Peter Chow: Gaslight

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GASLIGHT

Donald Trump’s lies and fabrications don’t horrify America—they enthral Americans.

“Can you believe what Trump said today?!”

Trump’s formula, playing the aggrieved victim, demonizing the the media, the Democrats, liberals, immigrants and Blacks, scientists and intellectual elites, has been practically foolproof.

This political tactic started with Tricky Dick, Richard Nixon in the 1960s and 1970s, gained traction with Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and exploded under Trump.

If you think Trump is driving you crazy, it’s because he is.  

The tactic of getting people to question their direct experience and what they know to be true, is a type of psychological manipulation scientists call “Gaslighting.”

A person who is gaslighting an individual or group that they have chosen to target does so by getting them to doubt their own memory, perception, and reality.

Through persistent lying, misdirection, and contradiction, the gaslighter attempts to delegitimize the victim’s beliefs by confusing and destabilizing them.

The term “Gaslighting,” which is a well-established psychological phenomenon, comes from a 1938 Ingrid Bergman/Charles Boyer/Joseph Cotten movie called Gas Light, about an abusive husband who tries to convince his wife she is insane by changing small elements of their environment and insisting she is having memory lapses or delusions when she notices them.

But, the Gaslighting of America began even before Nixon.

BIG TOBACCO

By the 1950s, Big Tobacco industry scientists had privately accepted the causal relationship between smoking and lung cancer.

In 1950 alone, 5 separate epidemiological studies were published, all confirming the growing suspicion, that smokers of cigarettes were far more likely to contract lung cancer than non-smokers.

By 1954, the results were unequivocal:  smokers of 35 or more cigarettes per day increased their odds of dying from lung cancer by a factor of 40X.

 

The industry fought back against what they themselves knew to be factual medical science with furious denial, trotting out doctors who were willing to sell their souls in a Faustian bargain.

In 1960, in a poll organised by the American Cancer Society, only a third of all U.S. doctors agreed that cigarette smoking should be considered “a major cause of lung cancer.”

This same poll revealed that 43% of all American doctors were still smoking cigarettes on a regular basis, with occasional users accounting for another 15%.

With over half of all doctors smoking, it should come as no surprise that most Americans remained unconvinced of the life-threatening harms from the habit.

Cigarette makers spent countless sums to deny and distract from the cigarette–cancer link, in some instances actually quantifying the impact of their denialist propaganda.

In 1973, for example, the Tobacco Institute hired AHF Market Research Co. to measure the impact of its 1972 propaganda film, “Smoking and Health: The Need to Know”, shown to millions throughout the country, including high school students.

Prior to screening, viewers were asked a series of questions about whether the Surgeon General “could be wrong about the dangers of smoking.”

The same questions were then asked after the screening.

The Tobacco Institute was happy to report that the film had reduced by 27.8% the number of people agreeing that “Cigarette smoking causes lung cancer” (from 74.9% to 47.1%).

The film had also produced “significant shifts” in attitudes favourable to the industry, such as whether recent reports had “overemphasized the dangers of smoking.”

Forty years later, the majority of the industry were still publicly in denial – with one exception – the US manufacturer Liggett, who broke ranks in 1997, much to the dismay of the other tobacco majors.

The dam broke.

The medical science had been settled long before this moment.

On November 23, 1998, the tobacco industry agreed to a 46-state Settlement Agreement, the largest settlement in history, totalling nearly $206 billion to be paid through the year 2025.

On August 17, 2006, federal judge Gladys Kessler found the major tobacco companies—including Philip Morris and RJ Reynolds—guilty on civil racketeering charges (i.e., organized criminal activity).

On that day, she issued a final judgment and 1,683-page opinion  that found the companies had been covering up the health risks associated with smoking and marketing their products to children for decades.

Some of the most troubling facts the judge found in her ruling against these tobacco companies:

1) The tobacco companies “concealed and suppressed research data and other evidence since the 1950s that nicotine is lethal and addictive.”

2) Starting in the 1950s and lasting at least through 2006, different tobacco companies “at different times and using different methods, have intentionally marketed to young people under the age of twenty-one in order to recruit ‘replacement smokers’ to ensure the economic future of the tobacco industry.”

3) The tobacco companies “have publicly denied what they internally acknowledged  –  that secondhand smoke is hazardous to nonsmokers.”

The judge concluded:

“This case is about the tobacco industry that survives, and profits, from selling a highly addictive product which causes diseases that lead to a staggering number of deaths per year, an immeasurable amount of human suffering and economic loss, and a profound burden on our national health care system.

The tobacco companies have known these facts for at least 50 years or more.

Despite that knowledge, they have consistently, repeatedly and with enormous skill and sophistication, denied these facts to the public, the Government, and to the public health community.”

BIG OIL

 

Since at least the early 1970s, Exxon, along with other companies in Big Oil, was researching how fossil fuels would cause global warming and the catastrophes of climate disruption.

Exxon created and funded a colossal climate denial operation to protect its profits instead of doing something to prevent the biggest existential crisis of our generation.

In the 1970s, oil companies like Exxon and Shell carried out internal assessments of the carbon dioxide released by fossil fuels, and forecast the planetary consequences of these emissions.

In 1982, Exxon predicted that by about 2060, CO2 levels would reach around 560 parts per million – double the preindustrial level – and that this would push the planet’s average temperatures up by about 2°C over then-current levels.

Before the Industrial Revolution started in the mid-1700s, the global average amount of carbon dioxide was about 280 ppm.

The CO2 concentration for 2021 is 419 ppm

Later, in 1988, an internal report by Shell projected similar effects but also found that CO2 could double even earlier, by 2030.

 

Privately, these companies did not dispute the links between their products, global warming, and ecological calamity.

On the contrary, their research confirmed the connections.

Shell’s assessment foresaw a one-meter sea-level rise, and noted that warming could also fuel disintegration of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, resulting in an eventual worldwide rise in sea level of “five to six meters,” that would be enough to inundate entire low-lying countries.

Shell’s analysts also warned of the “disappearance of specific ecosystems or habitat destruction,” predicted an increase in “runoff, destructive floods, and inundation of low-lying farmland,” and said that “new sources of freshwater would be required” to compensate for changes in precipitation.

Global changes in air temperature would also “drastically change the way people live and work.”

All told, Shell concluded, “the changes will be the greatest in recorded history.”

For its part, Exxon warned of “potentially catastrophic events that must be considered.”

Like Shell’s experts, Exxon’s scientists predicted devastating sea-level rise, and warned that the American Midwest and other parts of the world could become desert-like.

Looking on the bright side, the company expressed its confidence that “this problem is not as significant to mankind as a nuclear holocaust or world famine.”

Thank goodness.

In the 1990s, the fossil fuel industry launched a campaign to seed doubt about the causes and effects of climate change.

 

Again, the industry paraded their selected scientists willing to deny Science and reassure the public that climate change due to the burning of fossil fuels is a hoax.

Exxon knew about climate change for decades, yet fuelled a colossal denial machine to block any meaningful action to confront it.

ExxonMobil continues to fund climate-denying organizations to this day, in an ironic contradiction to its recent public recognition of the problem.

Imagine where we would be if we had spent the last 40 years working to avert climate change and adapt to its impacts, instead of fighting for the recognition of basic climate science.

If the public had known in 1970 or 1980 what Exxon knew, the world would be a very different place.

503 fossil fuel lobbyists attended COP26, more delegates than any delegation from any one country, representing 100 fossil fuel companies and 30 oil and gas trade associations.

The likes of Shell and BP were inside these talks despite openly admitting to upping their production of fossil fuels.

It’s like having arms dealers present at a disarmament conference

The World Health Organization didn’t get serious about banning tobacco until all the lobbyists for Big Tobacco were banned from WHO meetings.

It should be the same treatment for Big Oil.

Over the last two decades, five major US oil companies have spent a total of at least $3.6 billion on advertisements – not counting their investments in public relations programs like sponsored beach clean-ups, or their influence through trade associations, dark money groups and campaign donations.

Advertising spending has increased as politicians have paid more attention to climate change an campaign comes as progressive candidates bidding for the White House, such as the US senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, propose to ban fracking – a drilling method that has unlocked huge supplies of natural gas and driven down the cost of the fuel.

Exxon has fought back, saying it is the victim of “a coordinated campaign perpetuated by activist groups with the aim of stigmatizing ExxonMobil”.

Exxon touts itself instead as an answer to the climate crisis.

The top advertisement on Exxon’s YouTube page touts research on making biofuels from algae in order to cut climate pollution, but the technique is prohibitively expensive, PR fairytale, and the research represents a microscopic portion of Exxon’s budget.

An Exxon spokesman said Exxon is “committed to doing our part”.

Right.

Algae.

“The world faces a dual challenge: meeting growing demand for energy while also reducing environmental impacts, including the risks of climate change.”

Exxon maintains that “all forms of energy are needed”, including natural gas and renewables, although scientists have concluded humans will have to stop using fossil fuels entirely to stem the crisis.

Pressed to commit to any significant goal to curb emissions, a spokesperson for the oil trade group the American Petroleum Institute (API) said the API could back some bipartisan legislation to incentivize technology that would capture carbon dioxide so that it cannot enter the atmosphere…so the World can keep burning fossil fuels.

It’s hard to counter their message effectively because they have a $600 billion annual subsidy that they’re defending, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Canadian fossil fuel producers receive more government financial support than any other country in the G-20, according to a new analysis.

And compared to subsidies for oil, gas and coal, renewable energy gets less government help in Canada than in any other G20 country, say the latest figures from Oil Change International.

Canada topped the subsidies list, providing close to $18 billion in subsidies and other forms of financial support on the fossil fuel industry last year — $2,000 from each man, woman and child in Canada, despite the federal Liberals’ stated desire to move the country to a post-carbon economy.

Japan, Korea and China came in close behind.

At the same time, the report finds Canadian renewable energy received about $1 billion in public financial support – far less than in other countries.

On average, the report finds G20 countries provided about 2.5 times more support for fossil fuels than renewables.

In Canada, the ratio is 18 to 1.

The idea that some other entity, particularly some struggling charitable organization, is going to be able to go toe-to-toe in spending and outspend them is not really feasible.

Despite Big Oil companies’ massive spending, they have continued to lose public support.

Elected officials just haven’t followed the shift.

Big Oil will continue to obstruct meaningful climate action in a desperate attempt to squeeze every last dollar out of every last drop of oil.

If you take climate change seriously, then you have to think about what your path is to getting serious climate action.

And the path to serious climate action requires disabling the fossil fuel industry’s obstruction apparatus that has been the thing that has prevented that from happening.

BIG PHARMA

The Opioid Crisis was fuelled in large part by the introduction in 1995 of OxyContin, an extended-release formulation of Oxycodone manufactured by Purdue Pharma.

Pharmaceutical companies, like tobacco companies, are in the business of making a profit.

Ergo, they’ve gotta sell their pills far and wide.

Big Pharma decided their best route was to really hype the need to treat any pain, not just pain in terminal cancer patients, aggressively, and to market OxyContin and prescription Opioids as meaningfully, intrinsically less addictive or threatening than their black-market counterparts like Heroin.

Pharmaceutical companies heavily pushed the use of Opioids as a humane treatment option, using paid physician “consultants” to expound on the safety and benefits of Opioid use.

Not prescribing opioids for a patient with pain risked being labeled as inhumane, often even to the extent of litigation for the under-treatment of pain.

Pharmaceutical companies began releasing slow-release formulations of a number of the drugs in the 1990s and early 2000s, which doctors began embracing for the treatment of chronic pain, among them the Fentanyl patch, Hydromorphone, MS Contin and OxyContin.

On its release in 1995 by Purdue Pharma, OxyContin was hailed as a medical breakthrough, a long-lasting Opioid that could help patients suffering from moderate to severe pain with no fear of dependence or addiction.

 

The drug became a blockbuster, and generated some US$35 billion in revenue for Purdue.

Purdue Pharma aggressively marketed its product to practising physicians and medical school students as a highly effective painkiller “without unacceptable side-effects” – including addiction.

From 1997 to 2002, OxyContin prescriptions increased from 670,000 to 6.2 million per year in the U.S.A.

Overall Opioid consumption continued to climb throughout the 2000s in the USA, rising from 46,946 kg consumed in the year 2000 to a peak of 165,525 kg in 2012.

Prescription numbers soared – in Canada, the U.S. and elsewhere – as did growing reports of addictions and overdose deaths.

 

 

In the six-year span of 1996 – 2002, Purdue Pharma fronted the funds for no less than 30,000 “pain-related educational programs” targeting physicians.

 

The company also gave money to the “American Pain Society, the American Academy of Pain Medicine, the Federation of State Medical Boards, the Joint Commission, pain patient groups, and other organizations.”

Purdue Pharma’s messaging, was, “Hey heartless docs: Give those poor suffering folks some OxyContin already.”

Very unshocking then was the subsequent “Pain Is the 5th Vital Sign” campaign, launched by the Purdue Pharma-backed American Pain Society.

The Veterans Affairs (VA) took up their mantra, and other hospitals soon followed.

It was all reminiscent of Big Tobacco’s “science” claims in the mid-60s.

Spokespeople for Big Pharma coined their own term for physicians’ resistance to prescribing hardcore drugs like OxyContin:  “opiophobia.”

Their argument to reluctant doctors concerned about addiction banked on convincing such doctors that they’d just been confused.

“Addiction” was something different than “physical dependence.”

Hence the ongoing Opioid Crisis.

Then in 2007, the truth about OxyContin was revealed when Purdue and three of its top executives settled U.S. criminal and civil charges for the company’s deceptive promotion of the medication.

Purdue was accused of intentionally downplaying the risk of addiction posed by OxyContin and misleading both physicians and the healthcare industry as a whole by overstating the benefits and minimising the harm of Opioids for chronic pain.

Purdue agreed to pay a total of $634.5 million to resolve Justice Department investigations, as well as a $19.5 million settlement to 26 states  –  small change when OxyContin sales totaled more than $2.4 billion in 2007 alone.

Purdue Pharma, which is owned by the Sackler family, made billions selling the prescription painkiller OxyContin that is widely seen as a catalyst to the crisis that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.

It filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2019 and proposed a settlement in the U.S. worth up to $12 billion US.

NEOLIBERAL ECONOMICS

One of the biggest lies foisted on the American (and Canadian) people is that as rich people get richer, we all benefit — the so-called Trickle-Down Theory.

 

For decades, working families have been told not to worry about the growing wealth gap between the nation’s haves and have-nots.

“A rising tide lifts all boats,” we’ve been told with encouraging smiles and pats on the back.

The magnitude of the wealth gap has grown obscene and the magnitude of the deception is monstrous.

This lie has been embodied in many different guises – Milton Friedman’s Neoliberalism, Supply-Side Economics, Reaganomics and Thatcherism.

There is no empirical evidence — none whatsoever — that Trickle-Down Economics delivers as promised, bringing more jobs, higher pay and better conditions to millions of people.

The reality is that as the rich get richer, the rich get richer, full stop.

They buy back stock options, more mansions, islands, yachts, professional sports teams and stuff.

That has a positive impact on Louis Vuitton and Tiffany and other makers of luxury goods.

But it’s not in any way the shared prosperity implicit in the trickle-down pledge.

Much of the blame for the trickle-down lie goes to conservative economist Arthur Laffer, godfather of “Supply-Side” Economics, a.k.a. “Reaganomics.”

He argued, using an easy-to-understand graph — the Laffer curve — that as tax rates go down, businesses prosper more and government tax revenue goes up.

This, of course, is Magical Thinking.

Yet it has served as the intellectual basis of virtually all conservative economic policies since the 1970s, and was the primary justification for Trump’s tax cuts for wealthy corporations and individuals.

Trump has always insisted his tax cuts, and the miracle of trickle-down prosperity, will keep the economy humming.

The beneficiaries, the ultra-rich and corporatioms Laffed all the way to the bank.

Will Rogers, in 1941, on the trickle-down of money:

“The money was all appropriated for the top in the hopes that it would trickle down to the poor and needy.

President Hoover didn’t realize that Money Trickles Up.

Give it to the people at the bottom and the people at the top will have it before night, anyhow.

But it will at least have passed through the poor fellow’s hands.”

TRUMP

The tactic of getting people to question their direct experience and what they know to be true, is a type of psychological manipulation scientists call “Gaslighting.”

A person who is gaslighting an individual or group that they have chosen to target does so by getting them to doubt their own memory, perception, and reality.

Through persistent lying, misdirection, and contradiction, the gaslighter attempts to delegitimize the victim’s beliefs by confusing and destabilizing them.

The term “Gaslighting,” which is a well-established psychological phenomenon, comes from a 1938 Ingrid Bergman movie called Gas Light, about an abusive husband that tries to convince his wife she is insane by changing small elements of their environment and insisting she is having memory lapses or delusions when she notices them.

While this scheme was particularly vile, it is hardly as nefarious as a state leader attempting to do the same to a whole country.

Throughout history, those in power have often sought to mislead and deceive people, but political gaslighting only meaningfully emerged in a modern, psychological sense under the authoritarian states of the 1930s and 40s, morbidly satirised by George Orwell in 1984.

Orwell’s protagonist Winston Smith works at the ‘Ministry of Truth”, rewriting and deleting historical documents to fit the ever-changing party line.

 

With Donald Trump, where some people see lies, his fierce followers see something different:

A commitment to winning at all costs.

There is nothing he could say that would erode their support at long as it’s in the name of taking down his political enemies.

 

They love him because he fears and hates the same people they do –  libtard snowflakes, Blacks, Jews, immigrants, intellectuals, LGBTQ, and the elites of society, business and science.

His opponents continue to act as if his fake narratives and conspiracy theories will bring him down, when in fact, they are the ruses that raised him up.

In 2018, during a speech given to veterans at a Missouri convention, Donald Trump had a clear message for supporters that drew many comparisons to George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 about a totalitarian regime that wields ultimate power over its people through psychological manipulation: “Just remember – what you are seeing and what you are reading is not what’s happening.”

Or this from Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s attorney: “Truth isn’t truth.”

Or, “Alternative facts” – a phrase used by Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway during a Meet the Press interview on January 22, 2017, in which she defended White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s false statement about the attendance numbers of Donald Trump’s inauguration as President of the United States.

When pressed during the interview with Chuck Todd to explain why Spicer would “utter a provable falsehood”, Conway stated that Spicer was giving “alternative facts”.

Todd responded, “Look, alternative facts are not facts.  They’re falsehoods.”

Conway’s use of the phrase “alternative facts” for demonstrable falsehoods was described as Orwellian, particularly in reference to the term doublethink.

Within four days of the interview, sales of George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four had increased 95-fold, which The New York Times and others attributed to Conway’s use of the phrase, making it the number-one bestseller on Amazon.com.

Conway later defended her choice of words, defining “alternative facts” as “additional facts and alternative information.”

In 2018, Trump claimed that a video of him siding with Putin over his own national intelligence, was somehow not what it appeared to be, due to “fudging my tape on Russia,” suggesting that the video was somehow doctored using advanced technology to “make the president look bad.”

This was despite the fact that NBC had put out a full transcript of the interview accompanied by a full video of it uninterrupted.

Trump uses gaslighting to make American voters doubt their memory of his past actions and positions, refute basic facts and distrust reliable sources of information.

The ultimate aim is to give himself a monopoly on truth.

In the 2020 election campaign he spread conspiracies of mail-in voter fraud and the “Deep State” claiming Democrat presidential nominee Joe Biden is secretly controlled by “people that are in the dark shadows” and  describing a mysterious plane “completely loaded with thugs wearing… dark uniforms”.

He has also accused leading Democrats of forging Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dying wishes for her Supreme Court replacement to be chosen after the November election, suggesting Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, or Adam “shifty” Schiff are responsible.

At a campaign rally, Trump told supporters that Covid-19 affects “virtually nobody”, just as its US death toll passed 500,000, and August’s Republican National Convention saw him lead a charm offensive aimed at African American voters, trying to uphold his claim that he has done more for the Black community than any President since Lincoln.

Trump consistently conflates Democratic Socialism with Communism.

During Charlottesville, he conflated NeoNazis and White Supremacists with counter-protesters and he conflated Black Lives Matter riots against police shooting Black people with the January 6 armed insurrection on the Capitol.

This is a classic gaslighting technique — telling victims that others are crazy and lying, and that the gaslighter is the only source for “true” information.

It makes victims question their reality, becoming even more dependent on the gaslighter for “truth.”

Gaslighting is not normal behaviour from anyone, let alone the President of the United States.

But Trump’s behaviour is so continually outrageous that it has been normalized — and mainstream Republicans who fail to call him out for fear of retribution are complicit in constructing this alternate reality.

FactCheck.org documented 20,000 falsehoods made by Trump in the 4 years of his presidency, 13 lies a day.

People become too tired to fact-check each and every lie and fight back.

Trump’s gaslighting clearly worked, and he knows it.

Trump knows that it’s his word against the “fake news media.”

If his followers did become cognizant of gaslighting as a political tactic, he’d likely just flip the script by telling them that it is the journalists, pundits, and intellectuals who are trying to gaslight them.

While this might sound absurd to some, the confusion generated by Trump himself and the far-right media ecosystem like Fox News, the Sinclair Broadcast Group, Breitbart, Newsmax, OAN and The Epoch Times can shake others’ confidence, sowing seeds of doubt that can set them down the path of questioning their entire reality.

Trump’s gaslighting is also helped by the surreal, uncertain conditions of America today, sufficient to make anyone feel insane.

The once inconceivable fact of Trump having been president, the spectre of Trump returning in 2024, wildfires, heat domes and megadrought and Biblical floods on the West Coast, a global pandemic and armed White Supremacist militias strutting with AR-15s in the streets contribute to a dizzying sense of Surreal Dystopia, a glitched simulation.

In sorting out how to frame their basic reality, onlookers face wildly incompatible views of America, as an oligarchic, White Supremacist police state, corrupt and unequal, or the best, freest, greatest country in history.

Surreal enough to induce vertigo in the best of us.

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