This story includes descriptions of physical and emotional domestic abuse. If you need information or help, contact DomesticShelters.org.
These abusers tore survivors down to a point where their self-esteem no longer existed and isolated them from every outside influence that could possibly interject with rational thought. Then they gaslighted them nearly to the point of insanity, convincing them that what was happening was entirely their fault or that it wasn’t even happening at all.
They groomed the survivor’s parents, siblings or best friends, asserting the survivor was mentally ill and not to trust anything they say.
I’m trying to help her. She may come to you with some crazy story. Trust me, it’s not true.
Counter to the preconceived notions I came into this beat with, what I now know with certainty is that abusers are not idiotic meatheads with a rage problem. They’re also not, in most cases, insane. They’re not impulsive. Quite the opposite, actually.
Abusers are some of the most controlled individuals you’ll ever have the displeasure of meeting. They’re incredibly cunning. They know exactly what they’re doing at each turn. They’ve planned out their tactics of abuse long before ever meeting their victim.
The web an abuser spins of psychological coercion, dizzying lies and threats of violence or outright violence can keep survivors trapped for years, if not decades, for myriad reasons. Many survivors want to believe the abuser will stop their abusive control eventually — maybe, the survivor will be able to love them out of it — while others stay trapped fearing that as soon as they walk out the front door, they’ll be killed in one of the many gruesome ways an abuser has described over the years (one abuser threatened to put poisonous snakes in their victim’s bed).
But if that day comes, the day a survivor decides she’s had enough, or she sees the abuser for who he truly is — not her savior, but her captor — she isn’t just risking retribution and a messy divorce. She’s risking death.
Notoriously, a survivor is at the pinnacle of danger when she decides to leave. This is the time an abuser most feels threatened by a potential loss of control, when they redouble their efforts, relentlessly stalking their escaped captive. They’ll attempt to lure them back with adulation — No one can love you as much as I do — and, when that fails, the complete opposite — degradation and blatant threats.
No one else will ever want you.
You’re going to regret this.
You have no idea what I’m capable of.
Stop me if you feel a tingling sense of familiarity as you read this, even if you’ve never endured intimate partner abuse. It may be because the man who currently holds the highest office in the country is doing most of what I’ve described above, to all of us, simultaneously.
As we inch closer to the November 3rd election, the relentless efforts of President Trump to sustain his position of power run so jarringly parallel to an abuser’s attempts to retain power and control in a relationship that it’s horrifying. Every unhinged middle-of-the-night tweet, every outright lie that contradicts what we see in front of our faces, every attempt to change our perception of what’s really going on (that’s called gaslighting by the way), are the telltale signs of an abuser.
And as these tactics ramp up in both frequency and intensity, they’re the red flags signaling an abuser who’s losing control.
Abusers Strive to Create Chaos and Confusion
We’re in danger. Just as a survivor takes her life into her own hands as soon as she walks out that door, the American people are assuming the same risk. Except there’s no safety plan. There’s no shelter big enough to hide us. A protection order would be useless. And I’m pretty sure we can’t Krav Maga our way out of this like Jennifer Lopez in Enough.
“It’s really hard to watch. Trump has created this kind of chaos in a way that the whole country has begun to feel what it’s like to live in abuse,” asserts Rita Smith, a nationally recognized expert on domestic violence and vice president of external relations for the national nonprofit Domesticshelters.org. She’s been in the domestic violence movement since the ’80s and could probably spot an abuser by scent at this point.
“You can’t challenge him in any way, even if you’re speaking of the facts of reality,” says Smith. And that’s how abusers win. “They get us so off balance and confused, we just give up.”
As we inch closer to the November 3rd election, the relentless efforts of President Trump to sustain his position of power run so jarringly parallel to an abuser’s attempts to retain power and control in a relationship that it’s horrifying.
From downplaying climate change as the entire western coast of the country burned, to claiming there is no racial tension in America — quite a contradiction to all the persons of color terrified of calling the police in an emergency — to labeling peaceful protestors “terrorists” (research shows that 93% of this year’s protests have been nonviolent), to claiming more than 34 separate times since the pandemic began that COVID-19 will just “fade away” (even though no epidemiologist would second this), Trump’s version of reality feels far different than the one many of us are living in.
Abusers Need to Be the Victim and Savior
And then came Friday, Oct. 2. The day Trump tweeted he and Melania tested positive for COVID-19. Later in the day, he would be airlifted to Walter Reed. The virus he assured us all would simply disappear was now, maybe, threatening his life. Or maybe he was fine. It depended who was speaking on his behalf. What mattered most is we needed to wish him well, pray for him even, keep him in our thoughts, even after his carelessness cost the lives of more than 200,000 before him. It was his turn now, and that’s all that mattered.
Survivors everywhere shuddered. It isn’t the first time they’ve been expected to extend sympathies toward someone who has intentionally tried to harm them.
It reminded me of a recent interview with memoirist and survivor Monique Faison Ross, whose abuser tried to kill her by beating her over the head repeatedly with a metal shovel before dragging her nearly lifeless body into the woods and leaving her for dead. She miraculously stayed conscious and then crawled her way to the road for help hours after he left her.
In the ICU, she discovered that after police had shot her abusive husband in a stand-off when they tried to capture him, he had been brought to the same ICU. He was just down the hall from her, receiving the same life-saving care she was.
Abusers often love to play the victim. It’s their own twisted version of “Me, too.” As Trump is metaphorically down the hall from all of our loved ones simultaneously fighting COVID-19, he records a video for us that he has learned so much, now. It’s nearly the equivalent of an abuser saying he took an anger management class and he’s all better now.
I’m better now.
As more than hundreds of thousands of Americans are still reeling from the death of a loved one due to COVID-19, he instructs us, “Don’t let it dominate your life.”
Ironically, pre-diagnosis, Trump threatened that the country would no longer be safe if former Vice President Joe Biden is elected. Since the beginning, Trump has promised us he is the only one who can keep us safe. “The crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon come to an end. Beginning on January 20th, 2017, safety will be restored.” His administration, he tweets now, “has developed … some great drugs and knowledge.”
I’m the only one who can keep you safe.
Abusers Always Escalate
To anyone with eyes, it’s clear we are in more danger and that there is more unrest in our nation than ever before. Like any home where violence has become the norm, we are beginning to become desensitized to it. The protests, the shootings, the mask-less superspreaders, the threats if we don’t stop fighting back — they have become the background noise to our makeshift homeschools we have been forced into because of an uncontrolled pandemic. For more than one reason, many parents are fearful that if we let our children out of the house, they will die.
Fear has become the new normal, and any release from that, no matter how small the crumb of safety is, will feel like a godsend.
Not everyone is buying his promises of safety, though. As at least half the country deflects from his control, and more follow each day, Trump, it seems, is beginning to become increasingly volatile. More rules, more control, more threats.
On June 5th, President Trump sent out 200 tweets and retweets in one 24-hour period, according to Factba.se. That’s eight tweets an hour or roughly one about every seven minutes. When I read this, I could only think one thing: He’s frantic.
One survivor told me in 2017, after leaving her abusive boyfriend, he called her 1,200 times in one month. That’s basically twice an hour, every hour, every single day.
An abuser who loses control becomes unhinged, erratic, desperate. They’re the abusers who begin to plot the end of their story. Who keep a shovel and duct tape in their trunk, for someday. They’re brazen. They don’t think about the ramifications.
“I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK? It’s like, incredible,” Trump said at a campaign stop in Iowa in 2016. His comment wasn’t a joke, but a thinly veiled threat. A prediction of how far he could go. The same way an abuser casually makes sure to reload his gun at the dining room table in clear view of his wife playing with their children on the floor nearby.
It was a red flag some of us saw and some of us ignored. If only we’d heeded Maya Angelou’s words: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”
Four years later, there is no shortage of calls to violence. “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” Trump tweeted May 29 in response to the protests following the death of George Floyd. He defended Kenosha shooter Kyle Rittenhouse who shot and killed two protestors in August, saying the protestors “violently attacked him” and it appeared “he was just trying to get away from them.” Eyewitness reports say protestors were rushing Rittenhouse to grab his gun after he shot his first victim, which is when he shot his second and then third victims.
Abusers Share an Inflated Sense of Self
Smith says Trump’s relentless need for power speaks to a background often shared by abusers. A background that involves emotionally absent parents, perhaps, as well as a strict indoctrination of traditional masculinity. His father, Fred Trump, has often been chronicled as stern and strict and, as such, Trump is notorious for lacking empathy or compassion.
“Mr. Trump has exhibited this behavior all his life, friends and family members say. He learned it, they say, at home, particularly from his father, a disciplinarian who spent hundreds of millions of dollars financing his son’s career and taught him to either dominate or submit. In Fred Trump’s world, showing sadness or hurt was a sign of weakness,” writes Annie Karni and Katie Rogers in a July article for The New York Times.
Trump biographer Michael D’Antonio told Politico.com that after Trump was deemed too much trouble for his private school in Queens to handle, his father sent him away to the notoriously violent all-male New York Military Academy where he spent his adolescence in a tiny cell-like room. He was 12.
In many abusers she’s seen, Smith says, “There’s no sense of self, no foundation for feeling good about themselves, so they have to keep feeding that beast to feel like they have value because it’s just never been there.”
An abuser who loses control becomes unhinged, erratic, desperate. They’re the abusers who begin to plot the end of their story. Who keep a shovel and duct tape in their trunk, for someday.
Simply put, Trump, like many abusers, uses his power to validate himself. Take the more than 2,000 tweets he’s put out in praise of himself since he was elected, for example. “So great looking and smart, a true Stable Genius!” he tweeted in July 2019. In October, he tweeted about his “great and unmatched wisdom” in regards to “obliterating” the economy of Turkey if they step out of line.
Likewise, if anyone dare disagree with the high esteem he has for himself, things can go the other way.
“He is committed to making people suffer if they make him look bad,” says Smith. Of course, who can forget him calling Hillary Clinton a “nasty woman” in the 2016 debates when she was discussing, of all things, her tax plan. He has slung personal insults toward various reporters for asking questions he didn’t like, such as in March when NBC’s Peter Alexander asked Trump what he wanted to say to the millions of Americans scared by the impending coronavirus pandemic.
“I say that you’re a terrible reporter, that’s what I’d say,” he responded. He has no problem insulting people to their face, during a live broadcast, or through his next favorite medium, social media. The New York Times recorded Trump calling out some 539 people in 2019 alone on Twitter.
Not to mention Trump holds a record for dismissals and resignations in his cabinet — some 415 since he took office, to be exact. No matter what road of insanity he leads the cabinet down, if you don’t follow, you’re out. It feels very reminiscent of abusers who shield their victims from friends that try to warn a survivor, He’s not supposed to do that to you, you know.
Abusers Won’t Ever Stop
The examples of Trump’s likeness to America’s abusive husband while in office are countless, but it’s what’s happened in the past month that should be put at the top of the Red Flag list. On Sept. 19 during a campaign rally speech, Trump threatened to sign an executive order barring Biden from taking office if he wins. When asked by Fox News in July if he would accept the election results, Trump said, “I have to see. Look, you — I have to see. No, I’m not going to just say yes. I’m not going to say no, and I didn’t last time either.”
His jibber-jabber word salad boils down to one point: he has no plans on going anywhere. And we can’t make him, even if we follow the law and legitimately vote him out. To that point, Trump doesn’t believe the laws apply to him. According to him, there’s no legitimate way he can lose — “The only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged,” he told his supporters at a Wisconsin rally Aug. 17. He’s forewarning us that it’s not his fault if things go awry. Those who don’t support him will have rigged the election, according to him.
It’ll be all your fault.
And if he is defeated? Trump also told us over the weekend, “If I lose to him, I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’ll never speak to you again. You’ll never see me again.”
You’d be hard-pressed to find a victim of domestic violence who hasn’t heard ominously similar rhetoric from an abuser. If you leave me, I’ll kill myself. It’s not a ploy for sympathy; it’s an attempt to place undue guilt and blame on the victim.
And, most recently on Sept. 23, Trump refused to commit to a peaceful transferal of power should Biden win. “We’re going to have to see what happens,” he told a reporter during the White House press conference.
Survivors everywhere flashbacked to an abuser telling them: Try to leave me. See what happens.
And if Trump does win? Well, there are still power plays to be made. There are myriad ways to punish those who ever doubted him. “After we win four more years, maybe we’ll ask for another four or so,” he brazenly said during a campaign stop in Henderson, Nevada Sept. 13. It’s the sinister equivalent of the abuser who told his victim who didn’t get away the first time: You’ll never get away again.
This is followed up with the threats of withholding funding from Democrat-run cities where protests are “allowed” to continue. Threats to cut federal funding to schools that don’t open during a pandemic — the schools who are listening to the disease experts and not him. There are the threats upon threats aimed at those who refuse to do what he wants — and what he wants is control, though, to him, it’s all in an effort to keep us safe, and to keep America great.
Isn’t it great here? Aren’t you happy? Don’t I make you happy?
If this all weren’t so depressing, we could easily make a game called, “Who Said It — Trump or an Abuser?”
Trump’s jibber-jabber word salad boils down to one point: he has no plans on going anywhere.
Why Some Victims Stay
What boggles many of us who have our bags packed and ready to go, who are at the proverbial door waving frantically to our friends and family steps away, shouting, hurry up, come with us, is seeing those we love stand stock-still, resolute in their decision to stay. Their reasoning is often not so much about safety, but rather, security. Time and time again, we’ve heard Trump supporters say they can’t vote for Biden because he’ll raise taxes. He’ll cost us jobs. He’ll eradicate small businesses.
The fear of losing financial security is actually the second most named barrier from more than 700 survivors of abuse when asked on DomesticShelters.org what prevented them from leaving an abuser.
The first barrier was fear of retaliation.
One could say being broke is a legitimate fear, or one could argue Trump’s positioning of himself as the financial savior we all need is simply another ruse, a tactic of control backed by little evidence of truth. Whatever the case may be, it’s working.
I would be remiss here not to mention victim-blaming, a type of secondary trauma many survivors of domestic abuse encounter both when they stay and when they go. They are questioned about why they stayed as long as they did. Why they are still staying. Or, they are judged for why they didn’t stay longer, try harder. They have divulged to me their reasons in countless interviews, even though I never ask.
I missed the signs. He swept me off my feet. He was like a knight in shining armor.
He kept showering me with gifts. I thought he was truly sorry.
I never realized what he was doing was wrong. I thought I could change him.
I’ve heard it time and time again. Being hit is definable. It’s a boundary clearly crossed. But being brainwashed and gaslighted are harder to rectify in one’s own mind.
I don’t know why I stayed. I thought he was going to stop eventually.
As both a journalist well-versed in the nuances of abuse and also a trained domestic violence advocate, I can say this with the utmost certainty: They never stop. Well, unless you’re dead or they’re dead or maybe they can redirect their abuse onto a new partner. Not even an arrest will stop them — they’ll see you in court. They’ll probably make bail. They’re allowed to send letters behind bars. They’ll get out eventually. Don’t even get me started on how soon they’ll get out of jail — it’s always shockingly too soon, and then they’ll likely start up the insane, abusive rigmarole again.
As certain as I am of this fact, I am just as certain of this one:
Trump will not stop.
Even if he is not victorious in November, he will not go gentle into that good night. It will be more than angry tweeting and name-calling of reporters. It will be a net cast far wider than conspiracy theories of rigged elections or Biden being controlled by “the people in the dark shadows,” a weird claim Trump threw out with no additional details during a Fox interview on Aug. 31. Whatever Trump does, it will be in an attempt to unsettle those of us who managed to get away. It will be a series of increasingly menacing warnings that we’re not safe, and never will be. Maybe he’ll try to force us to come back (see earlier threat to issue an executive order) or, more accurately, force himself back on us. If that doesn’t work, which it won’t because the law does have a limit eventually, he will move on. He’ll find a way to keep his voice in the news, to keep his presence known, just as any good stalker would.
In some sense, I suppose we should have a safety plan, though, as Smith tells me, “I don’t know how we create a safety plan for an entire country.”
See, like any seasoned abuser, Trump already has his next 10 moves plotted. We should have ours.