The Assault on the American Mind: Gaslighting

Cover Image for The Assault on the American Mind: Gaslighting
Bryant Welch, JD, PhD
Bryant Welch, JD, PhD

“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.”

― Hannah Arendt

America is rapidly becoming a nation psychologically unable to confront its problems. From the White House, from the media, and from the pulpit, already traumatized Americans have been deceived by predatory political forces into fighting a disastrous war, squandering our national wealth, destroying our standing with other nations, and neglecting badly needed initiatives at home. It is a series of failures that will haunt America for generations to come. It did not end when George Bush left office as many had hoped, and it will not end when Donald Trump leaves office either. Instead, our mental deterioration is getting worse and will continue to do so until we take the time to understand it.

Politically, America has been gaslighted. Gaslighting is an insidious set of psychological manipulations that undermine the mental stability of its victims. These techniques have invaded our media, infiltrated our churches, and attacked our most basic free institutions. For millions of Americans, the techniques have altered the way they think, feel, and act. It has been nothing less than an assault on the American mind.

These manipulative and destructive techniques are now deeply embedded in our political system and they have had a progressively debilitating effect on the American mind. If they go unchecked, America will be less and less able to respond rationally to the very real crises facing us.

Why did Americans become so vulnerable to divisive political tactics? Why did America get dragged into such unwise wars in the Middle East? Why have fundamentalist religious groups, Fox News, and hate-filled right-wing radio played such influential roles in America’s political landscape? Why are long-accepted scientific ideas like evolution under siege? Why did we elect someone as primitive as Donald Trump to be our President? These questions and others puzzle people from all points on the American political spectrum and from all points around the world. What has happened to the American mind?

The term gaslighting comes from the 1944 movie Gaslight, starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman, in which a psychopathic husband, coveting his wife’s property, tries to drive his dependent young bride insane by covertly manipulating her environment, making her increasingly perplexed and uncertain. Among other things, he raises and lowers the gaslights in the house while denying to the wife that there has been any change in the lighting. While he feigns genuine concern for her, he cleverly isolates her from any contact with the rest of the world that might interfere with his propaganda-like assault on her sense of reality. He fires the trusted elderly maid and replaces her with a younger one whom he can seductively control and who is naturally competitive with his young wife.

With a combination of seduction, deception, isolation, and bullying, the husband so warps his wife’s reality sense that she gradually begins to accept his “reluctant” suggestion that she is losing her mind. She becomes almost totally dependent on her husband to tell her what is real and what is not real, in spite of periodic clues that he is lying. Just as she is on the brink of a complete nervous breakdown, she is rescued by a perceptive Scotland Yard detective who has become suspicious of the husband and uncovers his machinations. When the detective exposes the husband’s deceptions to the wife, she regains her mental stability and is able to forcefully confront her husband as he is taken off to jail.

In the mental health profession, gaslighting refers to a series of mind games that prey on our limited ability to tolerate much ambiguity or uncertainty about what is happening in important areas of our lives.1 It is a highly destructive form of psychological manipulation that undercuts trust in our sense of reality and results in confusion and perplexity. If the victims of gaslighting do not come up with a resolution for the perplexity, they will act in an increasingly primitive and irrational fashion. This is what has been done to large segments of America.

In the search for a resolution to their perplexity, people often become extremely vulnerable and dependent on someone else whom they regard as omniscient and to whom they look to “clarify” confusing events. This makes them vulnerable to manipulators and false prophets. In the early years of this media onslaught against the stability of the mind, many Americans succumbed to demagogues’ manipulations. Political operatives like Karl Rove, media sources like Fox News, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, and Rush Limbaugh, and religious leaders like Ted Haggard and Jerry Falwell all contributed to the assault on the American mind. But today the number of such mind-altering spokespersons has grown exponentially and the players are now no-longer exclusively on the political right. The purely emotional experience of listening to some political commentators on MSNBC and CNN, independent of the content of what they are providing, is not entirely dissimilar to that one has with Sean Hannity. The ongoing message is that one should feel contempt toward those who disagree with them. Division and partisanship are the objectives, but mind control is often the effect. And, of course, under Donald Trump, the entire traditional free press is under a withering attack, appealing to those minds who do not want to tolerate the struggle a discerning mind requires.

This makes it important we understand the nature of the gaslighting techniques themselves through our own understanding of the mind, not only so we can find the truth, but even more importantly so we can understand the impact of public communication on the workings of the mind. We will never be free from the control such people acquire until we understand how and why their techniques work whether they are articulated by Fox News or CNBC. To do that, we must understand the mind itself, how it works and how it is vulnerable.

Psychotherapy with patients provides a microscope for learning how the mind really works. It taught me that the mind functions very differently from the way we think it does. It does not follow rules of logic, for example, moving from A to B to C. Nor is it cognitively driven, with decisions based on the thoughts we may tell ourselves are the reasons for our actions. Instead, what we psychologists see with patients in psychotherapy is a mind made up of a series of loosely associated symbols, feeling states, fears, and wishes that are connected in highly idiosyncratic fashion. Our mind moves from one to the other according to each person’s own rules and oftentimes in a seemingly chaotic manner. At their core, most people are driven by very primitive feeling states—fear, sexual perplexity, and envy, for example—of which they are at best only dimly aware. These are the things that shape people’s view of reality and are driving America’s political behavior. They transcend logic and even financial self-interest.

These minds are like snowflakes. People walk about in far more different realities from one another than they realize. In marriage therapy and in politics, I have seen in exquisite detail two people who think they know one another talk right past each other, often with disastrous results. Whether it is between a married couple or two belligerent nations armed with nuclear weapons, no two parties can begin to understand each other without deep appreciation for the infinite variability of the human mind.

In group therapy, I have seen how psychological contagions can make groups behave in the most bizarre and irrational ways. H. G. Wells said, “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.” Anyone who has studied psychological group processes can appreciate this.

During my seventeen years in Washington, D.C., I lobbied and managed myriad psychologically related issues in the public arenas for organized psychology including the Clinton Administration’s ill-fated health care plan, homosexuality, and psychological trauma. As an attorney, I also fought against large HMO insurance companies in courtrooms around the country on behalf of mental health patients who had suffered the all-too-often-fatal effects of our current system of managed health care. And in more recent years I have fought against my former employer, the American Psychological Association, as it succumbed to complicity in human torture with the Bush Administration’s enhanced interrogation program.

When I moved to Washington, D. C., to enter the political world, I was initially struck by the contrasts between clinical work and political work. In the treatment setting, two people are working as hard as they can to achieve greater self-understanding. This requires tremendous candor and honesty. In the political world, in contrast, smoke and mirrors predominate and are often weapons of choice. In therapy, people are searching for their true motivations; in politics, they are often trying to obscure them.

But ultimately the experience that I brought from the therapeutic consulting room to the Washington political world was invaluable. I began to see that transcending that difference between the political world and the therapy world was the human mind, working the same in both the clinical setting and the political.

Psychological concepts such as resistance, symbols, and transference were extremely helpful in learning how to develop a political legislative campaign. Understanding and being able to read the nature and depth of certain emotional states, like envy and narcissism, helped avoid pitfalls that could invite political opposition from people whose support was badly needed. In a relatively short period, using this understanding for organized psychology, we were able to make substantial advances for mental health treatment through our legislative initiatives, legal battles, and public relations struggles. At first I had thought using these psychological tools was just the only way I, given my background, could make sense of political things. With time, I concluded it was the only way political things do make sense.

But there was another part of the psychological world in Washington for which I was not so prepared. There is a widely known and very old saying in Washington: “If you want a friend, get a dog.” That is an overstatement, but not as much as one might think. And the reason for that is because Washington is a beehive of deception where one can never be sure of what is real and what is not real. Who is sincere and who is just very good at pretending to be sincere? It can get very confusing. Of course, politics has always involved the art of deception. But today it is far worse. In Washington, gaslighting reigns. It is not enough to cynically know this about politics. Instead, we must understand the elaborate dynamics it sets in motion. And, ultimately, we must understand from inside the human mind itself how living in this kind of world distorts and disrupts effective psychological functioning. If we do not learn these things well, as a nation we will succumb to a fascist state without ever even knowing what hit us.

Excerpt from “Chapter 2, THE ASSAULT ON THE AMERICAN MIND: Gaslighting” in “State of Confusion, Revised” by Bryant Welch. Continue reading by purchasing the book today on Amazon.