“Gaslight” was a 1938 British play, set in the 1880s, about a man who manipulates his wife into believing she is going insane to suppress her suspicions about crimes he is committing.
Two years later, it became a British movie and in 1944 an American version, starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman, was released. Two decades after that, “gaslighting” become the popular, and even scientific, term for attempts to manipulate others into believing something that isn’t true.
Contemporary politics seethe with such manipulative trickery and President Donald Trump may deserve the title of Gaslighter in Chief for constantly attempting – clumsily at best – to create an alternative reality to justify his positions.
When journalists point out Trump’s falsehoods, he typically reacts by denouncing them as “fake media” and even “enemies of the people,” and comes very close to inciting violence against reporters covering his public appearances.
That brings us to the newly minted governor of California, Democrat Gavin Newsom.
During his State of the State address to the Legislature this month, Newsom accurately excoriated Trump for creating a “manufactured crisis” on the U.S.-Mexico border to justify construction of a wall or something to deter undocumented immigrants. He declared that “California will not be a part of this political theater.”
Newsom Seemingly Disowned the Statewide Bullet Train System
Just a few paragraphs later, however, Newsom seemingly disowned the statewide bullet train system that his two predecessors, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jerry Brown, had championed.
Newsom praised their “ambitious vision,” but added, “Let’s be real. The project as currently planned would cost too much and take too long. There’s been too little oversight and not enough transparency. Right now, there simply isn’t a path to get from Sacramento to San Diego, let alone from San Francisco to L.A.”
Newsom went on to say he intended to complete the current section of high-speed track now being constructed in the San Joaquin Valley and even stretch it a little further to Merced and Bakersfield while continuing environmental studies on other portions.
Given those words, the natural conclusion in the media, including this column, was that Newsom was severely downgrading the project that seemed to have serious existential issues.
Those reports prompted Trump to crow, via Twitter: “California has been forced to cancel the massive bullet train project after having spent and wasted many billions of dollars. They owe the Federal Government three and a half billion dollars. We want that money back now. Whole project is a ‘green’ disaster!”
Newsom Earned a New Nickname: ‘Gov. Gaslight’
Trump’s depiction may be – surprisingly – accurate. But his jab and, apparently, some backlash from project advocates enticed Newsom to then descend into gaslighting of his own, blaming the media for suggesting that he was virtually abandoning a statewide bullet train system.
“I just think people in the media should pause before they run headlines and actually consider the facts and maybe even ask the person that’s stating things before they run with things,” Newsom told the Los Angeles Times. “That’s the deep lesson I learned in this.”
That earned Newsom a new nickname in a Sacramento Bee editorial: “Gov. Gaslight,” although the newspaper did attach a question mark to its sobriquet.
“Newsom and his staff sent exactly the message they intended,” the Bee declared. “Then, for whatever reason, it seems they got cold feet and decided to blame the media for reporting the governor’s words.”
Whether the nickname sticks – like the “Governor Moonbeam” moniker attached for decades to Jerry Brown – or fades depends on whether a thin-skinned Newsom continues to blame others when things go awry or owns up.
CALmatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.