6 million voters registered early. This vote joins two other shameless Republican moves: their vote to end early voting and their vote against any absentee voting. Oh, yes, and let’s not forget the Republican vote to restrict the number of ballot drop boxes.
Or consider Iowa. Iowans turned out in record numbers in November 2020 without any reports of voter fraud. Nevertheless, the Republicans in the state legislature voted to cut early voting by nine days, to close polls an hour earlier, to strip county auditors of their authority to decide how election rules best help voters, and to tighten the rules on absentee voting.
If there is declining confidence in our democratic institutions and elections, it is because of Republican gaslighting. As Iowa Republican State Senator Jim Carlin said: “Most of us in my caucus…believe the election was stolen.”
The top prize for gaslighting brazenness, however, must go to Arizona state Senator David Gowan. He recently withdrew his proposed Senate Concurrent Resolution 1006 when his gaslighting failed to convince many Arizona voters that their votes for president shouldn’t count. The Resolution declared that the Arizona Legislature would have the final say on which presidential candidate wins the state’s 11 electoral votes. Oh, Arizonans could still vote, but that vote doesn’t count if the Legislature rejects your choice. Simply put, for the Republican-controlled Legislature, no one could win the presidential election in Arizona but a Republican.
All such legislation comes in the name of election integrity and of stopping voter fraud. Again, no state in 2020 found any evidence of widespread voter fraud. Indeed, Republicans did well in winning local, state, and national contests — all contests, that is, but the “stolen” election of President Trump.
Nevertheless, gaslighting must continue. So, pay no attention to what election officials, both Republicans and Democrats, tell you; pay no attention to the county- and statewide audits and recounts of votes that show no election fraud. Believe, instead, what gaslighters Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, Paul Gosar and Andy Biggs, Sean Hannity and Rudy Giuliani tell you without a scintilla of evidence: Dead people voted; undocumented immigrants voted; Democrats pulled suitcases of votes from under desks; Democrats read ballots without Republican supervision; and poll workers dumped boxes of Trump ballots into rivers, gullies, wastebaskets, and the ocean.
Gaslighting now seems to be a permanent strategy within the Republican arsenal. The Dear Leader, Donald Trump, has never admitted error or acknowledged, let alone apologized for, a lie of any size. So no one should be surprised that at CPAC he said, “As you know, [the Democrats] just lost the White House. Who knows, I may even decide to beat them for a third time.”
We should expect, therefore, from Republican candidates a boulevard of gaslighting as we head into the 2022 and 2024 elections. Senator Lindsey Graham on Fox News on November 9th, 2020, told us precisely why: Without changes to mail-in voting, “a nightmare for us…we’re never going to win again presidentially.” Of course, the gaslighters think that Graham is wrong, since they claim that Trump won the White House in 2020.