Donald Trump has never been one to admit fault. For the decades he's been in the public eye, he has shown a crude talent for deflecting responsibility, whether through apparent amnesia or blatant lies. He also often ascribes his own shortcomings to other people, something we saw on display yet again last Friday when he spoke in Washington, D.C. After advertising both his new hotel and his patriotism for half an hour, Trump took just 27 seconds to make a “big announcement” regarding the racist fiction he's been spreading about President Obama's birthplace for five years running.
It wasn't enough for Trump to admit, simply and finally, that the president was born in the United States, however. He had to pass the blame for birtherism to someone else.
“Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy,” Trump said. “I finished it.” Neither of these statements are true. Clinton never questioned Obama's birthplace, and Trump was one of the most prominent figures to take birtherism from a racist fringe theory to a mainstream political conversation. Yet there he was on Friday, declaring the long-settled controversy was now over as if he'd completed some public service.
These fresh falsehoods were repeated as gospel on CBS's Face the Nation by both his campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, and Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus. New Jersey governor Chris Christie even told CNN that the nominee had stopped talking about birtherism after 2011. “It's not like he was talking about it on a regular basis,” he said.
This goes beyond taking the public for fools. It is gaslighting. Trump and company want us to buy their new narrative, and if we don't, well, we're clearly the ones who've had it wrong all along.
Gaslighting draws its name from the 1938 play Gas Light and its filmed adaptations, in which a man manipulates his wife to convince her that she is mentally ill. It isn't enough to get others to believe that his wife had lost her mind; she had to believe it herself. The abuser had to change who his wife actually believed she was.
I realize that there are people who use gaslighting in this very same sense, to confuse, mislead, and brainwash their abused or slighted partners. As such, I don't deploy the term lightly in reference to Trump. It's a useful tool for autocrats and abusers alike. Gaslighting aims to make others doubt what they see, hear, read, and otherwise perceive. Disagreement with the gaslighter is labeled as insanity, and thus dismissed.
This strategy has particular relevance to the Trump campaign, led by a candidate whose narcissism and pride never allow him to admit an error. This applies even when we all saw what happened — as with Melania Trump's plagiarized speech at the Republican National Convention, or former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski's assault on a female reporter that was caught on camera — or after he's been completely discredited by fact-checkers, as has been the case with birtherism.
Lying about Obama's birthplace isn't just a cornerstone of Trump's modern political identity; it is the whole building, and gaslighting is key to its maintenance. Trump's current base is largely made up of fans he won by donning the birther mantle — in May, two thirds of his polled supporters claimed Obama is Muslim. Trump's birther claims also fit with a steady tradition of undermining black citizenship that stretches back to slavery; throughout our nation's history, white men like Trump have felt empowered to determine which of us belong, and which do not.
Since Friday's speech, his camp has proceeded as if birtherism were all about admitting Obama was born in Hawaii, when Trump's actual obsession was about delegitimizing Obama's achievements as a student and author, and disqualifying him for the White House. (Lewandowski asked about Obama's college records on CNN just last month.) Trump has been saying this entire time, with perfect clarity, that Obama hasn't earned his station in life. Obviously, objectively, he's full of shit.
Trump might even admit as much, privately. Perhaps that is partly why he's spinning this new narrative now, fewer than two months before the election. Even he has to recognize his birther crusade has produced its share of embarrassments and bolstered the image of him as a racist. All his slander of Obama since may be costing him support from independents and conservatives who don't want to go to the polls in November and admit they're voting for a white nationalist.
Trump's revisionist birther story is giving the rest of the nation a taste of what many of us already know all too well. Marginalized populations are already well acquainted with gaslighting and attempts to convince us that we're crying wolf when we sound off about systemic bigotry, that in fact, the real problem is us, those who talk about it. We're the true racists, the true sexists, the true dividers. Oh, and Hillary Clinton is the real bigot. “Believe me.”
Meanwhile, Trump spreads lies with hardly any consequences. Just think how big a lie has to be for a political neophyte to base his presidential campaign on its principles and come this close to victory.
Yes, Trump finally said the words “President Barack Obama was born in the United States of America, period” on Friday. But he offered no explanation for the last five years. Perhaps, starting next week, debate moderators will press him on the issue. Even then, it's doubtful he'll ever give a substantive apology, nor admit he was wrong to push this racist falsehood. I mean, imagine him giving up this lie now, after all this time. That would be crazy, right?