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As the Gaslighter-in-Chief takes office, remember: you're not going mad

Why do I feel so angry and anxious about Donald Trump? Because I've seen what happens when you can't trust your own mind.

This might sound strange, but it was on a psychiatric ward that I first gained one of the most important insights into covering politics. I must have been no more than 12: I was there to visit a relative who had been sectioned after putting his hand through a window. He was convinced that the local newspaper had a front-page news story mocking him. My dad brought him a copy of the paper to show that wasn’t true. “They must have changed it,” came the stark response.

It was then I realised: your mind can lie to you. And losing your grip on reality is like being trapped down a well with sides made of slippery, moss-covered stones. Where are the handholds to pull yourself out? You can no longer trust what you hear, what you see, what you think you know. There is no evidence that can change your mind.

Our acknowledgement that this feeling is frightening partly explains the strong social taboo against lying in politics. Do politicians lie any more than normal people? Probably not. But their lies have traditionally been more stigmatised – for good reason. Any discussion of politics relies on basic agreed facts, from which flow a common reality. It’s why the experience of being lied to is so disorienting. You begin to question yourself: did that really happen? Do I know what I think I know?

I remembered that moment when I first saw Donald Trump deny that he had ever “mocked” a disabled reporter. A lie that brazen induces a kind of mental vertigo. I saw him do it. I saw the video! During the US election I saw him standing up in front of a crowd at a rally in South Carolina and say: “Now, the poor guy, you ought to see this guy.” Then he bent his hands in at the wrists, jerking wildly, adding: “Ah, I don’t know what I said! Ah, I don’t remember.”

The impression was a textbook example of what my school playground would have called a “spastic”. The reporter in question, Serge Kovaleski of the New York Times, has a disease called arthrogryposis, in which his joints contract, bending his wrists.

Immediately after the incident, Trump claimed: “I have no idea who this reporter . . . is, what he looks like or his level of intelligence. Despite having one of the all-time great memories, I certainly do not remember him.” (Let us pause briefly to note Trump’s casual and telling conflation of physical and mental disability.) Unfortunately, Kovaleski tells a different story. “Donald and I were on a first-name basis for years,” he said. “I’ve interviewed him in his office.”

For the past few months, I’ve been asking myself why, exactly, the election of Donald Trump has made me so angry and anxious. Is it because I hate democracy, because I think working-class voters are stupid, that I am a swan-eating metropolitan who wouldn’t go outside the M25 if my life depended on it? (No, no and no. Come on, guys, I sometimes go to Brighton!)  I think it’s because that moment on the psychiatric ward – and seeing several loved ones suffer mental illness since – taught me that drowning in your own mind, unable to climb out, is an almost indescribably horrific experience. So what kind of person inflicts that on others by wilfully distorting reality for their own political gain? It is cruelty. I’m in charge, and let me tell you: you don’t know what you think you know. I didn’t mock that reporter you saw me mocking. I didn’t even know he was disabled. I don’t remember him. What kind of politician deliberately makes his audience feel as though they are losing their minds?

I’ve written before about “gaslighting” one of those internet-friendly buzzwords that normally make me flinch. It’s what happened to the families of the Hillsborough dead, where their grief was compounded by the message that their sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, had brought it on themselves. It’s what happens in abusive relationships, where the victim’s sense of self is slowly chipped away until they internalise the lie that “he only hits me because I make him so angry”. It’s what happens in America when a police officer fires shots into a black man’s back and the community is told it was self-defence.

That was why Meryl Streep’s speech at the Golden Globes was so powerful – and why Trump’s itchy Twitter finger served up a swift reply. We longed to see our version of reality reassert itself. “There was one performance this year that stunned me,” said Streep, collecting a lifetime achievement award. “It was effective and it did its job. It made its intended audience laugh and show their teeth. It was that moment when the person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter, someone he outranked in privilege, power, and the capacity to fight back. It kind of broke my heart when I saw it.”

Streep called on her audience of movie stars – the kind of people Trump hates, except for when they offer him a cameo in Home Alone 2 – to stand up to this kind of bullying, and to defend journalists’ ability to “safeguard the truth”.

Inevitably, Trump responded in his usual thin-skinned way. He called Streep “one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood” and added: “For the 100th time, I never ‘mocked’ a disabled reporter (would never do that) but simply showed him ‘groveling’ when he totally changed a 16 year old story that he had written in order to make me look bad. Just more very dishonest media!” So brace yourself. This is what we should expect for the next four years. All hail the Gaslighter-in-Chief.

History is written by the winners, and now we can see a false narrative being built in real time, tweet by tweet. Yet those of us who understand even a little how painful it is to be a prisoner of your own mind have to remind each other: no matter what he says, we still know what we know.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge

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Labour’s renationalisation plans look nothing like the 1970s

The Corbynistas are examining models such as Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Oldham credit union and John Lewis. 

A community energy company in Nottingham, a credit union in Oldham and, yes, Britain's most popular purveyor of wine coolers. No, this is not another diatribe about about consumer rip-offs. Quite the opposite – this esoteric range of innovative companies represent just a few of those which have come to the attention of the Labour leadership as they plot how to turn the abstract of one of their most popular ideas into a living, neo-liberal-shattering reality.

I am talking about nationalisation – or, more broadly, public ownership, which was the subject of a special conference this month staged by a Labour Party which has pledged to take back control of energy, water, rail and mail.

The form of nationalisation being talked about today at the top of the Labour Party looks very different to the model of state-owned and state-run services that existed in the 1970s, and the accompanying memories of delayed trains, leaves on the line and British rail fruitcake that was as hard as stone.

In John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn’s conference on "alternative models of ownership", the three firms mentioned were Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Oldham credit union and, of course, John Lewis. Each represents a different model of public ownership – as, of course, does the straightforward takeover of the East Coast rail line by the Labour government when National Express handed back the franchise in 2009.

Robin Hood is the first not-for-profit energy company set up a by a local authority in 70 years. It was created by Nottingham city council and counts Corbyn himself among its customers. It embodies the "municipal socialism" which innovative local politicians are delivering in an age of austerity and its tariffs delivers annual bills of £1,000 or slightly less for a typical household.

Credit unions share many of the values of community companies, even though they operate in a different manner, and are owned entirely by their customers, who are all members. The credit union model has been championed by Labour MPs for decades. 

Since the financial crisis, credit unions have worked with local authorities, and their supporters see them as ethical alternatives to the scourge of payday loans. The Oldham credit union, highlighted by McDonnell in a speech to councillors in 2016, offers loans from £50 upwards, no set-up costs and typically charges interest of around £75 on a £250 loan repaid over 18 months.

Credit unions have been transformed from what was once seen as a "poor man's bank" to serious and tech-savvy lenders where profits are still returned to customers as dividends.

Then there is John Lewis. The "never-knowingly undersold" department store is owned by its 84,000 staff, or "partners". The Tories have long cooed over its pledge to be a "successful business powered by its people and principles" while Labour approves of its policy of doling out bonuses to ordinary staff, rather than just those at the top. Last year John Lewis awarded a partnership bonus of £89.4m to its staff, which trade website Employee Benefits judged as worth more than three weeks' pay per person (although still less than previous top-ups).

To those of us on the left, it is a painful irony that when John Lewis finally made an entry into politics himself – in the shape of former managing director Andy Street – it was to seize the Birmingham mayoralty ahead of Labour's Sion Simon last year. (John Lewis the company remains apolitical.)

Another model attracting interest is Transport for London, currently controlled by Labour mayor Sadiq Khan. TfL may be a unique structure, but nevertheless trains feature heavily in the thinking of shadow ministers, whether Corbynista or soft left. They know that rail represents their best chance of quick nationalisation with public support, and have begun to spell out how it could be delivered.

Yes, the rhetoric is blunt, promising to take back control of our lines, but the plan is far more gradual. Rather than risk the cost and litigation of passing a law to cancel existing franchises, Labour would ask the Department for Transport to simply bring routes back in-house as each of the private sector deals expires over the next decade.

If Corbyn were to be a single-term prime minister, then a public-owned rail system would be one of the legacies he craves.

His scathing verdict on the health of privatised industries is well known but this month he put the case for the opposite when he addressed the Conference on Alternative Models of Ownership. Profits extracted from public services have been used to "line the pockets of shareholders" he declared. Services are better run when they are controlled by customers and workers, he added. "It is those people not share price speculators who are the real experts."

It is telling, however, that Labour's radical election manifesto did not mention nationalisation once. The phrase "public ownership" is used 10 times though. Perhaps it is a sign that while the leadership may have dumped New Labour "spin", it is not averse to softening its rhetoric when necessary.

So don't look to the past when considering what nationalisation and taking back control of public services might mean if Corbyn made it to Downing Street. The economic models of the 1970s are no more likely to make a comeback then the culinary trends for Blue Nun and creme brûlée.

Instead, if you want to know what public ownership might look like, then cast your gaze to Nottingham, Oldham and dozens more community companies around our country.

Peter Edwards was press secretary to a shadow chancellor, editor of LabourList and a parliamentary candidate in 2015 and 2017.