As a psychologist who works with struggling couples, I am struck by the behavior of our president-elect toward the American people. As a country, we’ve been “engaged” for barely a month, yet this already feels like an abusive relationship. While I’m working with people to teach them how to get along better, Donald Trump is serving as the big-league model for the partner we do not want to be.
I had this realization a few days back while reading how Trump gathered a group of television anchors and executives to tell them that they are “liars” for not reporting the “truth”. The truth as he sees it, of course.
Gaslighting is the term that comes to mind here. Popularized by the film about a woman whose husband attempts to drive her mad by telling her she’s imagining things that are really happening, it is a classic move by abusers. “Trust me: I know what’s going on and you’re crazy.” When the soon-to-be President with a long history of documented untruths tells us that our version of reality is wrong, we’re getting played. In a very, very un-American way.
And it’s not just that we’re being gaslit. All the key hallmarks of abuse are present in this developing relationship.
Isolation: People in abusive relationships are often cut off from their loved ones, so they can’t get support or a reality check. As a result of the Trump campaign (now incoming administration) working to divide Americans based on religion, ethnicity, and class, all of us have less support from each other and are more fearful and suspicious. Just like poor Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight, cut off from the world by Charles Boyer, it becomes harder to trust even our own perceptions that something awful is happening to us.
Don’t upset the abuser: Trump’s demand that the Hamilton cast “Apologize!” for addressing Mike Pence, or Trump surrogate Kellyanne Conway’s warning Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid to be “very careful”, aims to scare us into fearing unnamed consequences if we speak up about actions and policies we don’t like. The result: we become afraid to open our mouths, giving up our precious First Amendment right to free speech.
Mixed messages: Abusers often behave lovingly—at times—to those whom they abuse. This maneuver serves to create doubt in their partners’ minds that abuse is really happening, and to build hope that the abuse will not continue.
When Trump posts a mild-mannered video on YouTube, talking about working with “everyone” to “make America great again”, we start to question whether he really wants to diminish our freedoms, seek advice from bigots, and appoint foxes to guard some extremely precious henhouses. Maybe he’s really a nice guy who simply wants to help all of us.
And when he appears at the New York Times, affable, humorous, apparently thoughtful, and describing a paper he’d labeled “failing” a few hours earlier as “a world jewel”, I’m certainly not the only person who wants to hope that his divisive moves are a thing of the past.
Distortion of Reality: The equivalent of holding up only two fingers and insisting there are three. “Reality” is built on falsehoods that touch the edge of semi-truths. Repeated over and over again, what is false comes to be accepted as true. “Locker room talk”, anyone?
Vicious criticism: Need I say more? Those who criticize are attacked, not only by Trump and his direct surrogates but also by an ever-growing sinister army—online, in the streets, and even in Washington DC’s Reagan Building—whom Trump has denounced far less vociferously than he did the cast of Hamilton or Alec Baldwin. Speaking up becomes dangerous.
Our National Anthem describes the United States as “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” I never really understood the importance of this phrase until November 9th, when freedom suddenly became threatened and voicing a viewpoint, risky.
We will likely be locked into this relationship for the next four years. As Americans—and as individuals who wish to behave with integrity—we have two challenges here. First, keeping in mind that victims often become abusers, we must resist emulating the behavior we are witnessing and experiencing. Second, we must not allow ourselves to be silent victims in this relationship. As one people, let us unite to keep our eyes open, recognize when we’re being played, hold onto our perceptions of reality, and above all, speak out.
A version of this article was previously published on Huffington Post
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