Who is to blame? Scapegoating and gaslighting in the era of Covid-19
The United States has the highest number of Covid-19 deaths and infections in the world, with more than 11 times the number of reported cases as China and more than 4 times as many as Italy and Spain. Here’s a graph showing how well the U.S. is doing compared to other countries:
Naturally, people are asking: Who’s to blame for this? Why is the United States doing so badly?
Donald Trump gave his definitive answer on March 13, when he said, “I don’t take responsibility at all.” (This is perhaps the most candid thing he has ever said, and it gives us insight into the mind of a narcissist). Since he denies responsibility, he has had to find another culprit. He’s blamed everyone from China to the W.H.O. to the Democratic Party to “foreign nationals” to the C.D.C. to Obama to State leaders to to healthcare workers. Trump has deflected blame so many times that the Daily Show made a video compilation of his feeble attempts to pass the buck.
The reason Trump is in the hot seat right now is that he failed to respond quickly or effectively to the pandemic, he’s downplayed the crisis, he’s cut funding to public health agencies, he’s promoted dangerous pseudoscientific ‘cures’ like hydroxychloroquine and bleach injections, and so on. Yet he has never accepted responsibility for any of this and probably never will.
The best way to describe what Trump is doing right now is scapegoating, or shifting the blame for his own bad choices onto innocent people (e.g., doctors, Obama). A close analogue to scapegoating is gaslighting, or manipulating people into doubting their own beliefs and credibility. Trump is doing this, too. Scapegoating and gaslighting are epistemic practices that can be used to deflect blame and erase evidence of wrongdoing. They create a veneer of plausible deniability for the manipulator. I will use Trump as a case study to illustrate how these epistemic practices are easily recruited by powerful people to control the distribution of blame.
Scapegoating is the practice of blaming an innocent person for the wrongdoing, mistakes, or faults of another person. The word ‘scapegoat’ comes from the Book of Leviticus, in which a goat was released into the wilderness to excuse the sins of the community. The modern scapegoat is a person or group that is blamed for the bad behaviour of another person/group.
Something notable about scapegoating, as observed by Alexander Douglas, is that the scapegoat is typically (if not always) a vulnerable or oppressed member of the community:
It is part of the nature of scapegoating, as the late French theorist of mythology René Girard argued, that the target is not chosen because it is in any way responsible for society’s woes. If the target does happen to be at all responsible, that is an accident. The scapegoat is instead chosen because it is easy to victimise without fear of retaliation (Douglas).
Scapegoating protects the established order because it allows powerful people to take out their anger and frustrations on vulnerable people without risking (immediate) reprisals or punishment. Simone de Beauvoir described typical cases of scapegoating in ‘The Second Sex,’ where she observed that men oppressed by capitalism may take out their frustrations by beating their wives, just as women oppressed by patriarchy may do the same by beating their children. Rather than retaliate against the oppressor, a scapegoater attacks a more vulnerable person.
At first glance, it might seem as if Trump is assailing powerful groups, not vulnerable ones. It’s true that these groups are powerful by the standards of ordinary people, but not in comparison to the highest office in the land. The W.H.O., for example, has a yearly budget of about $2.4 million, but the United States is the single largest contributor to that budget. As a result, Trump can hurt the W.H.O., but the W.H.O. has no power over him. State leaders are also powerful compared to ordinary citizens, but Trump can throttle their supply of emergency supplies, and has indeed been using his Presidential clout to seize PPE and ventilators from states that had already paid for them. China has the second-largest economy in the world, but the real target of Trump’s anti-China rhetoric isn’t the powerful Chinese government (whose totalitarian rule he has spoken of admiringly), but rather Chinese Americans, a minority group that is vulnerable to anti-Chinese prejudice. (If Trump did intend to threaten China, he has the security that comes with being President of one of the most war-mongering and retributive countries in the world).
On the other hand, Trump has expressed glowing admiration for powerful dictators such as Xi Jinping, Bolsonaro, Putin, and Kim Jong Un. At first glance, this may seem odd. But it perfectly fits the profile of a scapegoater, someone who punishes the vulnerable while sucking up to bullies.
Trump’s scapegoating rhetoric places the blame for Covid-19 on the shoulders of people and groups that depend on the President for life-saving supplies and who cannot easily retaliate against him.
Gaslighting is the practice of manipulating someone or some group into questioning their own beliefs and credibility. The term gaslighting comes from the classic film ‘Gas Light,’ in which a man manipulates his wife into thinking she’s losing her mind by secretly rearranging things in the house and flickering the lights. Kate Abramson says that gaslighting “is aimed at getting another not to take herself seriously as an interlocutor.” It makes her doubt her own credibility.
Like scapegoating, gaslighting is usually perpetrated by a powerful person or group on a less powerful person/group. In the 1944 titular film, the husband easily managed to gaslight his wife because society was extremely sexist and already stereotyped women as irrational compared to men. This made it easy for the husband to manipulate his wife and get the whole community on his side. Indeed, one could say that the entire patriarchal structure of society is constantly gaslighting women by working at manipulating them into thinking that they’re a ‘second sex.’
The idea that entire social systems gaslight members of oppressed groups is illuminated by Angelique M. Davis and Rose Ernst, who provide a helpful definition of ‘racial gaslighting.’ Racial gaslighting is a “political, social, economic and cultural process that perpetuates and normalizes a white supremacist reality through pathologizing those who resist.” This captures the way in which the architecture of American society functions to gaslight Americans into believing that the Black community is responsible for its own disadvantages as opposed to being politically disenfranchised. Gaslighting doesn’t always succeed in deluding its target, but when it fails to do this, it publicly represents the target as deluded, and this misrepresentation is itself a type of gaslighting. (We can say “you’re gaslighting me!” even when we see right through the person).
While many people have discussed Trump’s penchant for scapegoating, few have commented on his fondness for gaslighting, partly because gaslighting often represents itself as a lack or an absence. One of the most insidious aspects of racial gaslighting in America is the persistent denial that racism is a part of American society, along with the concerted erasure of evidence of racial inequality from the public record. This process begins early and can be found in children’s grade-school textbooks today. The result of concerted racial gaslighting is a state of white ignorance, a “group-based miscognition” of racism in most if not all white people (Mills 2017).
Trump never talks about the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on racialized communities. He doesn’t talk about medical racism or medical sexism. He hasn’t expressed concern over the fact that Black Americans are dying at higher rates than whites due to generations of structural racism. He’s never talked about the impact of Covid-19 on women, who are being catapulted back to 1950s-era levels of involuntary domestic responsibility. He hasn’t said anything about the pervasive ableist and eugenicist narratives being reinvigorated and bandied about. When white supremacists rallied in Michigan to protest the shut-down, equipped with swastikas, nooses, Confederate flags, and assault rifles, Trump responded that “these are very good people.” He is also actively promoting racist narratives about Chinese people and immigrants.
This is some epic gaslighting. Trump is ignoring and/or downplaying the ruinous impact of Covid-19 on certain disenfranchised groups, while pushing racist narratives about others. He is essentially promoting multiple types of systemic (group-level) gaslighting all at the same time.
Blame, scapegoating, gaslighting
Scapegoating and gaslighting play a very interesting role in what some philosophers call ‘the moral ecology,’ our shared system of moral values, practices, and relationships. Scapegoaters try to shift blame onto innocent people who can’t immediately retaliate. Gaslighters try to erase evidence of their wrongdoing by denying its existence and attacking the credibility of their victims. Trump is engaging in both of these practices, not very shrewdly, but very intently.
In spite of being incredibly clueless, Trump has been able to recruit a sizable base by relying on pre-existing structural inequalities to give his moral rhetoric a veneer of plausibility. It’s easy for rich white men to scapegoat Chinese Americans against a background of entrenched white supremacy. It’s easy for politicians to gaslight audiences into believing sexist scripts that have been circulating for hundreds of years. You don’t have to be a genius to scapegoat and gaslight people if you’re simply rehashing age-old stereotypes about oppressed people’s ‘lack of class.’
America is awash in scapegoating and gaslighting scripts, and Trump is exploiting these political artefacts to cast blame on those hit hardest by Covid-19, while trying to delude people into believing that he’s a national hero instead of a hateful bigot who only cares about himself.
Intersectional Feminist Blame
I can only briefly address what I take to be a (partial) solution to the blame-regulation problems that we are now facing. Instead of blaming people based on widely available cultural scripts, I think that we need to develop a new blaming practice – one that is sensitive to structural inequalities and biased blaming norms. Elsewhere, I have a proposed an intersectional feminist method of blame, which takes the proper targets of blame to be people and/or groups that contribute to hierarchies and imbalances of power. When considering whether someone is to blame, we should ask ourselves, “what is this person’s role in broader social systems?” On this basis, we can blame gaslighters and scapegoaters for corrupting the moral ecology by refusing to accept responsibility, by deflecting blame, and by vilifying and pathologizing innocent people. This is anintersectional feminist method because it focuses attention on the intersections of power and privilege (patriarchy, white supremacy, ableism) that pollute the moral ecology, and it aims to dismantle them by re-orienting blame toward their supporters.
Is Trump blameworthy on the proposed method? Yes, because he is a gaslighter and scapegoater who exploits his privileged status to hurt the most vulnerable members of society.
*Image by Lisette Brodey