Today is the eleventh day of the year. The same year that Donald J. Trump faces the looming prospect of a lost, or at least contentious, election. There is talk of an impending recession in the United States. He sits in the White House under impeachment due to multiple abuses of power. According to Wikipedia, at least 23 women have accused him of sexual assault since the 1980s. And Trump’s decision to withhold his tax records from the American people will be challenged in the Supreme Court this year.
So we have the showdown with Iran, initiated and then concluded by a man who puts his ego before the safety, even the survival, of his country. But this is what abusers do. By threatening the world with an entirely preventable war, Trump is gaslighting us all. He is also improving his chances for re-election. No U.S. president has run for re-election during wartime and lost. Ever. This is a strategy. A game. And whatever his supporters may want to believe, the only winner here is Trump.
I know this because Trump has the profile of an abuser. And for those of you who have been reading my blog a while, you know. If I know anything, it’s abusers and how they operate. I have 30 years of front-row experience. I’ve seen the way they can detonate the lives of everyone around them, even enablers or bystanders. I know how they successfully manipulate and dupe otherwise decent people into denying or participating in their abuse. Here are their tells.
1. They see themselves as victims.
This can be complicated because sometimes, usually at some distant point in their past, they truly were. They may be child abuse survivors. They may have survived spousal abuse. My father comes from a long line of men who were beaten or neglected by their own fathers. Trump, too, was famously neglected by his harsh, withholding father. But the problem is, they never move beyond that identity. They believe that first and foremost, they are victims. They have been mistreated, and you owe them your sympathy and loyalty.
2. They therefore deserve whatever they want.
Unlike many abuse and assault survivors, abusers take all the wrong lessons from the horrors they survived. Instead of seeing themselves as just one drop in a vast sea of human suffering, they believe their victimhood makes them unique. No one has ever suffered as they have. Instead of deepened empathy and a protectiveness towards the most vulnerable, they focus on themselves. Life owes them, they say. Instead of using their experience of trauma to ally themselves with women, people of color, children, the disabled, and other marginalized groups, they use it to guilt other people into giving them special treatment and making allowances for their bad behavior. And they use it to persuade people that they deserve whatever they want, whether that’s a new sports car or the presidency.
This entitlement can also manifest as an allergy to the word “no.” Consent is an inconvenience to abusers. A challenge. Not only do they deserve special treatment because they have suffered, but they believe that anything less is harassment. If you tell them that their suffering is not the same as the daily onslaught of racism and misogyny experienced by others, they throw a tantrum. If you tell them you cannot cancel another meeting and drive two hours to come hold their hand for the tenth time, they call you names and threaten to kill themselves. If you say no to any demand, if you assert boundaries at all, you are the abusive one. They are being persecuted. Anything less than getting their way is injustice.
3. They hold paranoid beliefs about the world, insisting it’s a zero-sum game, and everyone is out to get them.
One of my father’s favorite mantras was “It’s dog-eat-dog out there.” If you weren’t hurting someone, then you were the one getting hurt. Power to these folks is all or nothing; either you have it or you don’t, and if you intend to survive, then you’ll do whatever it takes to grab power for yourself. He insisted that any kindness would only come back to bite us. People would read it as weakness. In fact, he believed pretty much everyone who wasn’t complicit in his abusive cult of personality was out to get him.
This is why, in my experience, so many abusers are committed white supremacists, misogynists, homophobes, ableists, and transphobes. The more groups they can have an advantage over, they believe the better their chances are. They’re fans of social Darwinism. They look at history and see it as vindication. They have all these privileges, the abuser will eagerly tell you, because they are superior. They’ve proven that for millennia. Their position over you is exactly what you deserve. They adore books like Guns, Germs, and Steel or the half-cocked theories on Fox News that assure them that might makes right and anyone who doesn’t kneel before your clear supremacy (or that of America or Christianity or manhood or whiteness) must be destroyed. They view the future as an apocalypse and themselves as the rightful inheritors of what remains. Empathy is a lie, they’ll tell you. It makes you weak. And you can’t afford that in a world where everyone is out to get you.
4. It’s all about them.
Unfortunately, abusers are solipsistic. You’ll never get anywhere telling them they’ve hurt someone because other people aren’t real to them. We’re tools to help them stop feeling the way they feel. The only reality they know, they only one they care about, is themselves. And they have thin skin about anything that suggests the world works just fine without them at the center of it. If my brother and I were having a quiet conversation, my father would accuse us of gossiping about him. If he wanted to shove me into a dark room and listen to me scream, he did. Anytime I fought back, he experienced it as a struggle for dominance, so he redoubled his efforts to prove his will was stronger than a 13-year-old child’s.
Abusers only see the world in terms of “mine” and “not yet mine.” When they claim possession, it is swiftly and unilaterally. And once they decide something is for or about them, they won’t let it go. Anyone who challenges them will quickly find themselves in a territory dispute, which is preposterous when it’s over your own body or life choices. Many people marvel at Trump’s egocentrism. Every tweet, every news article, everything that anyone says (or doesn’t say) is about him. The world is his kingdom, and anyone who thinks otherwise is, in his view, attacking him.
5. They lie compulsively.
First off, we all lie. But these are quotidian lies. We pretend to know more about a subject than we do, so as to avoid lengthy explanations we don’t want to hear. We tell a friend we’re sad to reschedule when we’re actually relieved to have the day to ourselves. We tell a child that their unintelligible scribbles are great art.
These aren’t the lies I’m talking about. I’m talking about bizarre lies. Pointless lies. Lies that reveal disturbing impulses. When my brother was about five, my father fabricated a mythology about a lost twin, a double of my brother, whom we had left behind when we moved. And this boy, this doppelganger, was looking for us. He was getting closer every day. And when he finally found us, he would slip into the family and replace my brother, and none of us would ever know.
This is the kind of deception I’m talking about. It’s not a lie that would ever occur to the average person. It’s so diabolical, so downright evil, because it is so damaging to a five-year-old child’s sense of himself, his reality, and his value to his family. There was no other point to it than to fuck with him.
In his powerful and eloquent memoir Not My Father’s Son, Alan Cumming addresses a similarly evil lie from his own father, a lie that also threatened Cumming’s position in his family and his sense of relationship and connection to his mother and sibling. Because that’s what abusers do. They invent alternate realities, ones that rob of you of your power and confidence, your alliances and identity, and then they force you to live there.
This is why Trump lies. And it is why his lies are particularly targeted towards people of color, women, immigrants, refugees, and LGBTQIA+. These groups already carry trauma, and their position in our society is tenuous. By fabricating a reality where they are criminals, rapists, liars, and terrorists, he has made our social contracts with each other even more fragile.
6. They wear their rage on their sleeve, choosing to escalate every conflict they encounter.
Abusers are angry. How could they not be? They were victims at some distant point in the past, usually as children. But instead of healing that wound and surrounding themselves with nurturing people and communities, they decide that the world is out to get them. And they experience any denial or obstruction as a personal attack.
Anger can also feel powerful, and abusers are addicted to power. They tote their rage like a gunslinger totes a pistol. They turn it on anyone the moment they sense a “no” coming. Years ago, a landlord asked me to cancel my plans and stay in town over Christmas to help him vet applicants, especially one woman who wanted to meet any potential future housemates. My landlord was a bully and a manipulator, and he’d made lots of unreasonable demands and sexist comments in the nearly four years I rented from him. But this time I drew the line. I had plans. I had commitments. It was the holidays. But as soon as he picked up on my no, he immediately escalated. Seconds later, he gave me verbal notice (which is illegal) that I was to vacate in 20 days.
Trump does exactly the same thing. Iran is just the latest example. Trump had a number of options on the table. And he chose the one most likely to plunge us into war. This is what abusers do. They escalate the shit out of any situation until the other person is forced to back down or go nuclear. The only way to win in this situation is to walk away. Which is what Iran did, and what I did, too. After my landlord’s threat, I typed up and mailed a certified letter giving him written notice (to ensure it was legal) of my intent to vacate. As soon as you spot this kind of behavior, get out. It will never end well.
7. They use coercion over consensus-building.
Abusers have no interest in the greater welfare. They want what they want, and they are going to get it. If this means you have to lose everything, that’s fine. It only confirms their worldview. Less sophisticated abusers use threats to coerce people into giving them what they want (see the landlord above). Trump loves this method. He is always threatening to sue, to add more tariffs and taxes, to withdraw from treaties, to penalize and punish and rain hellfire and brimstone.
More subtle abusers use less obvious forms of control. My first husband certainly used threats of violence. But he also stalked me when I tried to leave him. He made fun of my appearance and complained that I could have been prettier. He isolated me by ignoring my friends and, when we were together, socializing only with Thai women. He refused to speak English when we visited with anyone Thai, and when I became fluent in Thai, he still shut down my attempts to join conversations. He controlled all the decisions and resources in our relationship, with the exception of a small savings account I kept for myself. There were no negotiations. He decided where we lived, what we ate, and who used the car and when. I was left with no choice but to go along or leave.
8. They can only maintain relationships if they are in control.
Abusers don’t trust people, thanks to their paranoia. So they cannot maintain relationships where they aren’t in control. This surfaces in parent-child relationships, romantic relationships, and friendships. Abusers need to know they have power over those around them. They think in binaries, and so people are either with them or against them. They either have the power, or you do. Abusers are certain of their own rightness, and they are pathologically incapable of reflecting on their own mistakes. They do not apologize. They have no interest in personal growth. They have no concern for how you feel. And they are passionately against the free expression and self-actualization of those around them. A happy, fulfilled person is much harder to control than a dependent, uncertain one.
Abusers are often uncomfortably close with grown children, parents, partners, and friends. They can appear generous on the surface, but Trump’s “gifts” of government positions to his favorite children and cronies come with strings attached. The number one job of anyone close to an abuser is to make them look good, to dispel suspicions, to defend them against their many “enemies.” The general public is obsessed with Melania and Ivanka Trump, and that’s part of the deal. Both women’s positions are contingent on staying in Trump’s good graces, and their positions help distract us from Trump.
It’s no accident that my father married a young, inexperienced woman with Autism Spectrum Disorder. He found her easy to control. She trusted him to guide her through a neurotypical world she struggled to navigate. He quickly built an alternate reality for her where he was the only one she could trust. Then, once he got in her head, he kept her off-balance. He encouraged her to quit her job to raise their children. Then he criticized her for depending on his income, for being lazy and selfish. He abused their daughter. But when the child complained about his mistreatment, he said the kid was exaggerating, and who was she going to believe anyway? A child, or the man who had helped her get as far as she had in life?
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As I’ve written here, I spent some time myself in most of these categories. I’m not sure you can emerge from childhood trauma without some of these traits. But then you grow up, and you have a choice. You can lean into your victimization, your rage, and your belief that the world owes you. Or you can decide that you’re not going to add fuel to the bonfire of hate and violence. You can use your pain to better understand the oppression of others. And you slowly, slowly work at dousing the flame inside you, which it turns out is as much about self-destruction as it is about world domination.
It’s a choice.
It’s always a choice.