Abuse is defined as, “the improper usage or treatment of an entity, often to unfairly or improperly gain benefit. Abuse can come in many forms, such as: physical or verbal maltreatment, injury, assault, violation, rape, unjust practices, crimes, or other types of aggression.”1
The more I hear the president speak, the more he presents as an abusive parent, with name-calling, threats and bullying hurled at those who disagree with his policies and public persona. The intention is to control through intimidation in order to maintain his version of reality. This is a common theme among those I have served as a career therapist over the past four decades. Stories from clients of parents who have been verbally and/or physically abusive have ranged from being barraged with disparaging names like ‘loser,’ and ‘incompetent,’ and being demeaned by the parent who considered their child’s needs of little consequence.
Memories of childhood abuse survivors are being triggered by what they witness daily at the hands of this administration. Increasingly, I am hearing it in my office.
Common themes include:
- Gaslighting, which is a tactic by which an abuser has the victim believing that their perceptions are inaccurate. Talk of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ are a few examples.
- Authoritarian control (my way or the highway) is common in households in which one-person alone reigns supreme. Nationalism is a call for that divide and conquer mentality.
- A chaotic environment is prevalent, knowing that when the environment is in upheaval, it is difficult to maintain stability, putting the abuser in the superior position.
- Threats of harm or abandonment are cast about. The abduction and caging of immigrant children and words of violence against those who stand up to the administration’s actions are two such examples.
- Keep it in the family to maintain appearances. Despite the overt behaviors of the perpetrator, the message is that it is important to prevent letting the skeletons out of the closet no matter how hard they rattle. Daily tweets are designed to put his own personal slant on any situation.
Trump seems to subscribe to the strict father model by which he is the omnipotent paternal figure who is to be questioned at the peril of those who dare to challenge him.2 His own words reinforce the assault on those who are disenfranchised and disadvantaged.
Insistence on loyalty, carries with it the idea that if you are not staunchly on the side of the abuser, you are against them. Demonizing the media who are simply doing their jobs by asking pointed and probing questions is happening on an ongoing basis.
Some examples of attacks on the media include reports that he has been accused of belittling female reporters with comments he made during a recent press conference during which he told ABC White House correspondent Cecilia Vega she was surprised he decided to answer her question and she wasn’t thinking.
“She’s shocked that I picked her, she’s like in a state of shock,” he said.
“No, I’m not. Thank you, Mr. President,” Ms. Vega responded.
“That’s okay. I know you’re not thinking. You never do,” Mr. Trump said.
Recently, he disparaged White House reporter and CNN contributor April Ryan as “a loser” who “doesn’t know what the hell she’s doing.”
Abby Phillip, also with CNN, asked Trump about his new acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker, inquiring, “Do you want him to rein in Robert Mueller?”
“What a stupid question that is,” Trump replied. “What a stupid question. But I watch you a lot, you ask a lot of stupid questions.”
As is so in any household in which the abusive dynamic is prevalent, there are some who refuse to accept the diatribe and stand up to him. These are the protestors who take it to the streets, the internet and the voting booth. Then there are the enablers who stand by and watch and do nothing to put a halt to it. Lastly, there are those who cheer him on, relieved that they are not on the receiving end of his tirades. The last two groups are complicit in the on-going bullying.
Those who are in a position of control, “usually see themselves as self-reliant even while they are dependent upon others to maintain their backwards connections and their fragile identity,” says Patricia Evans, author of Controlling People: How to Recognize, Understand, and Deal With People Who Try to Control You. “They often carry the banner of rugged independence, of needing no one, while launching an ever-accelerating assault upon someone else’s individuality. They are most threatened by Witnesses who do not conform to their particular idea of how things should be.”3
Why do people allow this to continue? One answer is Stockholm Syndrome and another is trauma bonding. The former occurs when captives of any sort (and people living in abusive environments may very well feel trapped) connect with the captor and in many cases, identify with them and join them in their cause, no matter how harmful it may be. The latter is interwoven as it carries with it a sense of hope that things will improve even in the midst of the most unsettling events. The victim will become peacemaker in order to establish equilibrium. It is short-lived many times because the perpetrator thrives on chaos and control.
One woman’s experience of being re-traumatized is evident in her sharing:
I spent two and a half years in an emotionally abusive relationship with a narcissist. Seeing Trump hits every single trigger possible and has kept the trauma alive for me. I’ve become all too familiar with terminology like gas-lighting, and flying monkeys. I recognize the way he weasels out of his intolerable behavior by trying to apply that sick and twisted logic that only narcissists do to trick people into believing that *technically* what he’s doing isn’t wrong. I watch his devotees, who have backed themselves into a corner by investing so much of their own identities into their relationship to him, be a part of his flying monkey brigade.
It does remind me so much of my abusive childhood that unfortunately pitted me against my sister, and vice versa, just to survive it. – T.D.
Sadly, unlike growing up in abusive family, from which one can launch into an independent life, the trauma inflicted by the thoughts, words and deeds of the president cannot be as easily overcome while they are still in play. Knowing the signs, recognizing that one’s perception is accurate, seeking support from kindred spirits, working with a competent therapist, providing self-care, getting involved sociopolitically, fasting from news, and/or getting info from legitimate sources, doing a fact check, if so inclined, and voting — these are ways to ameliorate the damage.
- Abuse. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved November 13, 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychology
- Strict father model (n.d.) In Wikipedia. Retrieved November 13, 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strict_father_model
- Evans, Patricia. Controlling People: How to Recognize, Understand, and Deal with People Who Try to Control You. Adams Media, 2009.