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Trump’s Election-Date Tweet Is a Classic Gaslighting Move

He’s doing it again.
July 30, 2020
Trump’s Election-Date Tweet Is a Classic Gaslighting Move
MADISON, WI - APRIL 07: A National Guard member works on election day at a polling location on April 7, 2020 in Madison, Wisconsin. Residents in Wisconsin went to the polls a day after the U.S. Supreme Court voted against an extension of the absentee ballot deadline in the state. Because of the coronavirus, the number of polling places was drastically reduced. (Photo by Andy Manis/Getty Images)

No, President Trump is not going to be able to delay the presidential election. That doesn’t mean he’s not going to screw with it every other way he can, though.

Understand this: Trump has lost control of events. More than 150,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus. Washington’s biggest debate is over how many more trillions are needed to keep the economy on life support until a vaccine is available. All the polls show Trump losing badly to a man his campaign depicts as a senile puppet that the Antifa left is going to dress up and trot out on the campaign trail like it’s Weekend at Bernie’s.

Trump knows he can’t win by competing in this reality. So, he has to bluster, lie, and cheat his way into creating a reality of his own. That’s what gaslighting is. It’s what manipulators do to gain control over their targets to either make them succumb to the lie or go crazy trying to refute it.

I wrote about this in my 2018 book, Gaslighting America: Why We Love It When Trump Lies to Us, to explain how Trump keeps running the same game repeatedly. His birther campaign against President Obama is the textbook example, but he’s done it with all his businesses, his presidential campaign, and his presidency, too. Gaslighting is a way of life for Trump.

Make no mistake: Trump is gaslighting this election. Understanding how he does it is the only way we can survive it—so here’s a guide to how his gaslighting works and what to expect ahead. Not every instance of Trumpian gaslighting follows these five steps in this exact order, but in general, these are the five steps of his gaslighting m.o.:

1) Stake a claim: In this case, President Trump has decided to cast doubt on the 2020 election by alleging, without any evidence, that mail-in ballots that have increased in popularity because of the coronavirus are fraudulent, illegal, and will cost him the election.

2) Advance and deny: Trump does this when he alludes to, without any specifics, what “other people are saying” or his allies suggest he’s only “asking questions” about subjects no responsible person would push into the public discussion. He fulfilled this step when he “asked the question” sure to grab attention this morning: “Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???

3) Create suspense: You can bet that Trump will soon launch an “investigation”—whether through the Department of Justice, an allied media source, or some state’s friendly Republican secretary of state—regarding mail-in ballots to cast doubt on the process further. Doing so is designed to buy time for Trump also to sow chaos and trap his political enemies into making mistakes he can exploit. Typically, the said investigation’s findings never come, although Trump likes to promise they will be public in “two weeks.”

4) Discredit opponents: While everyone awaits the sham investigation’s findings, Trump will find some targets to zero in on and instigate fights. When it comes to the election, this could be as high-profile as the Democratic ticket, or as obscure as county elections board members.

5) Claim victory: No matter the outcome of the election, Trump will claim that it was “rigged,” as he did the 2016 election that he won. If Trump wins this time around, he’ll say he should have won by more significant margins. If he loses, he will blame the mail-in ballots he’s been railing against since last spring.

So what!” you say. “Everybody knows Trump does this. How can it be stopped?” First and foremost, snuffing out his little gaslighting flames as soon as they get a whiff of oxygen—in this case, starting with his tweet about delaying the election.

Anyone who knows something about anything regarding the presidential election knows that Trump cannot singlehandedly change the date. Article II of the Constitution empowers Congress to set the date. It has done so. Congress would have to pass a new law, and the president would have to sign it, in order to move the date of the election. Elected officials who pretend this isn’t so should immediately be placed under the medical supervision of Trump’s alien-DNA-medicine- and demon-sperm-fearing doctor.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a West Point and Harvard Law graduate, is ready for check-in. He testified to Congress today that, “In the end, the Department of Justice and others will make that legal determination.

Don’t comfort yourself either, by saying, well, at least this time, Mitt Romney wasn’t the only one in the Senate speaking out against Trump’s ill-advised actions. For anyone in government, this is like a question on a basic competency test where you get half the points for just filling out your name. Or, in Trump parlance, it’s the “person” in “Person. Woman. Man. Camera. TV.” It should be automatic; you flunk if it’s not.

And guess what. Lots of people flunked today.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell initially declined to comment before saying, as relayed from a reporter, the election is “set in stone.” John Cornyn said, “I think it’s a joke, I guess, I don’t know how else to interpret it.” Trump’s golfing buddy Lindsey Graham said, “I don’t think that’s a particularly good idea.” Kevin Cramer laughed that reporters were “taking the bait” and said that Trump’s tweet was “clever.”

It only takes a few flunkies to help President Trump drive his most absurd narratives. Think about Rick Perry playing footsie with Trump’s birtherism way back in 2011. Or Devin Nunes running interference for Trump during the Russia investigation. Or the fact the racist writers at Tucker Carlson’s TV show have basically worked as off-the-books as the brain room for the Trump campaign.

So, yay. Trump probably won’t try to unilaterally delay the election. But what about the real issue. The ballots?

It’s not a secret that Trump wants to put on the tinfoil hat on the GOP about mail-in ballots. He scream-tweets about related conspiracies on an almost daily basis. It got so bad that Twitter—yes, Twitter, that bastion of high-minded norms and values—finally had to slap him on the wrist about it. His legal team is already contesting Pennsylvania’s mail-in ballot system. Cue the Ron Paul gif: “It’s happening!

No one should avert their eyes and pretend that Trump’s gaslighting about vote-counting isn’t already happening or won’t work. Trump is spreading such lies and rumors about the 2020 election because he’s afraid of losing it. And if we let his lies control the election, he won’t lose. That’s how gaslighters win.

Amanda Carpenter

Amanda Carpenter is an author, a former communications director to Sen. Ted Cruz, and a former speechwriter to Sen. Jim DeMint. She was formerly a Bulwark political columnist.