I tried watching the debate on Tuesday night, but I soon turned it off. The behavior I was witnessing stirred up old memories.
When I was in junior high, my mom started dating the high school shop teacher. There was a rumor that years earlier, he had been abusive toward his first wife, but he was so charming, it was impossible to believe. He was mechanically gifted and often shared stories about the wonderful things he had done and made and more than once, he used his gifts to help others. Their relationship progressed and they eventually married. Over time though, his grandiosity and narcissism became increasingly evident and along with it, abuse.
He never hit me, but he never missed an opportunity to take shots at me, to remind me of my worthlessness. I regularly heard that I would never amount to anything. Name calling, manipulating, gas lighting, and eye rolling were a daily occurrence. He was verbally and psychologically abusive. He was a malignant narcissist.
When they had been married less than a year, I was selected by my teachers to go to Badger Boys State. My mom and I had a difficult conversation on the way to Ripon College. I somehow found the courage to tell her that if he was still there when I got home, I was going to move in with my grandma. In the days that followed, she found her courage too and moved out.
I wish I could tell you that their separation led to a repentant heart, but it didn’t. His abuse and manipulation only intensified and it definitely took its toll on both my mom and me, but ultimately, leaving was the only healthy option. Sadly, the responses of friends and family were often less than helpful. People were incredulous that someone who was capable of doing good things was so evil.
Now, as a psychologist, I hear stories of abuse and manipulation every day, women and men who live under the terror of narcissists who seek to control and psychologically manipulate them, working to break them down to nothing. Too often, they succeed. The psychological scars left by narcissists are often multigenerational. As Diana Beresford-Kroeger said in her excellent book, To Speak for the Trees, “Trauma casts a long shadow.”
As I watched part of the presidential debate on Tuesday night, I saw a lot of similarities between the president and my former step-father. I watched as the president rolled his eyes, scoffed, lied, interrupted, and belittled Mr. Biden. This is what abusers do, plain and simple.
To be clear, this was not merely an off night for president Trump. These behaviors represent consistent patterns over time. He talks about how great he is while at the same time demeaning and criticizing others. When he failed to decisively condemn white supremacy but indirectly told a white supremacist group, the Proud Boys, to “stand back and stand by,” I heard a vailed threat. As a psychologist, I can tell you that other abuse victims perceived the same things, even if they could not put words to it. Like me, many people had to stop watching.
As someone who has been psychologically abused and who also works with abuse victims, let me offer an explanation about why you may have felt the way you did. You were witnessing an abusive narcissist in action. Donald Trump’s words and actions are not simply a difference in personality style. He doesn’t act the way he does because he’s a New Yorker. He is a manipulative bully.
Sometimes manipulative bullies do good things. In fact, narcissists will take every opportunity to make themselves look better, not principally in service to the greater good, but in order to stoke their pride. As they build themselves up, they leave piles of confused and broken people behind them.
For me, this election is not simply about policy, it is about standing against abuse on a national scale. For me, this election is not about platform, but about speaking out on behalf of the belittled and downtrodden. For me, the election is not simply about difference of opinion, but about using my voice and my vote to speak out against a man who has had four years to “Make America Great Again,” but by his words and actions has left us more deeply divided than we have been for generations.
Let me also recommend some additional resources: