Trump’s Abuse of America is Getting Lethal

Photo by tom coe on Unsplash

The first Presidential debate was many things, and terrifying on many levels, but for those of us who understand the dynamics of domestic abuse, it was predictable. While it may have been the latest in a series of assaults on our public norms and institutions, it was not the first, and with Trump slipping in the polls it certainly won’t be the last.

A domestic violence victim sits alone in her kitchen. It is the day after a particularly dangerous violent incident. Over the past three years of the relationship, her abuser has systematically isolated and demoralized her, destabilizing every aspect of her life. As she sits in her home, drinking coffee and planning her escape, she is statistically at the greatest lethal risk she has ever faced.

What Donald Trump has done to America can be best understood as the political version of what a perpetrator of domestic violence does to a victim, using every opportunity to isolate, destabilize, demoralize, and overwhelm– to maintain control and power at all cost, even if it means completely destroying their victim in the process. Predictably, when accountability failed and he successfully avoided removal after impeachment, Trump’s abuse tactics escalated. Now Trump isn’t just undermining our norms; he is threatening the existence of our democracy and the basic safety and security of every American.

Over the past four years, the country has been fundamentally changed by Donald Trumps abuse and just a matter of days before the election we are on the eve of potential escape. Unfortunately for all of us, 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.

Trump is the nation’s abuser —and the risk is now lethal

America has suffered almost four years of constant abuse at the hands of Donald Trump. He has manipulated, attacked, destabilized and demoralized us with his relentless attacks on our public norms and democratic institutions. It is undoubtedly a deeply frightening and disturbing moment in American history, but as any survivor of domestic violence will tell you, there is a path forward, but first we need to step back and understand the severity of the risk we are facing, and then we need to create a safe escape plan.

As an attorney who has worked extensively in the field of domestic violence, I am all too familiar with the risk in this moment we find ourselves in as a nation. One year ago, I warned that we were in our Most Dangerous Moment Yet of the Trump Presidency, because Trump was about to face accountability through impeachment and the coming election. I observed that Trump was behaving like a classic abuser who thinks he can destabilize, demoralize, cheat, manipulate, bully, and lie his way through any situation and warned that if impeachment failed, he would undoubtedly escalate his abuse. Although rarely acknowledged at the time, I also suggested that like any abuser who does everything in their power to resist accountability, Trump may refuse to give up the Presidency even if he lost the election. Sadly, I was not only right about this, but the escalation is far worse than I imagined at the time.

Understanding Trump as an abuser using classic abuser tactics isn’t just a theoretical framework. When Trump’s conduct is understood through the cycle of abuse and the power and control tactics abusers use, it becomes clear that our country’s relationship with Donald Trump won’t be over on November 3, on January 20th or anytime in the near future if we don’t take serious steps to prevent his destructive behavior. The main difference between abusers and authoritarians in the end is that authoritarians have power over and the ability to harm many more people.

Trump’s election threats must be taken seriously

As political accountability and potential criminal accountability for fraud loom, Trump is openly admitting he may not leave office peacefully, undermining the integrity of the American election system, and rallying white supremacist extremist groups to his cause.

When asked on September 23, whether he would agree to a peaceful transfer of power if Biden wins, Trump responded,

“Well, we’ll have to see what happens. You know that. I’ve been complaining very strongly about the ballots. And the ballots are a disaster.”

Responding to a follow up question he added,

“Get rid of the ballots, and you’ll have a very — you’ll have a very peaceful — there won’t be a transfer, frankly, there’ll be a continuation.”

But just like the debate wasn’t his first assault on norms of political civility, he has been laying this groundwork to undermine the election and stay in power at all costs for a long time.

Destabilization is Trump’s strategy

Destabilization is a core tool of an abuser. Trump’s conduct in recent years is understandable only if one sees that Donald Trump has destabilized our nation and destroyed our sense of safety — on purpose. Just like abusers work to relentlessly undermine every aspect of the lives of their victims until they are the only remaining center of power, Trump is fostering chaos wherever possible. If attention shifts from him for even a moment, he does or says something even more untenable, ensuring we are all in a constant state of reaction to his outrageous conduct and inflammatory commentary.

Abusers seek to take advantage of their victim’s deepest and most painful vulnerabilities, maximizing them to further undermine their victim’s safety. Trump’s overt racism, xenophobia, and increasingly dangerous hate speech are not just reflective of his racist and white supremacist belief system, but he is also using them strategically, as tools, to achieve his purpose — seeking to capitalize on the country’s current movement for racial reckoning to maximize the destabilization.

Trump’s attack on our civil and political culture and his direct attacks on our system of government have been so multifaceted, so pervasive, and so constant that it has desensitized us, and we tune out or develop such strong psychological defenses it can be difficult to understand the risk. In the face of this barrage of assaults, the country is in a constant state of overwhelm. His outrages and attacks are so frequent that even his most egregious statements barely gain traction in the news before the next outrageous statement or damaging action rises to the top of the news cycle, which is almost always dominated by Trump. Stepping back to see the scope of his attacks helps us see the pattern.

The most obviously lethal threat we face at the hands of Trump is his interference with, obstruction of, and finally his outright refusal to permit a meaningful national COVID response. From waging a nationwide disinformation campaign about the virus, to obstructing the efforts of States, to interference with the CDC, Trump has done everything in his power to disrupt the public health response to the virus, leading to the deaths of 200,000 plus Americans and placing millions more at risk of death and serious illness. But the lethal threat of COVID is far from the only lethal threat Americans are face in coming months.

Trump has normalized the most dangerous and extreme forms of overt racism and xenophobia we have seen in generations; praised and encouraged perpetrators of racist violence, and set the stage for his followers to perpetrate violent attacks against his political opponents. He has weaponized federal authority against immigrant families and peaceful protestors, attacked and encouraged violence against the free press, while praising armed bands of white supremacists.

Trump has sought to co-opt critically important government institutions to abandon their public interest missions and instead to work only to advance his personal political power. He has been successful in his disruption, steadily undermining many of the institutions our civil society relies on using the leadership of the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security as political hacks and henchmen, censoring the Environmental Protection Agency and undermining the ability of the Centers for Disease Control to protect the country in the midst of a global lethal pandemic. At every turn he has broken with the longstanding norms of our democratic civil and political system, sought to redefine it only around one thing: allegiance to Donald Trump. He has ignored the lawful jurisdiction of Governors and mayors and invaded American cities with federal authorities against their wishes, played power politics with federal disaster aid and perhaps most frighteningly for its short and long term implications, stacked the federal judiciary, and the Supreme Court with radical right wing ideologues loyal to him.

Trump has continued his pattern of isolating America from our friends and allies, destroying and disrupting longstanding international relationships aimed at promoting international human rights, cooperation, peace and security. He has abandoned international cooperative agreements, undermined our relationships with the European Union and NATO, attacked international human rights norms, and waged assaults against the International Criminal Court. His priority has been to cultivate alliances and do the bidding of the world’s leading violent authoritarians.

It is impossible to catalog the breaks from democratic norms that comprise the Trump Presidency. This is by design. Because just like an abuser, breaking us down until all that’s left in our awareness is him, and his power over us, is his purpose. When we understand that, we can better understand not only what has happened to us as a nation in the last four years, but where we are headed next.

We are at a critical moment and must recognize the risk

In the field of domestic violence, we use a tool called a “lethality assessment” to help victims determine the level of lethal risk they may be facing. The factors we look at for whether an abuser may be a lethal risk to his victim include things like whether the perpetrator knows the victim is planning to leave, or if the victim has recently separated, whether the abuser is currently employed or facing imminent unemployment, whether the violence has escalated in the past year, whether he is facing some type of significant accountability event, like an arrest or court proceeding, and perhaps most significant, whether he has threatened lethal violence.

When we consider these types of factors on a larger scale and look at them through the political lens of Trump’s words and actions, it is clear that Trump now poses a lethal threat to our country.

Voting may not be enough

As Trump’s attacks on the norms and institutions have escalated, many have been under the mistaken belief that the election would solve our Trump problem. However, Trump’s own words and actions make clear that the election in November, while critically important, may not be enough to restabilize the country. Abusers don’t accept accountability easily. Abusers, when they are about to lose power over their victim, go to any and all lengths to maintain power. To do this, they lie, get others to lie for them, cheat when they can, manipulate, coerce and ultimately they escalate further and resort to force and if necessary, violence. Trump has been following this path for a long time and this was always going to be where it ended.

In May 2019 after it was first publicly suggested on Twitter by now disgraced evangelical leader Jerry Fallwell Jr., Trump began suggesting he was owed more time in his Presidency,

“Despite the tremendous success that I have had as President including perhaps the greatest ECONOMY and most successful first two years of any President in history, they have stolen two years of my (our) Presidency (Collusion Delusion) that we will never be able to get back.”

And, then, predictably, he escalated.

On twitter in June, Trump proposed staying longer than two terms, “do you think the people would demand that I stay longer.” In what some characterized as joking, but his own former attorney has assured is not a joke, Trump has threatened to stay in power indefinitely.

“We ran one time and we’re 1-and-0. But it was for the big one. Now we’re going to have a second time. And we’re going to have a second time. And we’re going to have another one. And then we’ll drive them crazy. And maybe if we really like it a lot- and if things keep going like they’re going- we’ll go and do what we have to do. We’ll do a three and a four and a five.”

As his poll numbers hit another low point early this summer and the economy began to show effects of the failed COVID response, he heated up his attacks on the legitimacy of the election, claiming it would be “fraudulent” and suggesting it be delayed, tweeting,

“2020 will be the most INNACURATE & FAUDULENT Election in history. It will be a great embarrassment for the USA. Delay the Election until people can properly, securely, and safely vote???”

In another summer interview on FOX, as his poll numbers were slipping, Trump repeatedly called mail in ballots “rigged” and revealed for the first time his intention to resist leaving. He stated that he is “not a good loser” and when asked if he would accept the results if he loses, he responded

“I have to see, look, I have to see, I’m not just going to say yes, I’m not going to say no, and I didn’t last time either.”

Abusers blame the victim for their conduct

Notwithstanding the fact that mail in voting has been proven to be quite secure, Trump has begun a massive disinformation effort attacking the legitimacy of the election, claiming that due to mail in voting the election will be a “fraud,’ “rigged”, a “hoax” and even “the greatest scam in the history of politics.”

He has even threatened to deploy law enforcement to disrupt the election,

“We’re going to have sheriffs, and we’re going to have law enforcement, and we’re going to have, hopefully, US attorneys, and we’re going to have everybody and attorney generals.”

He has recruited others to perpetuate this lie about the security of the election system, including most significantly, Attorney General Bill Barr. Of course, by casting doubt on the election itself, seeking to block states in court from implementing COVID contingencies for voting by mail, and threatening law enforcement presence at the polls, Trump is engaging in the election interference himself.

The irony is not lost on anyone with experience dealing with abusers. Abusers consistently accuse victims of their own worst behavior, often casting themselves in the role of victim. Given that it is now well established fact that in 2016 there was election tampering — by Russia to help elect Trump — and given the strong indications are that the same interference is planned in 2020, it comes as no surprise Trump is accusing the Democrats of election fraud.

But won’t it all end if Biden wins?

The risk of Russian election interference aside, many have suggested that the simple key to getting rid of Trump is an overwhelming victory for Biden. However, it might not be that simple. On the heels of a loss, if Trump’s previous abusive behavior is any guide, one thing is almost certain, he will still try everything in his power to stay in control.

Abusers, even when they are confronted with their actions, seek to avoid accountability at all costs, refusing to acknowledge any authority but their own. Even before his recent statement acknowledging that he may refuse a peaceful transfer of power if Biden wins, it was clear that Trump will most likely stop at nothing to maintain power. Trump has been laying the groundwork for well over a year to cast doubt on the results — he knows that not only his Presidency, but possibly his freedom and his family’s freedom, is at risk.

When dealing with abusers, it is helpful to listen to the people who know them best. His former lawyer and longtime fixer, Michael Cohen, warned that this is where we may end up more than a year and a half ago. In February 2019 during his testimony for the House Committee on Oversight and Reform he stated:

“I fear that if he loses in 2020, that there will never be a peaceful transition of power.”

Trump knows his freedom is at stake. As Cohen explained in his book, Disloyal,Cohen, who is in a better position to know what Trump’s current legal liability is than almost anyone stated:

“He would likely be convicted on both the Federal and State charges and face serious prison time, That is Donald Trump’s greatest fear in life, believe me, and if he fails to get reelected, that will be his fate — and he knows it.”

Cohen’s assertion that Trump faces criminal liability seem to be bolstered by the recent revelations by the New York Times that he has paid little to no taxes in the last 15 years.

Members of Trump’s own family have warned Trump has no ethical framework of boundaries. Mary Trump’s book about her uncle, Too Much and Never Enough, is a terrifying profile of a man with no compass beyond his own self-satisfaction, and even Donald Trump’s older sister, a former federal judge, has described her own brother as “cruel” and stated “He has no principles.”

Trump doesn’t play by the rules — he will use any and all tactics

His debate performance and the revelations about his failure to pay taxes are just the most recent examples of the fundamental truth about Trump. Trump believes the rules do not apply to him. When we see this, we have to understand he may be willing to try any and all tactics, legal and otherwise, at his disposal to stay in power. If he is facing criminal prosecution when he leaves the White House, as his own former lawyer believes to be likely, he literally has nothing to lose.

As Barton Gellman has recently described in frightening detail in his Atlantic piece, “The Election That Could Break America,” Trump has put the wheels in motion to obstruct his defeat at all costs. While there are many potential outcomes, one scenario seems most troubling at this point: Trump casts doubt on the result, potentially with the aid of foreign disinformation interference efforts, delays while he and his Republican operatives seek to get States to nullify election results in key swing states, Republican State Legislatures appoint electors to declare Trump the winner, and then Trump counts on his newly installed conservative majority in the Supreme Court to vote to keep him in power.

Trump’s election chaos strategy

Trump’s legal efforts to maneuver himself into the Presidency for four more years won’t be taking place in a vacuum. We have seen how Trump uses public protest as an excuse to exercise unprecedented federal law enforcement power, and this may be a key strategy he implements during the aftermath of the election. His advisor, Roger Stone, who he pardoned after his conviction for seven felonies, has suggested that Trump should use martial law to stay in office. Both Stone and Trump have previously endorsed the idea of the invoking the federal Insurrection Act of 1807 against Trump’s political opposition.

Trump has begun promoting the idea that there will be violence on the heels of the election. Trump is openly calling on the right wing extremists groups like the Proud Boys to “Stand Back and Stand By.” Here again, this is a tried and true tactic for Trump. He has deployed federal troops from agencies run by those loyal to him to inflame violence and create chaos during peaceful protests, and has repeatedly made comments praising roving bands of extremists who carry guns into peaceful protests as “GREAT PATRIOTS” while repeatedly attacking the anti-racism protestors.

These strategies will only be successful if Trump has help. Like many abusers, Trump has surrounded himself with people who do his bidding and if the past four years is any indication, he will have help.

How bad could it get?

When we understand the lethality of the threat Donald Trump poses to the Democracy, the seriousness of the accountability he faces if he doesn’t win, even this possibility can’t be ruled out. We should look to the tactics of abusers and authoritarians. It is a common tactic to get victims in trouble with the legal system. In authoritarian regimes this tactic takes the form of deploying state power to arrest and/or criminalize their political opposition.

Like an abuser who threatens the life of his victim, Trump has repeatedly forecasted his actions with words — perhaps to normalize and desensitize us, or at least overwhelm us so that by the time he breaches a norm, it is no longer a shock. Trump began normalizing the criminalization of his opposition from the very beginning of his 2016 Presidential campaign. What started as a “lock her up” chant at his rallies against Hillary Clinton in 2016, shifted to his calls for the DOJ to open criminal investigations into former President Obama and Joe Biden, and has now escalated into a climate where anyone who doesn’t support Trump is deemed an enemy by Trump.

Will the leaders of our criminal justice system and our judiciary permit this kind of rapid descent into textbook authoritarianism? Unfortunately, after four years of ideological federal court packing, the deep erosion of the independence of our Department of Justice under the Attorney General Bill Barr, and with yet another Trump Supreme Court Nomination imminent, it seems at least remotely plausible. For his part, Bill Barr has already shown himself willing to use his office to do Donald Trump’s bidding and to weaponize the power of the State against political opponents in unprecedented ways, most recently by encouraging federal prosecutors to consider charging protesters with sedition in the run up to the election.

Understanding the degree of threat we are facing, what Trump has at stake, and his pattern of escalation, we have to ask — can we still escape safely?

America needs a safe escape plan

When victims of domestic abuse are getting ready to leave their abusers, domestic violence advocates help them make a safety plan. This is a highly individualized and critically important process that involves finding safe people, safe places and safe ways to leave their abuser and also ways to help them stay safe and as protected as possible from their abuser after they do. In the case of America, facing the rise of an authoritarian form of government, the first step in such a plan is understanding and appreciating the scale and the scope of the risk we face.

Since we don’t yet know what will happen on November 3 or the days and weeks after, it is impossible to predict precisely what steps after the election will be needed. However, any safety plan for America at this point must start today.

Such a plan would start with each of us doing everything within our power to ensure safe, free, and fair elections without interference. For individuals, that means voting and getting others to vote. But this may not be enough. For election officials and authorities at the state, local and national level, every single possible step must be taken to ensure election protection. There are structures and processes that exist for this purpose. Every possible legitimate channel, every local state and federal official must be pressured to act now to ensure that the election system are prepared to function properly and without interference.

But perhaps it is time to consider asking our friends for help. In the context of domestic violence, when faced with a grave risk, victims often turn to friends and to systems that they feel they can trust. Under these increasingly dire circumstances, the country would be well served to invite international election monitoring. Since it is obvious such an invitation won’t come from Trump and given the potentially dire consequences of irregularities, a formerly leading western democracy about to fall into the hands of an authoritarian — perhaps key State Governors might be convinced to invite monitors.

Even if Trump leaves office, we will still need a safety plan. A safety plan for victims often involves limiting or eliminating post-separation contact with an abuser who will continue to use whatever influence he has to abuse from afar. In this case, limiting Trump’s ability to continue to incite hate and racist violence after the election may mean his swift arrest for the several pre-election crimes that his lawyer and others have suggested that Trump has committed.

Many more steps toward safety, and ultimately to accountability, will be needed before we are done with Donald Trump. But regardless of how long it takes the final step in the safety plan won’t change. As a country living through years of his abuse, we will have to begin the long and arduous task of healing. The hard work of cleaning up the damage he has done to our culture, our politics, our relationships, and our communities will go on for decades — a task survivors will tell you is not an easy or quick journey.

Our task now is to recognize the peril we are in, work hard to ensure our elections are free, fair and unprecedented in the level of turnout to minimize the risk of post-election interference and confusion, and to pressure our leaders to act aggressively now to create a strong contingency plan to thwart the last of Trump’s most dangerous and desperate actions in the event of a Trump loss. If we work hard between now and November 3rd we may be able to come together peacefully and swiftly to save our democracy from this dangerous and destructive chapter in American history.

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