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Trump is a walking configuration of smoke and mirrors in a time of pandemic. A gaslighter. The pandemic is driven by a virus with a high infection rate and a fatality rate of about 1.4% to almost 4%. The Trump gaslighting-pandemic juxtaposition will likely produce greater clouds of confusion for us to see through.

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At some level, one might hope that a transformation of character will happen as the severe exigencies of the pandemic elicit the need for honest and accurate information. Will we witness such a character transformation or will we see the blending of fact and fiction escalate?

To Gaslight Means

First, we should take a look at the meaning of gaslighting. To gaslight is to cause people to doubt their reality by psychological manipulation. The term stems from Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play, Gas Light, where a manipulative husband drove his wife to insanity by causing her to question what she experienced. The gaslighter skillfully uses some pretty sophisticated bullshit mechanisms. These may range from blatant lying and denial of things said—though evidence to the contrary is obvious. What the person says rarely matches what he or she does. A salient characteristic of gaslighting is the creation of an environment of confusion. Much like a spider creates a web to accomplish its goal—to trap something to eat, so the gaslighter creates confusion to accomplish his or her goal—to never be wrong.

The gaslighting style is unrelenting. Kind of a drip-drip-drip-pow-pow-pow quality to it. If you’re the recipient of the bullshit (gaslighting), you’re likely to be worn down over time. Confronting the gaslighter is like scooping up beads of mercury with your fingers. What’s the use? Right can be left. Down can be up. It’s your fault. You’re crazy. You’re just not examining the right facts—you know, the alternate ones. Best to just let the eyes gloss over and go out and piss in the wind.

And Narcissism

Symptoms of Trump's personality disorder include an excessive need for admiration, disregard for others’ feelings, an inability to handle any criticism, and a sense of entitlement.

Trump displays an array of narcissistic behaviors common in narcissistic personality disorder which are associated with good old gaslighting. Symptoms of this personality disorder include an excessive need for admiration, disregard for others’ feelings, an inability to handle any criticism, and a sense of entitlement. A crucial aspect of these symptoms as noted in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is that they show a pattern that is “inflexible and pervasive across a broad range of personal and social situations.” Of course, without proper assessment as psychiatric and psychological ethics proscribe, a true diagnosis can’t be clarified. (A number of verified mental health professionals with expertise in psychological assessment would love to provide such an assessment. I think some would even pay for the opportunity to conduct such an interesting evaluation.)

In a New York Times Letter to the Editor, Dr. Henry Friedman, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard felt strong enough about Trump’s behaviors to comment on the narcissism exhibited by Trump on the public stage. Friedman wrote that he’d often been asked whether Trump meets the definition of a narcissist, to which he has answered, half in jest— “No, rather he gives narcissism a bad name.” In more somber tones, Dr. Friedman went on to state: “…Trump’s grandiosity and paranoid retaliatory behaviors are so far beyond those shown by what in contrast could be called “ordinary narcissists” that he requires a category beyond narcissism. The proper category would be “destructive dictator,” because Mr. Trump, like Hitler and Stalin, has the personality of a grandiose-paranoid dictator who would destroy all he saw as his enemies while endangering the nation that he supposedly was advancing through his leadership.” Quite the severe analysis.

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A Transformation of Character

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But back to questions of interest. Will we witness a transformation of character in Trump as the pandemic spreads through our country? Will it be more difficult for a gaslighter to gaslight? Or phrased another way, Can one gaslight effectively when a virus stalks through the population, not giving a damn whether you’re Us or Them? It is as if the virus is harking for us to recognize that we’re all together, offering us the chance to reach into the depths of our better nature or on the other side, finding only darker shades of selfishness. Does Trump heed the harking?

A moment of almost poetic and sad irony occurred during a March 12 press conference with Trump surrounded by health professionals and CEO’s assembled to demonstrate a coordinated effort to battle the pandemic. A shard of truth was apparently evoked in an answer given by Trump to a question about responsibility for the slow response in testing.

Trump said, “I don’t take responsibility at all…” This shard of truth was followed by the “blame others” component of gaslighting when he pointed to an unspecified “set of circumstances” and “rules, regulations and specifications from a different time.” His allegations were false and made within the shadowy illuminations of an ever burning gaslight. (1. ’I don't take responsibility at all': Trump deflects blame for coronavirus testing fumble; 2. The Trump administration’s botched coronavirus response, explained From insufficient testing to a lack of coordination, Trump’s Covid-19 response has been a disaster years in the making; 3. Trump Falsely Tries to Tie Obama to C.D.C.’s ‘Inadequate’ Testing System.) To the ghost of President Truman, it appears the buck no longer stops at the President’s desk.

Even National Review editors have written critically of Trump’s response to the crisis—‘refusing briefings, downplaying the problem, and wasting precious time. He has failed to properly empower his subordinates and refused to trust the information they provided him—often offering up unsubstantiated claims and figures from cable television instead.’

Recently, to displace blame and shift attention from his many shortcomings in responding to the pandemic, he has resorted to labelling the coronavirus as the Chinese virus. This is a gaslight shuffle—blame and distract. The truth is still out there behind the clouds. It is that the Trump administration’s preparations and initial response to the coronavirus outbreak was painfully incompetent.

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The truth is palpable. Donald Trump is not likely to switch off his autopilot of gaslighting even in the ugly face of a pandemic. And the pandemic of disinformation within social media and certain cable television networks will still be extant after Trump is no longer in office, and after the coronavirus is contained.

The greater question will ultimately be—Can we find within ourselves the ongoing strength to challenge the lies and distortions?

Mack Green