Amanda Carpenter always knew it was possible she could get caught up in a Washington scandal. So she wasn’t surprised — or even worried — when she found out The National Enquirer had published a story about the multiple rumored affairs of her former boss, Sen. Ted Cruz. Carpenter, Cruz’ former speechwriter and a popular anti-Trump conservative pundit at CNN, didn’t even sweat it when soon after the story’s publication, she herself became one of the “other women.” She knew she had the truth on her side.
But then one day in March 2016, on air at CNN, Carpenter shared a split screen with a Trump supporter, who hit her with a barrage of questions about the affair that had never happened. “Amanda Carpenter, you are named in this,” the pro-Trumper insisted. “What do you have to say for yourself?”
“From then on, it became a full-fledged story that I had to respond to,” Carpenter tells Refinery29. “The Trump campaign issued a statement. The Cruz campaign issued a statement. It was insane — and none of it was true.” Baffled, Carpenter decided she needed to go back and study how she might have managed to better steer the story—was it somehow her fault that it spiraled—but eventually she realized exactly what was going on: “Everybody saw what happened,” she says. “I was gaslit on live TV.”
Gaslighting — a kind of psychological manipulation where an abuser causes one to question their perception of reality through repeated systematic lies and downplaying their own actions — has become a popular term in the era of Trump. It’s the concept that helped skyrocket a previously buttoned up Teen Vogue into the wokeness stratosphere; it’s since been trotted out many times as a way to explain the alternate reality being peddled by the president and his cronies in the Oval Office. As Carpenter came to understand what happened to her, she also realized she wasn’t the only one who had been gaslit — and now she’s literally written the book on the subject.
Gaslighting America: Why We Love It When Trump Lies To Us, out May 1 from Broadside Books, begins with her personal story. But it quickly gets bigger. “I realized that there were similarities between my story and how Trump gaslit Obama over birtherism, how Trump gaslit Jeb Bush over a link to trutherism and 9/11,” Carpenter says. She ultimately penned a history of gaslighting in Washington, dating back to the days of Nixon, while also digging into what it would take for Americans — of all political stripes — to triumph over Trump’s stream of lies.
There’s that adage: Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own facts. And yet, since 2016, it’s felt like Trump has blown a common set of facts to smithereens. How?
“When I was gaslit by that Trump supporter [Adriana Cohen] on live television and afterward, it was really discombobulating because everyone knew it wasn’t true — and yet the story was everywhere and there was nothing I could do to stop it. The story could have threatened my whole career, and that’s exactly what it was designed to do: Gaslighting is all about manipulation and control and offensive action.
"What I want people to understand is Trump pushes and pushes and then turns other people's response into the story — and it's a highly effective media strategy. One example is the women who accused Trump [of sexual misconduct]: Donald Trump, one of the most powerful people in the world, stands up and says they’re liars, unattractive, and that he’s suing them. Then, these women have to go on camera as everyone watches their every move and comments on whether they’re credible and believable. It's an impossible position: They have to either defend their reputation or stand down and surrender to Trump.
"Most of them, naturally, want to defend themselves. So then, their response becomes the story, generating millions of views, clicks, and emails for the ever-expanding universe of media outlets — nevermind that Trump never filed a single piece of paper to sue them or presents any evidence to negate their claims. Trump's gaslighting would not work outside of the current media environment, where there is such a hunger to fill news space, even if it’s not news that’s worthy of space: The media, by and large, is much more reactive than it is enterprising in its own right. And Trump exploits that perfectly."
You get into the history of gaslighting in your book, dating back to the Nixon days. How was gaslighting under those administrations different from what’s happening now?
“The phrase ‘gaslighting America’ was actually brought into the common vernacular during the Clinton administration, by a writer who recognized what the Democrats were doing to Monica Lewinsky: calling her this crazy person, neurotic, and obsessed when, in fact, President Clinton was inviting her into the Oval Office, giving her gifts, writing her notes. Nixon was [also] a tremendous gaslighter: the way he full-throat denied all the wrongdoings in Watergate until he got caught on tape red-handed. His administration called that situation a witch hunt and really used all kinds of the language you see the Trump administration use when it comes to the Russian collusion case.
"The difference is that Clinton and Nixon used gaslighting to try and create this alternative reality as a defensive measure when they were caught doing something wrong. Trump is different on an extreme level because he does it offensively. He gaslights people individually to take them down. Tells lies. Spreads lies. Creates interest in the lies. And declares victory. And it works. We’ve see so many politicians tell lies, but gaslighting is different when it’s done in such an affirmative way, to completely manipulate the truth and create an alternative narrative reality. And part of the reason that he’s been able to do that is because he never admits he lies. It sounds basic, but as long as Trump keeps up a lie, other people keep up the lie. I don’t think we’ve ever seen a team of people so brazenly willing to lie on behalf of a politician."
Trump's gaslighting would not work outside of the current media environment, where there is such a hunger to fill news space, even if it’s not news that’s worthy of space.
Certainly, there are Republicans who have drawn a line between themselves and Trump. But is also seems like so many—way more, in fact—are fully onboard.
"There’s a number of Republicans who are obviously uncomfortable with Trump’s style — but not so much his substance. Because if you are someone who believes in Second Amendment rights, wants less spending, fewer taxes... Where are you going to go? I think a lot of liberals unfairly expect someone — a Republican who is elected who may be uncomfortable with Trump — to lay down on the tracks and never vote for anything that they may both support.
"There is a broader problem in politics on both sides, because when you have a presidential race, or any big race, you actively want the worst candidate from the opposing party to get nominated. There is no one on the Democratic side trying to court Republican voters. I think Democrats thought that [Hillary Clinton] was the heir apparent to President Obama, and Republicans were determined to beat liberalism after two terms of that administration.There’s was just no way they were going to vote for Clinton because she didn’t even try to offer them anything. There is no one on the Democratic side trying to court Republican voters.
"Also, when you’re so intent on demonizing the other party that you actively take measures to make sure the worse choice is the opponent, you just wind up with terrible candidates and voters have bad choices. I don't like that way of thinking. If I’m asked on CNN who I want to have the nomination for the Democratic party, I’m not going to say the worst person because they’ll be easiest to beat. I’ll actually tell you who, as a Republican voter, I think would do the best job. And I think other people should start doing the same."
You’ve been an outspoken critic of Hillary Clinton for years. Have your feelings about her changed at all over the last year?
"I think she’s always been the same person, the same candidate. What makes me angry is that the Democrats nominated someone who was so completely unacceptable to Republicans that they made President Trump possible. What happened in 2016 — and everything that happened with her server — only reinforced the worst suspicions that Republican voters had about Hillary Clinton."
Who would you want to see on the ballot in 2020 from the Democrats at this point?
"Terence McAuliffe. He was the governor of a purple state, Virginia. He has some Clinton baggage and questions to answer. But I think he has the right demeanor and attitude to take on someone like Donald Trump. He’s a formidable fundraiser; he has White House experience. I know there’s going to be a lot of people running on the Democratic side, and I’m going to look at all of them. I probably won’t vote for them. But I will tell you, honestly, who I think would be the best fit."
There have been a number of anti-Trump screeds lately, which have mostly been written by left-leaning writers. You’re a conservative writer. Your book is analytic criticism of a Republican president. Given the polarized state of politics, who do you hope will read it?
"I am a conservative writer. But I do hope a lot of liberals read this book, as a means of understanding what brought Republicans to the point where they not only voted for Trump but support him. I want people to read this book and better understand why his methods work. I don’t want them to work. I think identifying the methods, breaking them down, is the best way of tackling the problem.
"As for the polarization, I hear you. Our politics are divided not only in the ballot box but in media, because the incentives across the board are designed to drive us apart and to silo us. I am truly trying to break free of that — as someone who comes from conservative media, I want things to change. I am trying desperately to be a writer and commentator who will show my conservative perspective, but do it in a way that is open and honest. Honesty is the thing that is missing. And it’s because too many people have gotten caught up fighting for their ‘team.’"
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.