Help, the Conservatives Are Attacking My Brain

A psychotherapist argues that right-wing political operatives, religious leaders and the media are prospering by screwing with our collective sense of reality.
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Shortly after Michael Moore released his anti-George W. Bush opinion documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 in the summer of 2004, the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania conducted a poll. Of 5,000 adults who responded, 8 percent had seen the film. Another 8 percent told pollsters they had listened to right-wing talk show host Rush Limbaugh. Only 12 people — less than one-quarter of 1 percent — said they'd done both.

A political scientist might have viewed this as evidence of the red state/blue state divide. A media analyst might chalk it up to the rise of specialized, niche sources of infotainment. Bryant Welch has a different view: The two groups were, and are, living in separate psychological realities. And one of them (you can probably guess which) is, if not exactly mentally ill, close to it.

But it's not their fault, Welch writes in State of Confusion: Political Manipulation and the Assault on the American Mind. A class of power brokers called "gaslighters" is undermining the mental stability of Americans for its own power or monetary gains. The term, inspired by the 1944 film Gaslight, describes psychological abuse in which someone uses deception or alters the environment, causing another person to question his or her own sense of reality. Welch's image of evil puppeteers using government, media, religion and business to mess with our brains is downright horrific. Yet given the age of spin we're living in and the rise in mental illness among American citizens, it doesn't seem like a totally ridiculous thesis — assuming the author can deliver the goods. He doesn't quite.

As a clinical psychologist, lawyer, professor and former executive director at the American Psychological Association, Welch offers a unique perspective on the last decade of American politics. He puts the United States and its leaders on the therapist's couch and arrives at surprising conclusions. His fundamental premise is that life in a globalized world is complex and uncertain, but the human brain craves simplicity and assurance. So instead of facing the intricacies and intractable problems head-on, we're allowing gaslighters to create a simplistic reality on our behalf. It's more than America dumbing itself down. We're actually psychologically regressing, and they're taking advantage.

For political consultants, the battleground states are places like Ohio and Florida. Welch is more interested in "battleground" psychological states — paranoia, sexual perplexity and envy, for example — where conservatives are clear winners.

His take on the Iraq war includes the same story told by many critics but overlays it with psychoanalysis: Our minds were perplexed by the attack on our soil, and we clung to our leaders. When the administration provided an enemy (Saddam Hussein), we were thankful for a target on which we could project our paranoia. We then believed faulty claims of weapons of mass destruction because it was too difficult psychologically to admit Bush could be wrong. As the war continued, his mantra of "stay the course" worked because any solution other than a war on autopilot would force us to deal with the trauma of acknowledging our collective mistake. And Bush's Navy jet flight to give the "Mission Accomplished" speech on an aircraft carrier was a publicity stunt focused on communicating "exaggerated sexual prowess."

While America's obsession with and fear of sex is hardly news, Welch takes a Freudian reading of the political sphere to the extreme. He attributes Bush's 2000 election victory partly to America's collective disgust at the mental image of President Bill Clinton's presidential semen on Monica Lewinsky's blue dress. He claims America revels in sexual (especially homosexual) paranoia, instead of wrestling with troubling facts. For example, when the British medical journal TheLancet published a 2006 study estimating 650,000 Iraqi civilian war deaths, it received significant news coverage — until days later, when a scandal broke about Rep. Mark Foley writing sexual e-mails to pages on Capitol Hill, and America had to know every illicit detail.

Welch says the gaslighters — including politicians like Bush and operatives like Karl Rove, media personalities like Bill O'Reilly and evangelical preachers like Ted Haggard — also play on our jealousy of those who understand the complex world. Instead of asking for experts' ideas about global warming or evolution, Sean Hannity and other angry FOX News anchors belittle their opinions in a sea of confident, contemptuous assertions designed to make viewers revel in power. Rather than engaging in debate, leaders create straw men out of phrases like "cut and run" or "embolden the enemy" and then attack them to feel superior. Draft dodgers, such as Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, "Swift Boat" decorated war heroes like John Kerry.

Over time, with enough repetition, people begin to believe untruths, especially when the dial-a-reality of media market segmentation allows them to tune out other viewpoints. They're primed for unquestioning faith in unreality by participation in the "comforting fantasy" of religion. Welch even compares the crying, flag-waving ecstasy of attendees at the 2004 Republican convention to the revivalist spirit of evangelical church services.

Of course, Welch is traveling well-trodden ground here. The Assault on Reason by former Vice President Al Gore and The Culture of Fear by University of Southern California sociologist Barry Glassner traced similar themes, and a 2004 New York Times Magazine article by Ron Suskind (which Welch quotes at length) analyzed how the Bush administration manufactures reality out of convenience. Welch attempts to explain the psychological underpinnings of what others documented, but State of Confusion never quite synthesizes his psychology and his politics the way the author seems to think it does.

He psychoanalyzes the nation with little supporting data, claiming, for instance, that it's difficult for Americans to look at Bill Clinton without picturing some lurid detail of his relationship with Lewinsky, or to view photos of gays marrying in San Francisco in 2004 without imagining the experience of being threatened with a homosexual experience. He includes no case studies of political gaslighters or their victims, other than profiles from afar of luminaries like Rove. Real-life tales drawn from Welch's clinical practice, such as that of a chief executive who walled himself off from reality to escape deep feelings of vulnerability, seem divorced from the rest of the text. Welch sometimes comes off more like an armchair psychoanalyst than the therapist with decades of experience that he is. He's a professor at a cocktail party, offering vague generalizations because he believes his audience too daft to comprehend the particulars.

Most disappointing, the text makes little effort to describe gaslighting by Democrats, other than a tip of the hat to Lyndon Johnson's infamous nuclear "Daisy" advertisement against Barry Goldwater. In Welch's world, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann is the only angry progressive aping the hate-filled, righteously indignant politics of right-wing talk radio. It's as if angry leftist blogs and Iraq war protesters carrying "Bush = Hitler" signs — not to mention Bill Clinton's succession of dissembling press secretaries — don't exist.

Welch writes mostly from the perspective of "we," but he doesn't see himself as part of the "we" that has been gaslit into blind obeisance. In fact, he doesn't talk about liberals' psychology much at all. Are they immune to gaslighting, or have they also been victims? He never really tells us. Nor is it clear what he wants progressives — or moderates and conservatives reliant on fact and reason — to do, other than work to marshal people's paranoia, sexual confusion and envy toward the service of hope instead of fear. If gaslighters are indeed assaulting us, someone else will have to show us how to disarm them.

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