Critics of President Donald Trump routinely accuse him of “gaslighting” — that is, of deliberately repeating misinformation to the extent that the public starts doubting verifiable facts and believing in Trump’s self-serving talking points.
On Sunday, a flurry of more than a dozen presidential tweets offered clear reminders of his tactics. In one glaring example, Trump reiterated a lie that his political opponents are responsible for the forcible separation of the children of undocumented migrants arriving at the American border — it was his own administration that chose to pursue these measures, which have sparked a growing backlash.
Trump tweeted “Democrats can fix their forced family breakup at the Border by working with Republicans on new legislation, for a change! This is why we need more Republicans elected in November. Democrats are good at only three things, High Taxes, High Crime and Obstruction. Sad!”
Margaret Sullivan, The Washington Post’s media columnist, spoke to cognitive linguist George Lakoff for a piece this weekend on how Trump’s rhetoric and war against the media constitute, in Lakoff’s words, a “sustained attack on democracy.” Lakoff urged the media to resist covering the American president at face value.
“Avoid retelling the lies. Avoid putting them in headlines, leads or tweets, he says. Because it is that very amplification that gives them power,” noted Sullivan. “That’s how propaganda works on the brain: through repetition, even when part of that repetition is fact-checking.”
Emboldened by a rise in the polls, Trump seems to be taking the same approach on the question of North Korea. Trump returned from his historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un last week boasting of triumph and success, declaring there to be “no longer a Nuclear Threat” from Pyongyang. This weekend, he insisted the “deal” reached with Kim was being “celebrated all over Asia” and hailed the advent of “peace in our world.”
Trump tweeted “Just landed — a long trip, but everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office. There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea. Meeting with Kim Jong Un was an interesting and very positive experience. North Korea has great potential for the future!”
Trump tweeted “The denuclearization deal with North Korea is being praised and celebrated all over Asia. They are so happy! Over here, in our country, some people would rather see this historic deal fail than give Trump a win, even if it does save potentially millions & millions of lives!”
Trump tweeted “Funny how the Fake News, in a coordinated effort with each other, likes to say I gave sooo much to North Korea because I ‘met.’ That’s because that’s all they have to disparage! We got so much for peace in the world, & more is being added in finals. Even got our hostages/remains”
There are certainly reasons to be optimistic about how things have calmed down since the period of real crisis late last year, when prominent Trump advisers and allies were talking up the prospect of military strikes on North Korea. But there’s no indication that North Korea is anywhere close to being shorn of its nuclear threat, surrendering its weapons or submitting itself to an effective regime of inspections and verification.
“There is not a single, credible nuclear-security expert who would agree that the bizarre Singapore summit and the vague communiqué it produced has eliminated the dozens of nuclear weapons, hundreds of missiles and the vast nuclear weapon complex North Korea has constructed over the past five decades,” wrote Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, a Washington-based organization focused on nonproliferation.
Many U.S. voters don’t share Trump’s post-Singapore certainty, either. A new Washington Post-ABC poll found that a majority of Americans think it’s “too early” to judge the merits of this new round of diplomacy. Much will hinge on the stamina of the Trump administration’s negotiators, who must extract the right concessions from North Korea and persuade its government to follow through on its thus-far-airy promises regarding “denuclearization.”
Few experts in the field are anticipating a major breakthrough. Others fear that Trump’s incessant need for self-congratulation may even play into North Korea’s hands. “Pyongyang may financially extort the United States or its allies for ‘aid’ in the form of money transfers, so that Trump can continue to claim credit for ‘solving’ North Korea,” wrote the Asia Society’s Isaac Stone Fish for The Post. “And if Trump stops paying, North Korea has many tools at its disposal to hurt Trump’s chances of reelection.”
Stone Fish suggests that Kim “could certainly test more missiles or nuclear weapons, belying Trump’s claim that there will be ‘no more rocket launches, nuclear testing, or research’ and making Trump seem weak on national security. Even more subtly, he could privately threaten to do those things near Election Day, as a reminder to keep the money flowing. Russia interfered in the 2016 election. 2020 could be North Korea’s year.”
Trump, meanwhile, is eyeing Russia for his next international photo op. He is bent, as my colleagues reported, on a bilateral meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin — largely against the wishes of his aides and advisers.
“From Trump’s point of view, he’s had one successful meeting with Kim Jong Un, and now he wants to do the same with Putin,” Angela Stent, a Russia expert who worked in the George W. Bush administration, said to The Post. “His advisers have been skeptical from the beginning.”
“Trump’s insistence on a summit stems from his view that together, the two men can resolve major geopolitical issues in the Middle East and Europe,” my colleagues reported. This seems wishful thinking, especially since Trump has now plunged transatlantic relations into crisis after championing Moscow’s cause at the G-7 summit in Quebec and unleashing a likely trade war on his nation’s closest allies.
There, too, he has indulged in a degree of gaslighting, harping about the unfairness of the prevailing economic system even as his allies confronted him with data proving his tweets wrong.
“Trump’s attack on the liberal world order is not just about the price America pays for it,” wrote Kori Schake of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “He seems bent on destroying the friendships and respect that bind America and its allies. If he succeeds, America will be seen as - and may even become - no different from Russia and China, and countries will have no reason to assist America’s efforts rather than theirs.”
But the president won’t heed such stark warnings. He even conceded that, should the current diplomatic track with North Korea fail, the gaslighting will probably continue.
“I may stand before you in six months and say, ‘Hey, I was wrong,’ ” Trump told reporters in Sinagpore, before changing his mind. “I don’t know that I’ll ever admit that, but I’ll find some kind of an excuse.”
Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor and correspondent at Time magazine, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.