Day Two: The Gaslighting Part is Over Now

Today I ran across an Atlantic from last November, with the tease on the cover: “Don’t Vote for Trump, by The Editors.” It makes interesting reading, a hundred-odd days in.

The Atlantic likes to think of itself as nonpartisan. Since the right thinks it’s on the left and the left thinks the reverse, maybe they’re succeeding. Hillary Clinton was only the third candidate they’d ever endorsed. The first was Lincoln, and then they waited over a hundred years before endorsing Johnson in 1964 — and not because of the strengths of Johnson, but the manifest, dangerous weaknesses of Barry Goldwater, whose judgment and steadiness was questionable, and who was willing to let states be as racist as they wanted. One of the magazine’s objections was that “We think it unfortunate that Barry Goldwater takes criticism as a personal affront.”

The third endorsement was for Clinton, with much the same motivation as for Johnson’s, only exponentially more. Their criticism of Trump was thorough and scathing. Not one word was minced. They wrote, in closing: “Trump is not a man of ideas. He is a demagogue, a xenophobe, a sexist, a know-nothing, and a liar. He is spectacularly unfit for office, and voters…should act in defense of American democracy and elect his opponent.”

To my grandchildren, if you’re reading this: they were right. The utterly remarkable thing is that this isn’t hyperbole. The other remarkable thing is that now, in May of 2017, we read those words with — well, not with equanimity, definitely not that, but with no frisson of surprise or transgression. Who writes things like that, in a respectable mainstream publication? Who merely nods at them? Nowadays, lots of people.

Of course, as we all know, those words, even as stark as they were, didn’t work.

The difference between now and last November is that then, we didn’t fully believe those words. Oh, we did 99%. Maybe 99.99%. But not 100%, not completely, with no reservations. We just couldn’t. We — well-educated readers of The Atlantic, mostly liberal, despite the magazine’s nonpartisan aspirations — knew The Atlantic was telling the truth; and yet. We suffered from a sort of pathological optimism. Millions of us were stunned into actual depression when Trump was elected — and then, when he began to act exactly as he’d given every indication he was going to act, to do the things he’d said he would do, we still couldn’t believe it.

It turns out it’s a kind of discipline to make yourself believe it. It goes against every modern civilized instinct: the training to be reasonable, to try to see all sides, to not overreact, to not get emotional, to be a grownup, to not be a rabble-rouser. Normally, seeing the way Trump twists and distorts the office of president, and speaks in a way that isn’t even lying but is instead its own category of performative nontruth, would be admitting to hallucinations. Accepting words like those of The Atlantic’s would be participating in hysteria.

The challenge that is straining everyone’s brains and all our systems and norms is that accepting an extreme assessment like The Atlantic’s is actually responsible and reasonable, because it’s the truth. American politics has never included this kind of situation, and so some part of us assumes it can’t really be true. But it can and is.

Timothy Snyder, whom I quoted yesterday — here he is again:

One of the problems with American discourse is that we just assume everybody is a friendly democratic parliamentarian pluralist until proven otherwise…Americans do not want to think that there is an alternative to what we have. Therefore, as soon as you say “fascism” or whatever it might be, then the American response is to say “no” because we lack the categories that allow us to think outside of the box that we are no longer in.

The interesting thing is how that happens on both sides, and how it complicates an already almost impossible dialogue. Republicans can’t really process Trump either, and, of course, they are invested in not seeing him for what he is; thus, they call us “liberal snowflakes.”  Seeing the truth and calling it for what it is becomes weakness.

The most basic mental process gets turned upside down: instead of observing the world and then determining the truth, some are deciding on truth, and then seeing–constructing–a world that matches. (Which, as you’ll remember from school, is not the scientific method.)

Yes, reality these days sure is outlandish. But reality is funny. Reality sticks around even if you “don’t believe in it”–even if you’ve attempted to return yourself, mentally, to the Dark Ages. Reality has weight and mass. Eventually you have to admit to gravity.

There is the danger of boiled-frog syndrome, and I continue to worry about a sentiment I heard several times a few weeks ago in London: “Well, it turns out Trump’s not that bad, really, is he?” But a) that was from across the pond, and b) it’s only because he hasn’t started a war yet or declared martial law or shut down the newspapers or something beyond egregious. Because we still associate “bad” with “surprising,” and since we’re finally beyond surprise, how can anything be that bad?

Basically, people just really, really want things to be normal and not-scary.

But a remark like that — from a friendly cab driver as you toodle through London, trying to be a good, agreeable American, no less — is profoundly disorienting when you’ve just managed to convince yourself that even though things are uniformly bad, uniformity does not mean normalcy. You have to recalibrate yet again: Yes, this is very, very bad, extraordinarily bad. No, I’m not crazy. No, I’m not overreacting. This is not normal; it’s deeply abnormal in fact. And yet it is believable. There it is. It is real.

That’s the mental feat we all have to perform, now.

There’s a reason why, after the election, suddenly everyone sane was looking up “gaslighting.” Over half of us were saying, are we really seeing what we think we’re seeing? And under half of us were answering, no, you’re not. The minority was telling the majority we were seeing things, and because the things we were seeing were so crazy we almost believed them.

You feel profoundly unreasonable, even silly, describing what you see: the President of the United States with the emotional development of a toddler, inviting criminals and tyrants to the White House, inventing lies with every sentence. And yet there it is, in front of all of us.

A hundred days in, I hope we’ve passed the rubicon. To change something you first have to believe it exists.