Although the term has been around for decades, it’s likely that you’ve heard the word “gaslighting” most recently in connection with President Donald Trump. In an article about Trump’s suggestions that the Access Hollywood tape — in which he memorably said he grabs women by “the pussy” — might be fake, Vanity Fair asked whether Trump is gaslighting himself. So what does gaslighting mean? And why has the term become synonymous with Trump?
The dictionary defines gaslighting as the act of driving “someone insane by making them doubt their perceptions or memories.”
As Frida Ghitis wrote for CNN in her own article about Trump’s gaslighting, the origins of the word come from the 1938 Patrick Hamitlon play Gaslight, which was then adapted into two movies — a lesser-known British version from 1940 and a Hollywood remake from 1944 starring Ingrid Bergman.
The verb gaslighting directly references the events of the play and movies, as Vox outlines in its article on how the 1944 movie mirrors current events. Bergman’s character, Paula, questions her sanity after she marries Gregory (Charles Boyer). Paintings in the home go missing and, even though she has no recollection of doing so, Gregory tells Paula that she is the one who has been moving them. Claiming she’s unfit to be out in public, he alienates her from others, and at night, she continues to go mad as she hears footsteps in the attic and (here’s where the term comes from) she sees the gaslights in their home flickering.
George tells her she is imagining all of this, but in reality, George is causing the disturbances in the home and has been intentionally driving her crazy all along. It’s not until an inspector from the Scotland Yard comes into the home and tells Paula that he also sees the gaslights flickering that she regains her sanity.
While we’d need to use lightbulbs in a modern remake of the film Gaslight, the term referencing manipulating someone to the point of insanity has been around for nearly 80 years.
Gaslighting is also still a popular narrative technique: It’s at the heart of the HBO show Westworld, and the CW show Jane the Virgin just used it as a plot device. There are also plenty of examples of people gaslighting others outside of entertainment and the current political landscape — especially in relationships or cases of sexual assault.
So even if Trump has admitted the Access Hollywood tape is real, the blatant lies he has told throughout his political career are unsettling, especially for a president. As Trump continues to flicker the lights on what’s true and not true, don’t expect this popular term to go anywhere anytime soon.