The word of the month is “gaslighting.” It’s a piece of Internet slang that pays homage to the 1944 George Cukor movie Gaslight. In the film, Charles Boyer portrays the murderer Gregory Anton, who tricks his newlywed bride, played by Ingrid Bergman, into thinking that she is slowly going insane. Accordingly, “gaslighting” means withholding information from—or presenting falsehoods to—another person in such a way that the victim begins to question reality itself. “Have you gone mad, my husband?” asks Bergman. “Or is it I who am mad?”
Americans must be asking that question a lot lately. For most people, gaslighting is a form of abuse. For the Biden administration, it’s a way of life. Since the spring of 2021, the president and his spokesmen have made statements so at odds with experience that they beggar belief.
The “seasonal” illegal immigration across the southern border is now in its second year. The “temporary” inflation is ongoing. The “extraordinary success” of America’s retreat from Afghanistan left 13 servicemen dead, 39 million Afghans ruled by the Taliban, U.S. residents stranded in hostile territory, and al-Qaeda living large in Kabul. If that is “success,” what does failure look like?
The gaslight shone brightly from the White House this summer. The reason was the economy. On July 13, the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that inflation had reached a four-decade high. On July 27, the Federal Reserve hiked interest rates for the second straight quarter. On July 28, the Bureau of Economic Analysis announced that the U.S. economy had shrunk for two quarters in a row—a piece of data that is widely understood to mark the onset of a recession.
Not if you listen to the Gregory Antons in the West Wing. Think the economy is bad? My poor dear, you must be crazy. Pointing to jobs and investment growth, Biden said, “That doesn’t sound like a recession to me.” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen told Meet the Press, “This is not an economy that’s in recession.” The White House published a blog post asking, “How Do Economists Determine Whether the Economy Is in a Recession?” It offered a long, technical, and confusing answer. My takeaway: Economists determine the economy is in a recession only when Republicans are in power.
Some of Biden’s aides avoided the “r” word altogether. The National Economic Council’s Brian Deese said, “We’re certainly in a transition.” To what, exactly? According to White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, “what we’re seeing is a transition into stable and steady growth.” Sounds great. The problem is that Jean-Pierre is a little fuzzy on how long the “transition” will take.
“I don’t think any of us are trying to convince anyone that their feelings about the economy are wrong,” adviser Jared Bernstein told Politico. “What we’re trying to do is explain things in a much more nuanced way than most people are getting from the daily news flow.” In other words, Americans struggling to keep up with inflation are irrational. They are prisoners of emotion. They don’t know what they are talking about.
The White House, Bernstein suggests, is objective, calm, nuanced, and on top of the game. At least, that’s what it wants you to believe. Bernstein, for one, is not afraid to embrace his “feelings about the economy.” In 2021, he told the press that fellow Democrat Larry Summers was “just wrong” to say Biden was “dismissive of inflationary risks.” Summers turned out to be right, of course.
Back in the summer of 2019, when Donald Trump was president, Bernstein wrote in Foreign Affairs: “One percent growth isn’t a recession, which is typically defined as two consecutive quarters of declining growth.” Not very “nuanced” of him to say so, was it?
The objects of a gaslighting effort must be isolated, cut off from al-ternative sources of information. Partisan, cocooned, and credulous when stories fit a prefabricated, ideological narrative, the Beltway press is the perfect dupe. It fell hard for Biden’s gaslighting on the economy. “The United States is not in a recession,” wrote the New York Times’ business correspondent on July 26. “Probably.” Columnist Paul Krugman, who recently admitted he was wrong about inflation, told CNN, “None of the criteria that real experts use say we’re in a recession right now, and what does it matter?”
Then he shrugged.
“By one common definition—the economy shrinking for consecutive quarters—the U.S. economy is on the cusp of a recession,” tweeted the Associated Press. “Yet that definition isn’t the one that counts.” Well, then.
“Typically if GDP falls for the second quarter in a row, that could signal a looming recession,” said Nancy Cordes of CBS. “But the Biden administration has been insisting that that is not the case this time around, that the economy is simply recalibrating after a post-pandemic boom.” Recalibrating—like a precision instrument. Just the metaphor that comes to mind when thinking of Joe Biden.
The media may be vulnerable to White House gaslighting, but the public is immune. Biden’s numbers began to fall in the summer of 2021 and have never looked back. The June CNN poll, for example, showed that 64 percent of Americans believe that the economy is in a recession. On July 29, the Gallup organization announced that Biden’s job approval was at a low of 38 percent. Gallup also found that Biden’s average job approval during his sixth quarter in office—April 2022 through July 2022—was 40 percent. That is the lowest sixth-quarter approval rating for a president elected to his first term in the history of the Gallup poll.
The “Misery Index” combines the unemployment and inflation rates. In late July, Bloomberg Economics compiled the latest figures and projected their influence on the midterms. “Based on past voting patterns,” wrote Andrew Husby, Gregory Korte, Steven T. Dennis, and Eric Fan, “President Joe Biden’s party can expect to lose 30 or 40 seats in the House and a few in the Senate too, easily wiping out razor-thin majorities.”
In early August, a CNBC/SurveyMonkey online poll of small-business owners found that a majority believe that the recession has begun. Biden’s job approval among this group was 31 percent. The Economist/YouGov poll from the first week of August reached a similar conclusion: Sixty-one percent of Americans said the United States is currently in a recession. Majorities of black (53 percent) and Hispanic (54 percent) respondents agreed.
Word games don’t matter. Economic and social conditions do. Gaslighting may work on Ingrid Bergman and CNN. It doesn’t work on the public at large. No amount of spin will convince the electorate that inflation, supply shortages, the border, public safety, monkeypox, Ukraine, and Taiwan are all going swimmingly. Only reality will do that. For Biden—or any Democrat—to win another term, he needs reality to change. Quickly.
Photo: Gage Skidmore
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