Three years into this relationship, America is on the eve of escape.
As we head into the final year before the 2020 election, the country has been fundamentally changed by the abuse it has suffered at the hands of Donald Trump. But just as it is most dangerous when a victim decides to leave their perpetrator, it is precisely this moment, the moment leading to separation, that brings our greatest danger.
We enter this moment at a serious disadvantage. Our expectations have sunk lower than perhaps any time in American history. Our institutions are weaker, our civil society is polarized, and our basic respect for human dignity, at least in terms of how it is expressed through our institutions of government, is heavily eroded. Years of unrelenting near constant psychological, emotional—and, for some members of our society, physical abuse—has left the country in a truly victimized and exceptionally dangerous position.
As a victim rights advocate and attorney, I have seen this same dynamic of power, control and abuse thousands of times with many different outcomes. But I never expected it to play out on such a vast national scale.
The Trump playbook is filled with textbook perpetrator tactics that are the hallmarks of a relationship built on power and control: isolation, lying, manipulation, demoralization, minimizing, denying, victim blaming, gaslighting, coercion, threats and more.
Of course, this should be no surprise. Trump has long been identified as an abuser in his personal life. The descriptions of Trump’s abuse of more than 22 women, including but not limited to the violent rape of his former wife Ivana Trump, are widely reported and harrowing. Those of us who work in the field of domestic violence, and those of us who have survived an abusive relationship, didn’t need to read these accounts to see the similarities between how Trump is treating the country and how abusers treat their victims.
Trump exhibits many if not all the personality traits of an abuser: significant misogyny, a profound sense of entitlement and superiority and, perhaps most notably for this circumstance, the strong belief that the rules simply do not apply to him. In many ways, Trump can be understood as unremarkable in this respect—a run-of-the-mill abuser who thinks he can outwit, out-maneuver, bully and lie his way through any situation. It is only the scope of his control, his platform and the potentially devastating scale of his influence that make him different.
Trump’s current victim is the whole country—and, arguably, at this point, the entire planet. He has taken our national and international politics and culture on the same journey that millions of survivors across the world have walked. It is a painful and often dangerous journey. And just like for the many survivors who are experiencing violence in their relationships, there is a path forward beyond the abuse for America, but it is not easy, and it can be extremely dangerous.
As we begin to navigate our escape as a country, it is helpful to understand Trump and his tactics for what they are: tactics of a perpetrator.
Perpetrators have a tendency to keep perpetrating.
This is especially true if they are allowed to do it with impunity. Whether Trump is continuing to perpetrate abuses in his personal life remains to be seen, if he is, it is up to his personal victims to decide if, when and in what way to disclose. But whether he is continuing his pattern of abuse in his personal life or not, one thing is for certain: Trump is abusing the rest of us, and his political abuse is a serious crisis.
Those who thought he would change his behavior once elected were obviously very wrong. Trump’s inflammatory, abusive and hateful rhetoric just escalated after the election, and he began using the power of his office to abuse and manipulate those who are most vulnerable among us. He has sought every opportunity to disrupt peace and sow division and hate.
It’s one of the hallmarks of an abuser: They lie constantly, to everyone. Perpetrators will lie about anything if they perceive it is to their advantage, especially to keep their abuse hidden. They lie to hide the facts that prove they are an abuser, they lie about their motives, they lie about their actions and they lie to prevent the victim from gaining access to a world that is not under their control. They also get others to lie for them.
Donald Trump is a documented serial liar. His lying is truly legendary. No lie is too big or too small for him and no topic off limits to lie about, and he is good at getting others to lie for him. Entire media networks knowingly amplify his lies. He lies so frequently and with such ease that the victim, the American public, is left bewildered and often confused after being gaslit on a daily basis for almost three years.
When their backs are against the wall, when they have been caught, perpetrators usually continue to lie, blame the victim or even attempt to cast themselves as the victim. We have already seen an unprecedented pattern of lying from this President, and since we are now entering an accountability process—the impeachment inquiry and the next election—we can expect Trump’s lies and attempts to get others to lie for him to accelerate.
Perpetrators destabilize and demoralize.
Abusers relish the opportunity to destabilize their victims. Destabilized victims are easier to control, manipulate and, if necessary, discredit. Demoralized and destabilized victims are less of a threat to the perpetrator—when a victim starts to feel stronger, or makes progress towards being able to leave, perpetrators often strike out against them in unpredictable or increasingly outrageous or demoralizing ways. In doing so, the perpetrator undermines the confidence of his victim, destroying hope until the only thing that remains is the certainty that the abuse will continue. A sense of helplessness often ensues.
We have seen this dynamic play out repeatedly in the public consciousness over the last three years. Trump’s constant abuses towards women, people of color, immigrants and public norms of civility and decency have been so relentless that many Americans are left feeling completely powerless, hopeless or, worse, disconnected. People are losing faith that things can change.
Politically engaged Americans are understandably exhausted. Just when we begin to understand or fight back against one attack on the norms of justice and tolerance, like the Muslim ban, we are hit with another, like kids in cages. The outrages continue literally daily, in matters if both policy and civil discourse, until we find ourselves much like many victims in abusive relationships find themselves: feeling at sea, helpless, demoralized and very much not ourselves. Many people are losing faith that he will be held accountable. They are losing faith in change.
Another hallmark of abusers is that they attempt to undermine all of their victim’s support systems. They work hard to destroy the other relationships the victim has so that they have more control, and so that their victims have nowhere to turn if they decide to try to escape.
Since his election, Donald Trump has undermined the ally relationships that have defined American foreign policy since WWII. He has worked to disrupt, destroy or damage every important partnership we had as a country, from the EU to the UN. As one former state department official put it: “Trump has no friends and no loyalty.”
The Trump foreign policy, if there can even be said to be one, has left America vulnerable to manipulation by other hostile foreign powers that are also well versed in the political culture of abuse—authoritarian regimes that pose as our new “friends” and who seek only to legitimize and further entrench and expand their own abusive regimes.
Perpetrators try to prevent victims from escaping.
It is commonly known that it can take seven to 10 tries for a victim to successfully leave an abuser. There are many good reasons for this, but one of them is that perpetrators work very hard to stop their victims from leaving. They cut off their means of support and escape, closely monitor their activities so that they can anticipate possible escape routes and close them off.
This is why it makes complete sense that Trump sought help from a foreign government to interfere in the election (again). When you see Trump for what he is—an abuser—it is easy to understand that he will do whatever he can to try to keep us from escaping and to keep himself from being held accountable, including lying, cheating, stealing and manipulating.
The only question now is: Will he be successful?
Perpetrators are most dangerous at the time of separation.
The most dangerous time for any victim is when she decides to leave her abuser. The abuser loses control when the façade of power slips, when his victim and the world sees him for what he is. Risks are even higher when the perpetrator is unemployed or has recently lost a job. A perpetrator with nothing left to lose is an extremely dangerous thing.
The possibility of escape, in the form of the unfolding impeachment inquiry and upcoming elections is the light at the end of the abuse America has suffered. But, like all perpetrators, Trump will do everything he can to prevent it.
He will continue to lie, ask others to lie and manipulate. He is likely to use any means at his disposal to maintain his power. While it may still be beyond most American’s imagination that he would resist relinquishing power if defeated, it is not so hard to imagine if you understand that what Trump is facing is the ultimate accountability—loss of power, loss of position and loss of control.
While most Americans ignored it, perhaps because it is just too much to bear, it is important to note that Trump has floated publicly more than once the idea that he should stay longer than the two terms permitted under the Constitution. Alarmingly, even his own former lawyer, Michael Cohen, who spent years working closely with him, has said that he fears Trump would not give up power peacefully—even if he loses the 2020 election.
Perpetrators are emboldened if accountability fails.
If you ask a survivor when they felt at greatest risk after reporting their perpetrator, many will tell you it was after they reported the abuse and nothing happened—when abusers are released from jail after just a short stay, or when police show up and leave after doing nothing.
Failed or ineffective accountability often emboldens abusers. If we see Trump as an abuser who is holding America captive in a cycle of abuse, then we can better see that it is absolutely critical that efforts at accountability succeed.
Unfortunately, political accountability in the form of impeachment may not be enough to protect us. Trump is addicted to attention, control and power. His efforts to disrupt our country and undermine our institutions may not stop even once he is out of office. The solution is just like it is for survivors planning to leave: very careful planning. This means developing a plan for long term accountability for Trump and those who do his bidding. Legal accountability in this context is crucial.
It’s time to act—but America should proceed carefully. We are now on the threshold of escape, and what we do from here is critical. We need to have a safety plan during and after separation. We need a strong plan for how to manage or prevent Trump’s attempts at continuing the abuse after we escape from him.
If we understand the cycle of abuse, we can better understand how to break it. Only then can we begin to do the hard work of recovering from this terrible abusive relationship.