In the 1944 film Gaslight, a man systematically tries to convince his wife she’s not seeing what she’s clearly seeing — whether it’s pictures disappearing from walls, or jewelry disappearing from a handbag, or the gas lights in their home dimming for no apparent reason. He piles one audacious lie onto another, until she begins to doubt her own perceptions of reality.
Thus the modern term “gaslighting”: the art of convincing people to accept assertions that should, on their face, be unacceptable. It is, among other things, the underpinning of Donald Trump’s entire presidency.
Tens of millions of Americans are utterly convinced that illegal voters caused Trump to lose the popular vote in 2016. And that he deserves credit for a rising economy that’s on the same trajectory as it was well before his election. And that Robert Mueller’s Russia report exonerated Trump of wrongdoing. These are all objectively false assertions that have become gospel for Trump’s supporters — with the help of relentless gaslighting by Trump and minions like Attorney General William Barr and Fox News.
Gaslighting is much of the reason that Trump is unlikely to be removed from office via impeachment, despite an open-and-shut case that he leveraged military aid to try to force Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden. It’s an offense that makes Watergate look like the “third-rate burglary” Richard Nixon’s supporters initially claimed it to be.
For all the debate, the core allegation against Trump is pretty much undebatable, based on the White House’s own account of a conversation between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Every time Trump howls “No quid pro quo!” he’s asking us to believe that when a U.S. president responds to a foreign leader’s plea for aid with, “I would like you to do us a favor, though,” that isn’t what it so obviously is.
Trump Country is looking right at this uncontroverted evidence of a clear-cut “high crime,” and shrugging. So the Republican-held Senate will almost certainly shrug as well, and decline to convict if Trump is impeached.
But that’s not even the most disturbing issue on the table.
One insider who is in a position to know warns in an upcoming book that even if Trump is removed from office, he will likely refuse to leave. In fact, predicts the writer, even losing the 2020 election might not be enough to make him willingly go.
In the upcoming book, “A Warning,” the anonymous insider, a senior administration official, says Trump is preparing to respond to either his removal via impeachment or a 2020 reelection loss by crying “Coup!” and calling for resistance.
“He will not exit quietly — or easily,” writes the author. “It is why at many turns he suggests ‘coups’ are afoot and a ‘civil war’ is in the offing. He is already seeding the narrative for his followers — a narrative that could end tragically.”
There are two issues to be considered here: One, would Trump be inclined to do this? And, two, could he get away with it?
To anyone who hesitates about the first question: Have you been in a coma for the past three years? Of course he would be inclined to do it. More on that in a moment.
As for the second question — could he get away with it? We tend to assume no president would dare attempt to overstay his welcome, but if one did, well, then … something would happen.
There are three branches of government, but only the executive has a military. If Trump loses reelection and responds by tweet-bellowing, “Rigged!” — a scenario that’s believable verging on inevitable — what is the mechanism to force him to relinquish office?
If congressional Republicans and Trump’s base were to make it clear that he’d lost all credibility even with them, that might do it. A president who no one is following is effectively no longer president.
But that outcome assumes there is, somewhere, a line that Trumpist Republicans won’t cross.
Is there? Consider the lines they’ve crossed already.
This is a president who fired an FBI director for the stated purpose of thwarting an investigation into Russian election meddling; who has instructed his staff to ignore congressional subpoenas; who has promised to pardon underlings who break the law on his behalf; who has personally undermined the legitimacy of U.S. elections by claiming any outcome he doesn’t like is “rigged.” Other examples abound of Trump’s deep and dangerous disdain for the norms of democracy.
And yet Republicans in Congress and across America have responded to these unacceptable outrages with such deafening silence that the GOP should change its mascot from an elephant to a cricket.
Given all that, would it really be so surprising for them to come out after a Trump loss in 2020 and say: “Hmm, y’know, maybe it is rigged!”
Dimming lights? What dimming lights?