Trapped in an Abusive Relationship with the United States of America
Scott Esposito on Lies, Bullying and Gaslighting on a National Scale
For several days after Stephen Paddock perpetuated the worst mass shooting in the history of the United States, I would start my morning off by crying. The tears would just well up from no particular place, manifesting as a slight constriction in my chest and a warmth behind my eyes as I drank my morning coffee. I made no effort to stifle them as they trailed down my cheeks and wet the front of my shirt. To the contrary, they felt quite good.
I am generally an optimistic, put-together person who can maintain his composure during tough times. Even after other horrific massacres, like those at the Sandy Hook Elementary School and the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, I never experienced anything quite like this. The Las Vegas shooting put me into a depression unlike anything I can recall. As soon as I felt those tears, I knew why this time was different.
Everyone has their limit, and in those days after the massacre in Las Vegas I reached mine. I understood that this was not simply a matter of one evil person mechanically slaughtering innocents. That brutal act had pushed me over the edge, but it only had that power because of all the other heartless, abusive, destructive things I have had to witness ever since that day in late January when Donald Trump was sworn in as our 45th President.
I have come to see that we are a country in the midst of experiencing a mass trauma. Those of us who are dismayed at the almost daily cruelties and absurdities meted out by our nation’s President can be likened to a family member who must live in the household of an abusive man. We ourselves may not be the beaten wife or struck child—and certainly those directly on the receiving end of Trump’s policies have suffered far worse than I, who merely must watch this buffoonish man spit upon what is noble about this nation—but simply to live inside of what another has termed “the abuser’s house” for months on end is taking its toll.
I first encountered this framing during the Presidential debates last October, when Trump made unhinged statements and childish outbursts on live television. This behavior was clearly outside the norm for any Presidential debate I had witnessed in my lifetime, as was Trump’s practice of stalking Hillary Clinton around the debate stage and looming over her in a blatant attempt at bodily intimidation. Of course, the debates were only the tip of the iceberg, as they were preceded by such low points as: bodily mocking a disabled reporter, suggesting that Muslim terrorists should be executed with bullets dipped in pig’s blood, calling Mexican immigrants rapists. We all well know the norm-shattering things Trump did and said in attracting the people who would later elect him President.
The debates were a climax in terms of this behavior, a point when the pure malice of this man crystallized in the minds of many—recall Trump threatening to put Hillary Clinton on trial for treason—and following them the journalist and historian Josh Marshall declared that we were all living in the house of an abusive man: we all had to watch as Trump cholerically and spitefully transgressed the norms and institutions that have kept America’s democracy stable. We had no choice but to sit there and endure his outbursts. We watched him issue outlandish, febrile threats to various groups and individuals. We watched his misogynistic declarations that Hillary Clinton was a criminal, his pleasure at churning his crowds into a frothing rage until they were crying out for her blood.
None of us may have personally met Trump, we may not have been singled out by him for abuse, but violent acts such as these leave marks, particularly when they are made week in and week out by the most powerful person on Earth. And we are quite clearly impacted by the bans on Muslims he has signed into law, his withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, his brinksmanship with North Korea, his efforts to destroy the gains made by the Affordable Care Act, his assistance in shredding the social safety net in order to give tax breaks to those as rich as he claims to be. Having to watch this endless, often spiteful assault on our most basic values adds up, and it deprives us of our hope for a better future. It is, quite simply, an ideology of abuse.
Let us take a very characteristic example. Here is Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House and a hugely powerful Republican, talking with Sean Hannity, a powerful and widely watched TV personality, about what would happen if President of the United States punched Maxine Waters, a female, African-American member of Congress who has very prominently disagreed with his Administration.
NEWT GINGRICH: First of all, let me just say—you’d never get it to happen, but the idea of a round between her and Donald Trump is pretty interesting. I think he would probably win in the opening half minute. But look, what you have on the left, and you see it over and over–
HANNITY: He’s not going to hit a girl, a woman. He’s not going to do that. It’s not–
GINGRICH: Oh, sure.
HANNITY: But– but– but–
GINGRICH: Yeah, but if he was confronted with her, he would be very pleasant until she hit him, and the second she hit him, he would knock her down. I mean, let’s be honest here, this is crazy. I mean, we’re going to have on the left–
HANNITY: Oh jeez, I can see the headline: “Newt Gingrich encourages Trump to hit congresswoman.” I can see the headlines now—that’s not what you’re saying.
GINGRICH: No—look, my point is this, the left—I mean, I did this interview with a reporter the other day, and I cut him off and I said, “You know, you have a pathology. I can’t answer your questions, because you are pathological.” And he was totally stunned and said “What do you mean?” I said, “You are so anti-Trump, you are not in touch with the real world.”
HANNITY: There’s no talking to you.
GINGRICH: “So, how can I have an interview?” I think Maxine Waters is in the same group. There’s this whole group of people who are so, frankly, crazy, that they are certifiably out of touch with reality.
This bears all the hallmarks of an abuser. (For those who would like to read in greater depth on the clinical patterns of abusive spouses and fathers, I recommend Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery, from while I am cribbing liberally.) We begin with Gingrich indulging the fantasy of violently silencing someone he disagrees with—in fact, a woman he disagrees with. When Hannity very rightly recognizes that such thoughts are unacceptable, instead of apologizing for the outburst and shaming Gingrich, he instead chooses to make light of the situation and shift the blame to the victim of Gingrich’s abuse. This is all standard operating procedure: issuing violent threats, then undermining the victim through mockery, while also allowing no outlet for properly addressing such violence. Hannity even goes so far as to preemptively demonize the media, just in case they decide to accurately report on what Gingrich has just stated. Already up is down.
It gets worse: after fantasizing about physically assaulting an opponent, Gingrich recounts how he declared to a reporter that anyone who disagrees with him is “pathological.” When the reporter responds with a stunned reaction at this broadside against his rights and responsibilities as a journalist, Gingrich decides that the man is “not in touch with the real world,” finally concluding that he is “frankly, crazy . . . certifiably out of touch with reality.”
These are textbook tactics of abusers. Instead of attempting empathy and admitting that other human beings may have legitimate needs and beliefs, they instead ceaselessly mock and trivialize their victims. They tell their victims that they are crazy, that their beliefs are simply not worth even a moment of thought. In so doing they seek to create a closed environment so that their victims are unable to get an outside perspective on reality. This is how abusers warp the minds of their victims: they demonize the very validity of their victims’ own thoughts until the victims doubt everything they have ever believed and become willing to accept the abusers’ truths as their own. When this technique is not enough to get the desires results, abusers supplement this assault with violence—be it emotional or physical.
This has happened quite often with the Trump Administration. Recently, we can note, for instance, Donald Trump’s harassment of the widow Myeshia Johnson after she found inadequate his sympathy over the death of her husband, a U.S. Army Sergeant who fell in the line of duty. Trump’s repeated insistence that Johnson lied about things that she and others in the room heard him say is one of the most basic techniques of the abuser, as is Trump’s attempt to create a false reality by having his surrogates support these false statements; for instance, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson, who opined of the widow, “I think there were people who were just looking for something to complain about.” Gaslighting has proven to be one of the core methods pathological narcissists use to maintain control over their victims; needless to say, only those with serious mental deformities would even think of gaslighting a mother who had just lost her husband in the line of duty as an American armed serviceman. Or we might take the statement of New Jersey governor Chris Christie, a noted Trump sycophant and a confirmed repeat victim of Trump’s abuse: Christie says that Trump “yells at me at times, but he respects me.” This is such a boilerplate statement of a victim of abuse as to almost be comical in its lack of self-awareness.
Such incidents are not hard to find; to the contrary, they form the modus operandi of Trump and his team, this Administration having left a string of such victims in its wake, going all the way back to then–Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s very first news conference, where he baselessly declared that “members of the media were engaged in deliberately false reporting” before accusing journalists who simply reported the facts regarding Trump’s lackluster inauguration of “sowing division.” At this point there is, quite simply, an enormous amount of evidence that this Presidency operates through massive, continual psychological abuse.
We all must watch it occur and be victimized by it in one way or another. This is the trauma we are all currently bearing. We know that societies that have existed under brutal dictatorships, ruinous civil wars, catastrophes, or pervasive states of uncertainty, moral devolution, and enlarged pessimism are traumatized by that experience. Clearly we are not at the stage of dictatorship, civil war, or even catastrophe, but we are experiencing uncertainty, moral devolution, and pessimism. We are living in the house of an abusive man. This is reason enough for grave concern.
Let me return to my own personal example. The fact is, it is not regular for me to start multiple morning in tears, and nor is it regular for me to feel on edge, easy to provoke, pessimistic about the future of my world, or unsure that millions of my fellow Americans have any moral compass. These are facts that have settled into my life as I have daily witnessed the callousness and blatant disregard for the wellbeing of others that has characterized Trump and his accessories in the GOP and elsewhere.
These are conclusions that I have fought hard to resist—even today I look for reasons to doubt them—and I will continue to resist pessimism for my nation’s future every single day, but fundamentally there is no escape. I fear that these thoughts and feelings will only continue to get worse until there is a sea change in American politics.
And this is the thing. It is possible to live one’s life in an abusive relationship. People in such households can have good days mixed in with the bad; sometimes for a period the abuser will seem less malign and life can take on a surprising normalcy. But what one can never do in such a relationship is to recover. Those who have made such abuse their field of study are clear: recovery only begins once the victim has escaped the abuser’s grasp. The processing of this trauma can only happen once the victim begins to feel a measure of safety and begins to truly believe in a better future.
We cannot escape. We are stuck with Trump until he decides to move on, until he is voted out of office, until Congress finally accepts its duty to protect the nation from dangerous and blatantly illegal leadership. Fundamentally we cannot begin to recover from the trauma of living under this government until it ends.
I have mixed feelings about applying the term “not normal” to this Presidency for in many ways it whitewashes the enormous wrongs that have been committed by prior American Presidents, Democratic and Republican alike. But regardless of exactly how unprecedented, how non-normal are the policies aims of this Administration, it is clear that its abusive and authoritarian methods diverge significantly from recent Presidencies. We must never normalize the abuse being perpetuated on the people of this nation, the mean-spirited, childish callousness that has now become part of how our Federal government operates. The true danger of authoritarian regimes comes when the emotionally exhausted, desperate populace eventually succumbs to a kind of sleepwalking, still aware that things are gravely wrong but now accepting that this is their reality. This is the beginning of conditions such as Stockholm Syndrome, where the victim loses touch with reality outside of the abusive relationship, and this is where even the toughest and most resilient minds are broken down.
I welcomed those tears in my kitchen for many reasons—they were a necessary release, moments of catharsis, little breaks from the work of pushing against this vileness and absurdity—but most of all I wanted them as proof of my humanity. At their most basic, they were a recognition that I had experienced one tragedy too many under this President, proof positive that I would never be able to say—as I had just heard a Kansan tell a journalist for National Public Radio—that we must simply accept 58 murders and hundreds of casualties as the necessary cost for the freedom of arming ourselves to the teeth with weapons made for war zones. These tears were my proof that on this morning I was not succumbing to the brutal reality this President hopes to force upon us all—in fact I found such a normalization horrifying to the point that it induced tears. Going forward I will continue to remember these tear-filled mornings as a point at which my body very viscerally told me that I had witnessed too much violence in these 8 months.
I have generally written these columns in an optimistic key, because I am fundamentally an optimistic person, and because there is already more than enough cynicism about this nation’s future to be found on the Internet. The elevator-pitch description of this column is “how the arts make the Trump Presidency more bearable,” and here I have sought to inspire, to show how these books we love, this literary community that sustains us, can give us perspective and support during this historically awful moment. I still do endorse that philosophy, and I know for a fact that literature and the communities I find around it have done enormous amounts to sustain me in this period, clearly one of the worst of my life. But perhaps also part of the task of making this Presidency bearable is to at times make it unbearable. As Theodor Adorno wrote, “It is part of the mechanism of domination to forbid recognition of the suffering it produced.” We should recognize that suffering, if only to let it out and be more honest with one another. There is relief and knowledge in occasionally witnessing ourselves in extremis, in simply admitting that terrible things are afoot and crying the necessary tears.
Recently a friend of mine visited New York City for the first time. He is one of the many who have immigrated to the United States—who continue to immigrate here despite this Administration’s efforts to define the U.S. as a “white nation.” He has only been here for a short time. Most of his energy has been encumbered with the work of navigating bureaucracy, setting up his home, and establishing himself at his new life. But he at last took a break to see what his new home had to offer. So he saw New York City, one of the most indelible achievements America has given to the world.
Throughout the weekend of his visit to New York I was pleased to see him post one photo after another on social media, each one featuring a caption that communicated his sincere astonishment and joy at the cultural treasures he felt so honored to experience. During his trip we happened to chat via text message, and he became solemn about what he was seeing in New York. My friend told me that he felt it was a privilege to be able to live in this country, a place of such cultural opulence and grandeur.
I cannot tell you how much I needed to hear those words right then. I thanked my friend for giving this nation of mine a very gracious and honest compliment, and I informed him that it was precisely what I needed to grab on to at this moment of intense doubt in the goodness of my homeland. It has been proven that even in the wake of life-wrecking disasters, hope for the future can be preserved if we are given reason to believe that we live in a caring community of those who will give material support to one another. Essentially, that there are still decent people and institutions with whom we can build a better tomorrow. I will keep on grabbing on to such sentiments wherever I can find them. They are things that I need right now more now that I have ever before.
Reading for Troubled Times
- Minima Moralia by Theodor Adorno (tr. E F N Jephcott)
- Don’t Let Me Be Lonely by Claudia Rankine
- Theatre of the Oppressed by Augusto Boll (tr. Charles A. McBride)
- Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman
- No Is Not Enough by Naomi Klein
- Democracy in Chains by Nancy MacLean