“Gaslighting” is a strong contender for the most overused term of the Trump era. But its relevance to politics has outlasted that administration because our ruling class has seen again what an effective strategy it is. When accused of wrongdoing, you don’t just deny it and proclaim your innocence; you tell the public that they’re mistaken and confused. That the events repeatedly established and confirmed add up to something different than the pattern everybody recognizes. It’s not that the thing didn’t happen — it’s that you’re looking at the thing all wrong.
We have known since December 2020 that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo sexually harasses women: Back then, Lindsey Boylan described years of inappropriate behavior from him in the time that she worked on his staff. In February, Charlotte Bennett, an advisor to the governor, said he had interrogated her about her sex life and made unwanted advances. “I now understand that my interactions may have been insensitive or too personal and that some of my comments, given my position, made others feel in ways I never intended,” Cuomo then said in a statement, acknowledging the episodes while refusing to admit his moral and ethical breaches.
That statement was drafted, at least in part, by the governor’s brother, Chris Cuomo, a CNN anchor who had often invited Andrew onto his primetime news show for softball interviews.
In the weeks that followed, nine more women accused Gov. Cuomo of everything from lewd and suggestive comments to groping them against their will. Today, the office of New York attorney general Letitia James released a 165-page report, months in the making, that found he had indeed harassed multiple women, created a hostile work environment and unlawfully retaliated against one of his accusers. Cuomo’s team was prepared with a visually embellished update of the same reality-bending defense he offered at the end of February: Yes, he touches and kisses people, but it’s not what you think — he does it indiscriminately, and anyone who complains is misunderstanding his intent or cultural background. Here, check out this slideshow where he’s smooching Al Gore. The presentation stopped short of crying “anti-Italian discrimination,” but barely, and did not allow for the possibility that he had harmed less powerful women in his orbit.
In contrast to a chaotic figure like Trump, who blithely declares any unfavorable revelations “fake news” and slithers off to his next scandal, Cuomo arranged a lot of his spin in advance, knowing how the net would tighten. The gratuitous schmoozing with his media celebrity sibling on cable TV, the attempt to capture the national limelight as a reliable leader at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, the smears against the women who came forward (occasionally boosted by paid Democratic operatives with large social media followings), the photographs of U.S. presidents hugging colleagues and constituents — patches of bullshit sewn together to justify his nonsensical claim that the “facts are much different from what has been portrayed.”
That is the actual foundation and sum of his rebuttal: You simply can’t believe what a massive state investigation, relying on nearly 200 witness accounts and thousands of documents, has proven true. Instead, you have to trust in the phony character Cuomo has projected throughout his entire career. “That is just not who I am,” Cuomo said today, putting the onus on us to imagine him as something other than a fraud or predator. He doesn’t have the humility to resign on the spot, but he also cannot debunk the painstakingly researched history of his abuses, so he tells us they are something else. We are invited into the maze of illogic by which he convinces himself that he’s done nothing wrong, and should be free to act as he always has.
Insincere apologies, convoluted explanations and mealy-mouthed promises to change are the norms of American culture. But rarely in our political spectacle have we encountered a man so well-prepared, months and years before his downfall, to insist that the very specific cause is somehow fabricated, nothing but smoke without a fire. He must have long anticipated this moment, and was banking on sheer defiance in it. Should that keep him afloat, you can count on more of the same in the future: Elected leaders who don’t even pretend to be sorry, unwilling as they are to confess, let alone confront, their own disgrace. You’re crazy for noticing it at all.