Here we are in a week that celebrates Presidents’ Day and George Washington’s Birthday. We are reminded that our nation began with a president who, according to Parson Weems, could not tell a lie and has fallen to having a president who cannot tell the truth.
Historically, the average life of a civilization is 200 years. The United States was founded 240 years ago, so we may be pushing our luck.
Thanks to President Donald Trump and the Republican majority controlling Congress we are constantly hearing such references as “They’re gaslighting us,” “We’re being gaslighted,” and “They’re like the Keystone Cops.”
Therefore, I thought it a good idea to identify the origins of those terms or references above. It’s quite likely that not everyone is aware of them or their current meanings and usage.
First, Gaslight is a classic film from 1944 for which Ingrid Bergman won her first of three Academy Awards. She plays the wife of a diabolical husband, incisively played by Charles Boyer, who is trying to drive her insane. Their home was lit with gas lamps, and whenever the husband would leave the house, he would sneak back in and decrease the power of the gas, then turn it back to normal before re-entering the front door later on.
When she would complain to him about the dim lights, he insisted that they were always at the proper level and that she was always imagining things. He had other ploys such as stealing something of hers, letting her think she lost it, and then telling her that she was always losing things. Nothing he said to her was true, but eventually she began to believe everything he said.
Here’s a quick test to see if you have been gaslighted: Do you think that Trump’s electoral vote was one the largest in history? Do you believe that Trump would have won the popular vote had it not been for illegal voters? Do you believe that Affordable Care Act has been a failure and cannot be fixed? Do you believe that Social Security is in crisis and must be privatized? Do you still believe Barack Obama was born in Kenya? If you answered yes to any of the above, you’ve been gaslighted.
Gaslighting is a new variation of the Big Lie technique that has been a staple of the Republican Party since the end of World War II. Sen. Joe McCarthy (R-Wis) used it to claim the state department was full of communists in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s. Richard Nixon built his career on it – into Congress, the vice presidency, the White House, and Watergate – always impugning the patriotism of his opponents, and he never completely shook his “Tricky Dick” moniker. Bush-Cheney used 950 documented lies to convince Congress and the American people that we needed to invade Iraq and convinced many people that Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11. .
Gaslighting and The Big Lie mean the same – repeat the lie over and over until enough people believe it to be the truth. All evidence to the contrary will be ignored. We all know that the truth rarely, if ever, catches up to the lie.
Next, who are the Keystone Cops (or Kops)? From 1912 to 1917, Mack Sennett produced a series of silent films that featured a team of seven or more incompetent policemen who never knew what they were doing.
As my mother said, “They ran around like chickens with their heads cut off.” It was difficult to devote a whole feature film to them, so they quickly became supporting players to the likes of Charlie Chaplin or Fatty Arbuckle. I first saw them when they were resurrected for a lengthy chase scene in 1955’s Bud Abbott and Lou Costello Meet the Keystone Kops.
The Urban Dictionary has this fine definition for the popular use of the term Keystone Cops: It’s a term that’s “used to criticize a group for its mistakes, particularly if the mistakes happened after a great deal of energy and activity, or if there was a lack of coordination among the members of the group.
Everyone remembers the incompetence and confusion of the Department of Homeland Security, led by Michael Chertoff, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, headed by Michael Brown, in 2005 during Hurricane Katrina. Sen. Joe Lieberman compared the performances of those agencies to the Keystone Cops.
More recently, in January, one day before the new Congress was to convene, House Republicans got together and voted to dismantle the powers of the independent Office of Congressional Ethics. I must admit that I burst out laughing as soon as I learned of this. Not because it was funny, but because it was exactly the kind of stunt I expected from them. Both Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and president-elect Trump were caught off guard. Both realized how bad this looked, and Mr. Trump – although the most ethically-challenged man ever elected president – persuaded them to retract the vote, at least for now, but bring it up later if they still want to.
Under President Obama, the House Republican majority voted over 60 times to repeal or weaken the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which has made it possible for 30 million Americans to become insured. They never offered a comparable or better replacement for it. They never offered a way to improve it. Now that they have a president who also wants to get rid of the ACA, they don’t know what to do. What are they? The Keystone Cops?
Did anyone on President Trump’s staff have a clue what he or she was doing when the executive order was issued to temporarily ban immigration from 7 primarily Muslim countries, in which not one has business interests with the Trump family?
The public protests, the personal agony, and chaos at airports could have been avoided with a competent staff. Unlike Barack Obama, Mr. Trump is not a constitutional lawyer and will require much more expert assistance in these matters – not the Keystone Cops.
From the Lewis Powell memo to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 1972 that mapped out a plan for the plutocracy to regain control of the government to the G.O.P. takeover of Congress in 1995, constructive traits were systematically excised from the Republican Party’s DNA.
From the 1995 ascendency of Newt Gingrich “Khan” as Speaker of the House to the 2016 election of Donald Trump as president, their goal has been “obstruct and sabotage” whenever a Democrat occupies the White House. A Republican president gets a free pass. Their primary characteristics have been, and continue to be, incompetence, irresponsibility, and maliciousness. We need them to relearn positive skills as soon as possible.
By David Offutt
A version of this essay was published February 23, 2017, in the El Dorado News-Times as a guest column.