The presidential election cycle, with all its relentless focus on personality and the tactics of persuasion that bombard us up to November, is fascinating. At least to me, it’s fascinating, and every four years I watch both conventions and every debate. This election cycle, after graduating in 2010 with my Masters degree in psychology, I feel I am seeing more than what the candidates are presenting. I’d like to share what I’m seeing with anyone who will listen.
We are all being gaslighted by Mitt Romney.
What is gaslighting?
The term derives from the 1938 stage play turned movie, “Gas Light” in which a newlywed woman is driven slowly insane by her husband in order to gain her inheritance. The husband manipulates elements of their environment, and insists the wife is mistaken or misremembering when she points out these changes. The title refers to the husband’s subtle dimming of the house’s gas lights, which she accurately notices and which the husband insists she’s imagining.
Gaslighting can happen in any relationship, marital, work, sibling, etc. In this case, we’re talking about the relationship between Mitt Romney and the American electorate.
Gaslighters leave you feeling drained, confused, and second-guessing yourself. Something is out of whack, but you can’t put your finger on what. Proficient gaslighters work their way up to full alterations of reality. Gaslighters can be relentless when they invest fully in a certain “reality,” and it’s worse when they are a powerful person, emotionally engaged with you, or have authority over you.
Typical of gaslighters are the following ideas, if not outright assertions, they make:
“Only my ideas are valid.”
“I’m not what they say I am.”
“Your efforts are never enough.”
Governor Romney successfully used all these assertions in implicit or explicit terms on Wednesday night in the debate against President Obama. The difficulty it seemed President Obama was having in debating Romney has nothing to do with Romney’s grasp of policy, facts, or brilliant ideas. Romney is difficult to debate because he does not stand behind anything he has ever said previous to what he is saying in the present moment. Etch-a-sketch candidate, indeed.
President Obama’s well-considered, logical explanations of policy, issues, and his point of view seemed to take a beating at times. Not because he was doing a bad job communicating – but because Romney simply bypassed directly engaging with any point of fact and refused to own any position he has previously espoused. Romney’s condescending tone of voice, emotionally outraged undercurrent, and assertions that he is being misunderstood at best and lied about at worst, are typical gaslighter tactics.
So what to do? How do you engage someone on who they are and what they stand for, when they simply bypass, overlook, ignore, and condescend their way around anything that puts them in a bad light or calls them into question? What do you do when anything said to point out their inconsistent behavior or words, is ignored or twisted, and turned back on you? A few starter suggestions are as follows:
1) Keep it short. Real short. Gaslighters are masters of confusion. The more nuanced and multi-faceted your logic and reasoning, the more opportunities there are for a gaslighter to create confusion.
2) Slow down. Don’t be so eager to get your own point across. Instead, take apart what the gaslighter just said. Granted, this is tough in the moment – especially when you only have two minutes to respond as millions of people watch.
3) Form over content. Verifiable, honest-to-goodness facts and arithmetic will not make a dent in a gaslighter’s argument. Your content is rendered mute by the gaslighter’s form and emotion. Your form, your style, your emotion is the only antidote to the confusion created by the gaslighter. Basically, you have to co-opt his game – without losing your temper.
President Obama did have one moment of calling Romney on who he is, one moment in which his emotion and frustration was allowed to come out and resonated as true. This one point, it seems to me, that President Obama made successfully had nothing to do with issues and logic and everything to do with character. I’m paraphrasing here, but basically, President Obama said that Governor Romney does not have the backbone to stand up for anything and say “NO” or “YES” on principle. I think President Obama is correct.
We saw this in the primary, when Romney was weaving all over the road, searching for what would get him past the convention and into the general election. Ironically, Romney’s success in Massachusetts can be attributed to this same tendency to careen all over the road and, finally, fall in with the majority – hence the accomplishments, not so much of Romney, but of the Democratic Legislature during Romney’s term as governor.
It was difficult, watching the first 2012 Presidential debate and realizing Governor Romney was successfully gaslighting President Obama – and therefore all of us. Let’s hope President Obama’s cadre of coaches and advisers can recognize a gaslighter when they see one.
For more information and coping tools, check out The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life – by Dr. Robin Stern