The GOP is Gaslighting America — on National Television

Today's GOP leaders aren't playing politics as usual. They're using abusive tactics to manipulate the public.

Donald and Melania Trump appear onstage at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
Donald and Melania Trump appear onstage at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

I am going to start this piece with a statement of fact, about which I entirely refuse to entertain debate: The speech that Melania Trump gave at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Monday night was plagiarized from Michelle Obama’s historic 2008 address to the Democratic National Convention.

I am a professional writer. I have taught college students. I know plagiarism when I see it, and that’s what this is. Trump, or her speech writer, lifted whole phrases and sentences — in order — from the woman (notably, and we’ll get to this, the black woman) who would go on to become the First Lady. Any student of mine would have flunked that assignment, and very likely been disciplined for violating the University of Texas’ code of conduct.

The Trump campaign’s response has been to deny the plagiarism outright and, importantly, to question the ability of people who know the speech was plagiarized to understand, explain and identify reality. Here’s Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, talking to CNN:

Manafort denied allegations that Melania Trump plagiarized a Michelle Obama speech on the first night of the Republican National Convention, calling the accusation “just really absurd.”

“To think that she would do something like that knowing how scrutinized her speech was going to be last night is just really absurd,” Manafort told CNN’s Chris Cuomo on “New Day.”

There’s a word for what Manafort’s doing there: gaslighting, as MTV News’ Jamil Smith pointed out on Twitter Tuesday morning. Gaslighting is a psychological tactic used by abusers, particularly but not only domestic abusers, to confuse, shame and manipulate others into believing that they cannot accurately interpret reality. Trump spokesperson Katrina Pierson echoed Manafort later on Tuesday, flat-out denying that the speech was plagiarized. She too used the word “absurd.”

“Absurd” is no accident. It’s a short couple steps from “crazy,” and in the realm of “unreal,” “preposterous” and “bizarre.” The Trump campaign is using that word to call anyone who sees the blatant plagiarism in Melania Trump’s speech, basically, a nutzo-whackjob.

If you’ve been in an abusive relationship, you know this pattern. Thinking, day after day: Today will be the day I prove that I am not crazy, that I can do things right, that the way I see things is real.

Look at the way this played out on CNN. The Trump campaign simply refuses to engage with plain truth, forcing the media, Trump’s critics and anyone else who knows plagiarism when they see it to engage in an infuriating and impossible battle to win an argument over something about which they are already correct.

In a brilliant, moving and difficult personal essay for Vox, Emily Crockett unpacks this dynamic by examining the way Donald Trump behaved, earlier this year, toward Fox anchor Megyn Kelly, accusing her of overreacting to misogynist attacks and refusing to take responsibility for his appalling behavior toward her, and, going further, denying it ever occurred in the first place. Even in the face of audio and video clips, tweets and documented interviews. Crockett writes:

It’s the same damn story, over and over again. They are actually pretty boring, these abusers, considering all the drama and heartache they cause. I hear others recall the same boring, horrible script, the same boring, horrible tactics.

There’s the gaslighting, when they scrupulously deny they did anything wrong and avoid taking responsibility until they make you question your grip on reality: I never said that. I never did that. It’s your fault. I’m the victim here.

Trump followed this script more than once in his interview with Kelly. “I’ve been responding to what they did to me,” he said when asked about his bullying tactics.

It’s clear that gaslighting is Trump’s preferred method of engagement with anyone who sees through his shocking statements and behavior; I would encourage everyone to read Crockett’s thorough account of Trump’s abusive behavior.

But it’s not just Trump, the bully and the abuser and the liar. It’s his party more generally. It’s not one bad apple spoiling the bushel; the orchard is rotten. Yes, of course, Trump and the GOP are telling the kinds of lies that would make a kindergartener blush, but they’re not only telling lies: They’re engaging with the country they claim to love, and the public writ large, by using many of the hallmark tactics of a domestic abuser.

New York City's former mayor Rudy Giuliani at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
New York City’s former mayor Rudy Giuliani at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

Over the last couple of days, we’ve seen a parade of RNC speakers and representatives engage in intimidation, denial of responsibility, revisionism and dismissal of harm. Hillary Clinton’s been blamed for orchestrating an elaborate media conspiracy around Melania Trump’s plagiarized speech. (I didn’t do it, but if I did, it’s not my fault!) Tuesday night, Rudy Giuliani spent 16 minutes hollering about ISIS, outright misquoting Clinton and blaming her for the “defamation” of Donald Trump. (Don’t you sass me, woman!)

Professional talking person Dinesh D’Souza (I don’t know how else to describe him) took an opportunity at the RNC to call Hillary Clinton “a chronic, almost pathological liar.” Certainly all politicians lie. Hell, all people lie. But the extent to which Trump himself is known to engage in prevarication at every level shows D’Souza’s claim to be just another abuser tactic: Accuse someone else of engaging in precisely the hurtful, cruel or reprehensible behavior committed by the abuser, creating an alternate reality in which the victim must prove a negative. (How dare you accuse me of cheating? I saw the way you looked at that waiter!)

On a live broadcast from the convention, Iowa Republican Representative Steve King espoused the most fundamental tenet of any white supremacist movement: The idea that white people are the sole contributors to civilization and innovation (You’d be nothing without me!). That’s a two-fer; not only is it revisionist (the cradle of civilization is, after all, in Mesopotamia, and it surely wasn’t white people who came up with Arabic numerals), but it implicitly blames non-white victims of oppression or discrimination as deserving of lesser treatment due to their inherent inferior status. (You’re hopeless! You’ll never learn!)

And as all kinds of folks — among them comedian Hari Kondabolu — pointed out, it’s a very bad look to claim white people are to thank for civilization as we know it on the same night that an aspiring white First Lady plagiarized America’s first black First Lady. Stealing the intellectual property of others, and particularly the intellectual property of a woman of color, does real harm. Claiming that people of color are inferior to white folks does real harm. The Republican Party has issued no apology for either, and denied — either outright, or through implicit silence — both.

And then there’s this: Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick is the chairman of the Lone Star State’s delegation to the RNC, and as such has been tasked with falling in line behind the Trump-led establishment GOP. At the same time, Patrick has taken up, more than ever, claims that police in the United States are uniquely under attack from a supposedly terroristic Black Lives Matter movement. Patrick wants to “investigate” activists who he believes march around yelling about murdering cops (as far as I can tell, the evidence for this ever happening includes a Breitbart story about a woman who was joking around on Facebook, and later arrested for it). Patrick has also called on President Obama to publicly support police, echoing Donald Trump’s claims that the president’s loyalty toward law enforcement is in question.

I’d typically call that kind of posturing nothing short of laughable, had I not begun to look at this gaslighting behavior through fresh eyes.

Obama hasn’t taken Patrick’s bait; at a televised town hall last week, the president calmly and confidently reiterated that his support for police is undeniable and long-standing. Police are safer during the Obama administration than they have been since the Reagan years. In Texas, it is more dangerous than ever to be a civilian; fatal encounters with police are on the rise, disproportionately so for Texans of color, even though arrests are on the decline.

What is especially troubling about the undercurrent of the GOP’s rhetoric is that whatever the party does or says, it’s ostensibly done out of real love for and loyalty to America. Fittingly, the night Melania Trump tried desperately to convince the crowd of her husband’s genuine patriotism and love for the United States, the day’s RNC theme was “Make America safe again.” That’s particularly grim in light of the “loved to death” trope so often trotted out when we talk about cases of fatal domestic abuse. The kind of so-called “love” that Trump and the GOP that has convened behind him in Cleveland espouses is a dangerous type indeed for those of us aren’t white, aren’t men, and aren’t Christian.

There’s no singular “victim” here when it comes to the GOP’s increasingly abusive posture. But I don’t think there must be in order for the public, the media and even Republican voters who are miffed and outraged by their party’s devolution into Trumpism to change the way we think about, and engage with, GOP politics in the lead-up to November. What would we do if someone treated us, if someone talked to us, the way Trump and the GOP leadership has done this week? If we see these tactics and behaviors as reflective of patterns of emotional and mental manipulation, rather than an especially egregious version of the politics to which we’re otherwise resigned, does that change the way we can, or should, react?

I believe so — though I’m still thinking through what that means in practice, and will write more on this in the coming weeks. Here’s what I know for sure: It’s one thing to lie, to stretch the truth, to bend facts and research to a narrative that casts one’s party or politics in a positive light. It’s another to consistently and repeatedly deny reality in order to force others to engage solely on your terms, and to submit to your demands.

And when it’s done in the name of love — for a spouse, for a child, for a country — that looks to me a whole hell of a lot like abuse.

Andrea Grimes, a native Texan and avid twitterer, is the digital editor at the Observer.

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Published at 1:51 pm CST