Politics: Taking Voters Seriously

Is Donald Trump a liar? Many of his critics would answer with a zealous “yes.” But the great majority of Mr. Trump’s “lies,” if that’s what they are, are so obviously wrong and easily disprovable that very few people appear genuinely deceived by them. Compare his flagrant inventions—say, his claim that he “predicted Osama bin Laden ” in 2000—with Hillary Clinton’s claim that she “did not email any classified material to anyone.” Both statements are untrue, but one gets the feeling that Mr. Trump half-believed his own ridiculous claim, whereas Mrs. Clinton knew perfectly well she had emailed classified information. Who’s the bigger liar? Hard to say.

Despite the subtitle of her book, “Gaslighting America: Why We Love It When Trump Lies to Us” (Broadside, 269 pages, $26.99), Amanda Carpenter agrees that Mr. Trump “rarely tells an outright lie.” What he does, she argues, is “gaslight.” The term is taken from Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play “Gas Light” and the 1944 film based on it, in which a man manipulates his wife into believing she is insane. The goal of gaslighting, Ms. Carpenter writes, is to gain “control over people.” First, Mr. Trump makes an outrageous claim—for instance, his assertion that Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. Second, he backs off of the claim, insisting he is only “raising questions” or saying what “many others” have said. Then he promises evidence is forthcoming that will prove the matter once and for all and attacks the motives of those who reject his claims. Finally he declares victory, as when he insisted that it was his efforts that impelled Mr. Obama to release his birth certificate.

Donald Trump’s Inauguration in 2017.
Donald Trump’s Inauguration in 2017.

Donald Trump’s Inauguration in 2017. Photo: Getty Images

Ms. Carpenter knows what it’s like to be a victim of gaslighting. A Boston Herald columnist named Adriana Cohen, with whom Ms. Carpenter was discussing the 2016 campaign in a live CNN interview, once asked her if it was true that she had had an affair with Sen. Ted Cruz, for whom she had worked. For Ms. Carpenter to deny the allegation would have dignified it; to ignore it would have implied its truth. In the end she categorically denied it, but recalls the episode with evident horror.

Still, Ms. Carpenter pushes the gaslighting metaphor too hard. Was Mr. Trump really gaslighting when he forced everyone “to remember that Jeb Bush was a ‘Bush’ and would never be anyone else,” thus obliging his opponent to run “on his brother’s presidential record”? That’s called campaigning. She draws similarly tendentious comparisons between the current Russia probe and the Watergate investigation. Note, she tells us, that both Mr. Trump and Richard Nixon called the efforts to bring them down a “witch hunt.”

Mr. Trump may have gaslighted himself into the presidency, but the metaphor doesn’t quite capture his methods since. More often he…

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