Political Manipulation in the 2016 Presidential Election

Political Manipulation in the 2016 Presidential Election

Dare to Think about Political Manipulation in the 2016 Presidential Election

I think the only headline competing with Donald Trump’s upset of the Presidential Election, are all the stories of emotional fallout from Hillary Clinton supporters. Apparently many Clinton supporters are emotionally distraught about Trump’s unexpected win, so much so that students are being given reprieves from their school work, and even going out to protest in the streets – violently sometimes. On my own Facebook news feed, I’m seeing posts being shared with emotional trauma and suicide hotline numbers.

One CNN reporter interviewed a Trump protester who demanded that Clinton “sue the government,”1 ostensibly because the level of political discourse never rose above the level of insults and polemics rather than discussing policy issues in a rational way. In a CBS article, psychologist Lynn Bufka made the observation that “US adults are experiencing significant stress from the current election,” calling it “election day anxiety.”2 Another CNN reporter described Clinton supporters as stone-faced, crying, in shock, and stunned at the results.3 But these reactions are not necessarily a matter of sore losing.

Bryant Welch, an attorney and psychologist specializing in political manipulation, said this in an article shortly after President Bush’s term ended in 2009:4

“America has been gaslighted. Gaslighting is an insidious set of psychological manipulations that undermine the mental stability of its victims. These techniques have invaded our media, infiltrated our churches, and attacked our most basic free institutions … For millions of Americans the techniques have altered the way they think, feel, and act. It has been nothing less than an assault on the American mind … these manipulative and destructive techniques are now deeply embedded in our political system and they are having a progressively debilitating effect on the American mind. If Americans do not recognize them and confront them, the country will be less and less able to respond rationally to the very real crises facing America.”

The Psychology of Manipulation

Gaslighting is one of many forms of manipulation used by people to sow confusion and prevent rational, independent thinking from taking place. It allows the abuser to impose a false reality on the victim by appealing to their emotion, thus causing them to ignore facts or avoid reasoning. In short, it’s intentionally creating an environment that puts the victim in the position to believe the lies of the abuser rather than thinking for themselves.

This false reality is not self-imposed by the victim; it’s imposed by the abuser in a subversive manner that makes it appear to the outsider that the victim has consciously chosen to believe the lie. Consequently, it leaves the victim increasingly confused and uncertain thus making the victim totally dependent upon the abuser. If the perceived stability brought by the abuser disappears (especially suddenly or unexpectedly) or there is even an empty threat of it disappearing, then this leaves the victim in a state of panic-grief – which is likely the hysteria that you’re seeing from some of these Clinton supporters.

Welch points out in his book, State of Confusion: Political Manipulation and the Assault on the American Mind,5 that the mind has a hard time tolerating both complexity and uncertainty at the same time, particularly when the individual’s circumstances conflicts with their emotions. Politicians will play on this confusion in order to refine and sharpen the very targeted messaging of their campaigns. Political campaigns are really just elaborate marketing schemes designed to get you to “buy” the candidate.

Campaign managers choose their target demographic, and tailor their message – just as any good advertising agency would. The result is that the message will resonate strongly with the target demographic, but will also resonate with individual’s outside the target prone to believing the message. The difference between political campaigns and regular advertising however, is that the buy-in results in one person exerting a great deal of power over another, the buyer … or rather, the voter.

Now, you may be thinking at this point that I’m just making an excuse for the ignorance and/or blindness of these grief-stricken Clinton supporters, but consider the hallmarks of what makes one vulnerable to manipulation.

Dr. Harriet B. Braiker,6 a psychologist and New York Times bestseller describes these “buttons” that make people particularly vulnerable.

• Being addicted to approval; avoiding criticism, rejection, and abandonment
• Fear of negative emotions
• The “vanishing self” – an unclear sense about one’s own identity (this can be both a cause and a consequence of manipulation)
• Low self-reliance; distrusting your own judgement; low self-esteem
• External LOC (Locus of Control); blaming external sources, (people, institutions, laws, etc.) for what happens to you; not taking personal responsibility

Braiker states:

“A manipulator may trigger your anxiety by pushing your insecurity button or triggering self-doubts. Anxiety levels are raised by uncertainty. Manipulators do this by making vague and ambiguous references to something negative that may (or may not) happen in the future.”

The Philosophy of Manipulation

For those of you who may think this is all psycho-babble and isn’t something real consider this. The psychological idea of gaslighting is not new; in fact, the concept of gaslighting can be illustrated in an allegory created by Plato 2400 years ago. The Allegory of the Cave7 was used by Plato to illustrate a problem with knowledge. We won’t get into that here, but since then this same allegory has been used in application to the psychology of living in false realities.

The allegory goes like this:

“Seated prisoners, chained so that they cannot move their heads, stare at a cave wall on which are projected images. These images are cast from carved figures illuminated by a fire and carried by people on a parapet (or platform) above and behind the prisoners. A prisoner is loosed from his chains. First he sees the carved images and the fire. Then he is led out of the cave into ‘the real’ world. Blinded by the light of the sun, he cannot look at the trees, rocks and animals around him, but instead looks at the shadows and reflections (in water) cast by those objects. As he becomes acclimatized, he turns his gaze to those objects and finally, fully acclimatized, he looks to the source of illumination, the sun itself.”

So let’s identify our characters:

The gaslighters (or abusers): the people on the platform holding figures in front of a fire in order to cast shadows on the wall.
The gaslighted (the victims): the people chained up observing the shadows and believing that is the extent of their reality.
The enlightened (the freed victim): the prisoner who finds his way out of the cave and discovers the truth of reality.

I could write a great deal about this allegory, but the essential application that I want to draw out here is a reinforcement of what Braiker and Welsch have stated: specifically that the human mind is such that it can be deceived, by people who intentionally deceive, in order to maintain control. The expanded form of this allegory goes on to point out that when the freed prisoner discovers the truth, he goes back to his friends in the cave, tells them about the truth, but the remaining prisoners reject the testimony of the enlightened as being utter nonsense. They’re not only comfortable in their ignorance, but to accept that they’ve been believing a false reality means admitting that they’re wrong. This rejection can come in many forms including violent reactions – yelling, name calling, belittling, even violent protests.

The gaslighters, by the way, don’t have to be aware of their manipulation. They could be malicious; knowingly and intentionally misleading the prisoners or they could be unaware of their manipulation because they themselves have been manipulated; maybe they’ve been hired to do this work on the presumption that they are enforcing a general good for the prisoners, or for society outside of the cave. In other words, both the gaslighters and the gaslighted might be convinced that there is nothing wrong with reinforcing a false reality because the gaslighters are “just doing their job.” (I’ll just let that one sink in a bit).

What Political Manipulation Looks Like

So manipulators pray on your fears concerning uncertainty like, the loss of a job, or economic instability, or health and well-being, or safety and security, or loss of control … why do you think then that politicians talk about issues like jobs, the economy, healthcare, terrorism, and social justice? These aren’t issues that can be solved by government (if you take an objective look at history) rather these are issues that leverage their ability to manipulate a target demographic and maintain control over society.

The election then, your practice of voting, is an action that causes you (and the rest of society) to believe that you are consenting, voluntarily, to the candidate and, not just their policies, but their authority over you; this is the ideal place for the manipulator to be – in power over you with voluntary compliance from you.

Breaking Free From Political Manipulation

Being the manipulated is a horrible place to be; on the one-hand, these are legitimate victims, but on the other hand, no one can “rescue” the manipulated individual until they recognize that a problem exists. This usually comes in the form of cognitive dissonance – realizing that what you have believed conflicts with the truth. Like the freed prisoner who realizes that shadows are not things themselves but is merely the result of the sunlight being blocked by an actual physical object. It is then up to the victim to decide for themselves that they are not going to be manipulated anymore, and they must be the one to abandon the abusive relationship.

The manipulator will never choose to leave themselves; they have no reason to; they’re right where they want to be; they themselves have a need to be in a position of power and control. So why would they leave? Staying in a manipulative relationship means that things can only get worse. And if you look at American politics today, that’s exactly what’s happening.

So, how does this compare to political candidates? As human beings we relate to each other on a variety of levels; some are closer relationships than others; some are completely disconnected. On a broad scale, the collective of individuals we would call citizens relates to the collective of individuals we call government as well. The government needs certain things from its citizens and vice versa and so a relationship exists.

That relationship is what can be manipulated, even on such a large scale, which is why you see droves of grief-stricken Clinton supporters taking to the streets. Trump supporters, also, aren’t un-manipulated. Lest you think that I’m merely picking on bleeding heart, emotionally-sensitive, give-me-my-safe-space liberals, I am not. Here’s one article pointing out the manipulative tactics8 used by Trump in the campaign, and Trump has already taken back campaign promises even before the Electoral College has actually casts their votes.

But the reason why you don’t see Trump supporters emotionally distraught is because they feel like they’ve won something. The sad truth that will come out in the coming years is that they did not win, because Trump will simply be more of the same, if not worse than his predecessors.

The crying, the protests, the angry rhetoric, the fights on your social media accounts, are all emotional reactions that are evidence that manipulation has already occurred. The protester who wants Hillary Clinton to sue the government for not raising the level of political discourse, is unwittingly proving the point that the dialogue was intentionally lowered in order to grab him on an emotional level … and it worked. I would even argue that the media’s introduction of discussion of the presidential elections earlier each cycle, has been done intentionally to exhaust voters thus contributing to the emotional manipulation.

The only way then to break free from the manipulation is to stop being a willing participant.

Mere Liberty


[1] Emotional Clinton supporter: Hillary, sue the US, https://youtu.be/6QuDMmb47Vw[2] Coping with Election Day anxiety, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/coping-with-election-day-anxiety/[3] Emotional: Clinton Supporters Breaks Down in Tears as Trump wins election, https://youtu.be/OGfREDR0S1E[4] http://internationalpsychoanalysis.net/wp-content/uploads/2009/03/welchpaper.pdf[5] Political Manipulation book http://amzn.to/2fhO4Zk *affiliate link*[6] Who’s Pulling Your Strings book http://amzn.to/2fhLRgA *affiliate link*[7] Plato’s Allegory of the Cave http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/plato-metaphysics/#13[8] http://highexistence.com/12-psychological-tactics-donald-trump-uses-to-manipulate-the-masses/


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Kerry Baldwin
B.A. Philosophy, Arizona State University. My writing focuses on libertarian philosophy and reformed theology and aimed at the educated layperson. I am a confessionally Reformed Christian orthodox Presbyterian in the tradition of J. Gresham Machen (1881 – 1937)

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