Amanda Carpenter is a political commentator and author. A graduate of Ball State University, she has worked as a congressional correspondent for Human Events and wrote for the Washington Post before serving as Senator Ted Cruz’s Communications Advisor in 2013. Currently, Carpenter works as a commentator for CNN. Her book Gaslighting America: Why We Love It When Trump Lies to Us examines the history and motivation behind political gaslighting and its implications in our current political environment. Carpenter sat down with The Gate to discuss President Donald Trump’s impact on the Republican party, the role of journalism, and “gaslighting.”
The Gate: Could you speak on your initial inspiration to get involved in politics?
Amanda Carpenter: I had a very non-traditional path to both media and journalism. I went to school originally in northern Indiana at Tri-State University. I had a softball scholarship. I ended up hurting my shoulder and going to Ball State because it was cheaper without the athletic scholarship. I was trying to figure out how to navigate the student loan system without a parent who could sign a loan and trying to figure out what I would do to fill the competitive gap from softball. Very quickly, I became frustrated with the bureaucratic process: people were paying different prices for school, we were all getting the same education and I was being told there was financial aid, but there’s wasn’t. I ended up founding my own website to write about the cost of tuition and along the way I joined the debate team. Between the urge to explore what I thought was the unfairness in the student loan system and debating policy, I discovered I was a conservative who also wanted to write. I realized that many of the problems I saw on my campus translated into national government issues.
Gate: Could you speak about the role of women in the Republican Party and some of the challenges that they face?
AC: It’s hard to be a Republican woman right now because the condition to be a Republican woman in good standing in the era of Trump means you have to be willing to defend things he said on the “Access Hollywood” tape. It was the dividing line: you were in or you were out. I just don’t know that many women who are going to say, “Yeah, it’s locker room talk to brag about sexual assault.” Did he do it? There’s no proof of that: but he talked favorably about it, that’s enough for me. There’s women who will do it: they grit their teeth, there are opportunities, but there are a lot of women who will not. I can think of two who would not go along with it, and their names were Mia Love and Barbara Comstock and they both lost their elections. He danced on their graves in a press conference immediately after the midterms. What are Republican women supposed to take from that? I was Republican before Trump came on the scene, and I’m going to be a Republican after. He’s going to come and go, but where I stand is never going to change. I will never defend things like that because how can you? There are some things that are more important than just winning the next election.
Gate: Do you think that there is any hope for a rebranding of the Republican party?
AC: Eventually, but it will take Trump leaving the scene and I don’t know when that’s going to happen. I do think he is poised to win re-election largely because I detect a tremendous amount of fear among Democrats in taking him on. A lot of people keep asking me, “What are Republicans going to do?” That’s over. There’s no room: either you are in with Trump or you’re not. You can try to find a way to navigate that line if you want to be an elected Republican, but otherwise, it is his party now. What’s going to happen going into 2020? It really is in the Democrats hands. If the opportunity presents itself for a good candidate, I think a lot of Republican women would flock to that candidate, but it just is not Donald Trump right now.
Gate: From the perspective of someone who has worked in journalism, could you speak a little bit about the White House’s decision to revoke Jim Acosta’s press pass and the general executive dynamic with the media?
AC: This one strikes close to home. Not only do I know Jim, but I work at CNN. Somebody sent pipe bombs to CNN headquarters, to contributors that I work with. It’s a dangerous environment. When Trump started all of this stuff about the “fake news” being the enemy of the people, he played with very dangerous elements. There’s one image I can’t get out of my mind: through the rallies Trump made his “war on the press” a part of the show. They put reporters in “cages,” or the press pen. Traditionally, it’s in the back of the room but Trump likes to put them in the middle. The CNN reporters are all in the middle of the rally, and then Trump will just start. It’s very difficult for the press to disengage when they are made a part of the show. That’s a line that reporters in the age of Trump have to walk. Are you going to be a part of the show or are you going to disengage, and how are you going to navigate that? It’s a very unique challenge. I do really commend the people who go in the field and do it with so much grace and dignity.
Gate: You wrote your book about the concept of gaslighting: what is it? How is it unique under the current administration?
AC: A lot of politicians lie. People lie, it happens. But they don’t knowingly lie. Trump lies for fun.
I think that’s a part of where the gaslighting element is a lot more pernicious than just regular lies, because it seeks to create an alternate reality—for example, the “birtherism” that he campaigned against Obama. Everybody knew it was crap. A lot of people who went along with it knew it was crap. At that point however, there were Republican candidates who wanted to seek out Trump as a donor, so they were willing to go along with it. When enough people play along for their own self interest, that’s where things become unmoored and then reality really does change.
Gate: How does the media factor into gaslighting? Do they enable it in any way?
AC: I think it does. A concept that has really emerged with Trump is whether you give both sides to every issue. For example, “Lock her up.” Are we really going to have a debate about whether or not we are going to jail her? You are going to jail your political opponents? She didn’t win the election: it’s over. However, because of social media and the internet, there’s a lot of interest in conflict-driven media. People want to see a fight. It makes for great ratings, and I don’t know how we cure that. There will always be an appetite for it.
Gate: Switching gears a little bit, could you share your thoughts on the results of the Texas Senate race and its broader implications for the state or the Republican party?
AC: There is so much dissension within the Republican Party when it comes to the issue of Trump. In Texas, Cruz went to the Republican Convention and almost blew it up when he said to “vote your conscience” because he wasn’t going to vote for Trump. He ultimately did, however, because the Republican base does not want to see dissension within the party. If you’re just a normal Republican voter who cares about getting the border secured, you don’t want to see politicians fight against Trump. The Democrats and the media are already fighting him.
Cruz had to navigate that, and I think there was a certain population of the Republican voter base that just did not want to deal with it and chose to stay home. Now Beto was a great candidate. He raised money, he was charismatic, he worked his heart out and captured that imagination. Cruz won, but to me it speaks to the discomfort that exists among traditional Republican voters, where some may stay home and you also have this new and enthused Democratic base. That’s going to be the story for 2020.
Gate: What advice would you give to young people on a campus in terms of how to think about politics, or perhaps not seeing things as black and white?
AC: When you’re in college, there is no reason to get blocked into any kind of position. Of course politics matter, but this is your chance to observe and see where you fall and not get hitched to someone else. Internalize your grounding, because that will put you on the right path. You have to find out what you’re passionate about and try everything. People need to see where they want to go rather than be led by a figure.