In a Biden campaign video released last week, Michelle Obama makes the case against Trump. The video is standard-fare campaign content, detailing the abundant failures of our current president. But seven minutes in, the former first lady says a word that didn’t always fit so comfortably in the mouths of political commentators: “[Donald Trump] continues to gaslight the American people by acting like this pandemic is not a real threat.” Why “gaslight”? Why not “deceive,” or “mislead,” or simply “lie”?
“Gaslighting” originates in clinical psychology. It describes a form of emotional and cognitive manipulation where one person makes another lose confidence in their perception of reality. It usually occurs between people in an intimate relationship, often one in which there is a power imbalance—between husband and wife, parent and child, coach and athlete.
But the term has crept into discussions of politics. In 1995, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd was one of the first to use it to describe Democrats’ treatment of Newt Gingrich. The real explosion came in 2016, when publications from Teen Vogue to CNN to NBC News started sounding the alarm about Trump’s gaslighting of the American public. Most of these thinkpieces stop sounding revelatory as soon as you replace the word “gaslight” with the word “lie,” which is usually what they really mean. And yet, journalists, pundits, commentators, and now Michelle Obama have all chosen this specific word, one that connotes a betrayal, a wound inflicted with the intent to personally harm.
Perhaps they mean to emphasize the difference between Trump and his predecessors. All politicians lie, but only Trump gaslights. Yet the word is hardly accurate. If gaslighting means deceiving someone without them realizing they are being deceived, then Trump is uniquely unconcerned with the prospect of his lies being found out. If it simply means manipulating the facts to impact the perceptions of others, then every campaigner, every PR statement, every advertiser is equally guilty.
The gaslighting diagnosis, then, reveals something about the assumptions of its purveyors.
Much ink has been spilled on Trump’s status as a “reality TV president,” and yet little has been done to sever the strange, parasocial attachment between him and his detractors that seems to have grown out of his days as a reality star. Criticisms of Trump—even of his political decisions—often take aim at his physical and moral ugliness as an individual. His presidency has been accompanied by a steady stream of “insider accounts” that pathologize his racism, sexism, greediness, childishness, entitlement, and various other character flaws. The result is a view of Trump not as the frontman of a sprawling political machine or as a festering boil on the body of a rapidly decaying system of government, but as some blend of abusive father and bad boyfriend. In fact, plenty of publications have indulged in this exact metaphor. I won’t list them all, but “Donald Trump is America's abusive father” is my personal favorite.
Parasocial relationships are good business, and Trump—for all his stupidity—knows this, first and foremost from his own experience as a performer. Some academics posit that his reality TV character, and the personal attachments that people developed to it, helped him win the 2016 election. Four years later, the simultaneous disgust and obsession with his persona have all but cemented the likelihood of its reappearance in future Republican candidates.
In a way, it’s hard to blame people for their fixation on Trump’s version of celebrity, if only because it rejects typical political heroism for a more modern, and enticing approach. The process of turning political figures into objects of mass consumption usually involves their flattening into glossy, airbrushed, almost inhuman pictures. Their character flaws are forgotten, their sins brushed under the rug of their greatness. But in an age when intimacy is defined as much by digital access as it is by physical contact, the opposite happens: flat images grow into human forms, precisely because of their imperfections. People love YouTube influencers and reality television contestants not because they are heroes or role models, but because their quirks, outbursts, and complaints feel authentic enough to be coming from a FaceTime call with a close friend.
Reactions to Trump—even hateful ones—are sourced from the same artificial, one-sided familiarity. As if his various perversions are a personal letdown, rather than a sign of a decaying political order.
Unlike the presidents before him, Trump is far from a wax figure or a perfectly composed, smiling face on a poster. He’s as real as it gets, from his blasé admissions of racism and misogyny to his erratic, stream-of-consciousness tweets. It’s easy to imagine that he, personally, is psychologically torturing you for exactly the same reason that it’s hard to picture a PR team managing his social media accounts.
The irony of course, is that Trump’s personal realness is as fake as his persona on The Apprentice. And after he’s gone, this projection of rabid authenticity will pass on to his successors, thriving and multiplying and intoxicating us all again and again and again.
Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb, and then he invented product placement. It was his film company that produced the first films shown commercially in the U.S. at the turn of the twentieth century, and most of them heavily featured Edison’s business entanglements: passenger rail lines, cigarette brands, and his own inventions. As Jay Newell and Susan Chang write in their history of product placement, such sophisticated advertising is not a modern phenomenon but rather endemic to U.S. film; in the case of Edison, indistinguishable from it.
These days, Edison is beloved among overwrought marketing professionals. “Did you know,” exclaims one breathless article from a “target marketing” zine, “he had extraordinary skills as a brand manager?” In addition to those first, grainy advertisements, the article lauds his “marketing” campaign against AC voltage which, ultimately, led to the use of electrocution as the death penalty (“you have to admire his understanding of brand attributes!”) and notes that he even paid his son to change his own name upon selling it to a company (“how’s that for protecting your brand integrity?”).
Some fifty years after Edison had perfected his own brand, Ronald Reagan, at that point a past-his-prime movie star, became an ambassador for General Electric. Reagan hosted the company’s bluntly-titled CBS program “The General Electric Television Theater,” touring viewers through the wonderland of his “total electric” house, which was bursting with circuits and waffle irons. The moment marked a new chapter for consumer capitalism, writes media historian Tim Raphael, as Reagan became, in effect, “the ambassador of mechanical reproduction.” His celebrity, and subsequent political capital, arose from a new kind of “mutual fandom” with his audience, a more intimate, more modern sort of branding.
Two years after Reagan assumed the GE throne, in 1956, Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl coined the term “parasocial” to describe the one-sided affection viewers held for television personalities. What they were describing, really, was an advertising strategy: a tool wielded at the time by corporate TV, and one that is still an obsession of marketing researchers. One particularly discomfiting study from 2016 concludes that parasocial interaction is an “important driver” of compulsive buying — which is, of course, the ultimate goal.
If our politics is bizarrely personalized, it emerges from a swollen corporate media environment, which, from its inception, has prioritized consumption. As Reagan wrote, touring the nation with GE, “I had an awesome, shivering feeling that America was making a personal appearance for me.”
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