In his first official performance as press secretary for a new president barely 24 hours after his inauguration, Sean Spicer delivered a performance that would have made Baghdad Bob look like Diogenes. Looking sour and petulant, Spicer lashed out at the media for supposedly making fraudulent underestimates of the crowds at President Trump’s inauguration compared to those of President Obama’s. He also took vehement issue with the attendance estimates for the Women’s March on Washington that was concluding as he spoke.
After delivering his angry jeremiad to the White House press corps, Spicer strode away from the lectern without taking questions. To find anything as surreal, one would have to go back to Nixon’s press secretary, Ron Ziegler, as Watergate unfolded — albeit Ziegler merely looked hapless at having to deliver balderdash with a straight face, rather than ready to bite off the heads of the reporters.
Given the marvels of aerial photography and cameras placed in tall buildings, estimates of crowds at a given venue, while never exact, are accurate in comparative terms. And since the overwhelming majority of attendees at special events on the Washington Mall arrives by Metro, the local transit authority has an exact count of the number of people who use the system on a given day. In view of those factors, Spicer might just as well have been arguing that two plus two equals five. Beyond that, the sheer pettiness of berating the press over a basically insignificant issue one day into a new administration, when presidencies traditionally seek – and generally find – at least a modicum of good will from the fourth estate, is mystifying. Why did he do it?
We have already seen Trump as president-elect engage in tweet storms over the relative viewership of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s turn as Celebrity Apprentice’s star compared to his own tenure in that position. This kind of pettiness is to be expected from him, although it is a bit disconcerting coming from a man who as of January 20 has his finger on the nuclear button.
Thus it may have been that Spicer, sleep-deprived and under pressure from the Trump Tower cabal over an issue that touched on Trump’s neurotic insecurity about his popularity, was metaphorically fitted with a vest full of dynamite and sent on a suicide mission. As a former Capitol Hill staffer with the acquired reflexes of what the German army called Kadavergehorsam (“corpse-like obedience”), Spicer would have dutifully complied and faced the tittering incredulity of the White House correspondents like a good soldier.
But there is a second explanation that could also be true without invalidating the first. The conservative-media entertainment complex, of which Trump is the culmination, has made an art form of concocting absurd, up-is-the-new-down propositions, repeating them with jackhammering relentlessness, magnifying them in the echo chamber of right-wing media, and finally reifying them into conventional wisdom among the conservative faithful. Large percentages of the Republican base regard lies about death panels or Obama’s citizenship as axiomatic truths. But with the dawn of the Trump dispensation, this technique may have mutated into something even more pernicious.
In the 1944 movie Gaslight, the villain, played by Charles Boyer, attempts to drive his wife (Ingrid Bergman) insane by manipulating small items in their home environment and insisting that she is mistaken, or even delusional, when she notices them and points them out. This kind of psychological coercion has become known as “gaslighting,” which Urban Dictionary defines as “a form of intimidation or psychological abuse . . . where false information is presented to the victim, making them doubt their own memory, perception and quite often, their sanity.”
Trump’s brazen, repeated, and unapologetic lying on the campaign trail has already caused journalists to complain that fact checkers cannot keep up with the stream of lies. They saw the danger that fact checking his statements would become futile because the falsehoods would have become so common that they would soon be normalized. Beyond that, each and every preposterous statement is an explicit fight that Trump picks with the media in order to further polarize his supporters and render their cognitive bubble even more hermetic. One can easily see Spicer’s foray into fantasy as a strategy by Trump counselor Steve Bannon to drive more clicks to Breitbart or Freerepublic.com and away from reality-based information.
Aside from reinforcing the Trump base, the next four years of non-stop gaslighting could erode the basic standards of discourse in a healthy civil society. The truly horrible thing about propaganda in authoritarian regimes is not that it convinces the true believers, but that it demoralizes opponents by saying in effect: “Yes, we know that you know we are lying, but we don’t care! We do it because we can and you can’t stop us!” As for the majority of apolitical citizens, it infects them with a corrosive cynicism and dissuades them from all forms of public engagement. Apathy may be a more powerful silencer of dissent than overt physical coercion.
Are the products of the Columbia School of Journalism up to the task of countering the coming blitzkrieg of gaslighting? Given their training, instincts, and penchant for false equivalence (“The earth: round or flat? We’ll examine the controversy after the break!”), one has doubts. Nor are the Democrats, out of altitude, airspeed, and ideas, very well placed to hold the Trump administration accountable.
It may be up to the public at large, the people who did not drink the Kool-Aid, to self-organize into their own band of fact checkers. If they cannot hold the administration accountable, they can at least hold the press to account and keep the Democrats’ feet to the fire. Beyond that, reality will intrude, as it has a habit of doing.
George Orwell said that “sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.” On the atolls of the South China Sea, the snow-bound steppe of eastern Ukraine, or the desert wastes of the Middle East, reality may very well emerge in the form of forces immune to the confabulations of the Trump propaganda mill.