Co-Dependency, Enabling, Fear, and Cowardice in the Age of Trump
By David M. Reiss, M.D. and Seth Davin Norrholm, Ph.D.
Donald J. Trump is an abuser. Donald J. Trump is an abusive man. This is not a legal finding. This is not a clinical diagnosis. This is an objectively-documented, indisputable, direct observation of Trump’s behaviors. Donald Trump is at the epicenter of a vast network of harm being done across multiple fronts within our society.
Consider this Brief Checklist of Abusive Behaviors:
1. Trump does not appear capable of discussing a disagreement with any person or entity without resorting to stupid, juvenile, and at times, overtly cruel name-calling. That is an act of abuse.
2. Trump does not appear capable of tolerating a criticism without rather viciously demeaning his critic. Trump rarely responds to a criticism by discussing issues or describing facts — Trump responds with lies and attacks based upon irrelevant real — or more often, invented — sadistic put-downs of the critic’s appearance, intelligence, ability, motivation and/or honesty. Those are acts of abuse.
3. Trump demands “loyalty” from others by frequently insisting that they publicly adulate him by having them make false, inaccurate and overtly grandiose statements about Trump’s supposed exceptional abilities and accomplishments. Those are abusive behaviors.
4. Trump’s expectations that others will shower him with obviously false and ridiculously grandiose compliments humiliates and destroys the dignity of even those who want to support him. (See Graham, Lindsey; Gaetz, Matt; Jordan, Jim; Pence, Mike) Those are acts of abuse.
It is obvious that consistently, Trump is an extremely abusive man, even if one gives no credence to the rumors that he has personally been physically violent to family members and without even needing to consider the horribly cruel and sadistic consequences of many of the political decisions and policies he has implemented.
A healthy person with means and the ability to find “safety” will do everything possible to avoid being abused. Walk away. Flee. Sever any relationship with the abuser. Remove the abuser from any position of supervision, authority, or power. Fight back.
Of course, there are times when escaping abuse is impossible. The abuser may have physical control of the victim or the victim’s environment. The abuser may be so dangerous (directly to the victim or to the victim’s loved ones; physically, emotionally or via some type of blackmail) that (at least in the short run) tolerating the abuse is realistically the safest response until circumstances change.
However, there are also dysfunctional/pathological dynamics that lead a person to embrace victimhood when escape or resistance is actually possible. The skilled abuser learns how to recognize and exploit the vulnerabilities others may have at every possible turn.
Some persons are simply too scared. When faced with a potentially risky escape from an abuser, they allow fear of real or imagined risk to stop them from taking the action that could lead to escape from abuse, even then the odds are actually well in their favor.
Some persons are so insecure that they refuse to believe that a person with apparent power is abusive — they rationalize the abuse, deny the abuse, excuse the abuse or allow themselves to be “gaslighted” into believing that they are not experiencing and perceiving what they are actually experiencing and perceiving.
Trump is a master of the latter and acts very much like an abusive spouse. For example, Trump has self-ordained himself via tweet to be “America’s all-time favorite President” and encouraged his supporters not to believe what they see or read. Consider these parallels with an abusive interpersonal relationship.
- When Trump cozies up to dictators and demeans U.S. intelligence agencies in the presence of a hostile foreign leader like Putin, he is the abusive spouse telling his partner that he wouldn’t stray from the relationship if you were a better person or nicer to him. Don’t kid yourself, Trump enjoys these moments.
- When Trump uses one of his “go-to” responses to a question on policy, diplomacy, or military action (with potentially deadly consequences) of “we’ll see what happens” or “you’ll see,” he is the abusive spouse declaring ‘I’m not going to give you any sense of comfort or stability because your nervous state serves my purpose.’
- When Trump saber rattles (e.g., Fire and Fury), threatens military action (as he did THIS week), or touts his control over our nuclear arsenal, he is the spouse reminding his partner, “Remember, I sleep with my revolver.”
- With Trump facing zero accountability, even with a Democratic House of Representatives, he is the abusive spouse continuing to live comfortably in the house and thumbing his nose/giving the finger at the law enforcement officers knocking on the door. The abused partner often sits in bewilderment, shock, exhaustion, and/or rage when peace/escape is so tantalizingly close.
Some persons are so dependent upon the approval of others that they will almost gladly suffer abuse in order to obtain crumbs of support from an abusive person. They are sadly and dangerously co-dependent.
Some persons are sociopathic and believe (accurately or inaccurately) that by tolerating abuse, they can actually manipulate the abuser for their own corrupt purposes (to obtain power; for financial gain, etc.) and that “the ends justify the means.” They are enablers — actively protecting the abuser from any consequences of abusive behaviors for their own gain. For a glaring examples of this, we invite you to explore the recent behaviors (or lack thereof) of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell since January 2017.
Some persons are themselves “secretly” sadistic and abusive, and by aligning with an overtly abusive person, they feel “freed” to act out their own dastardly impulses that they otherwise would avoid or obscure to maintain a veneer of social propriety. Simply scan the crowd in attendance at Trump’s 2020 re-election announcement event in Orlando this past week for examples of this type of person.
Regardless of a person’s political philosophy or stance; regardless of a person’s partisan identification; regardless of a person’s “long-term political strategy” — if they do not clearly, publicly, loudly, and actively oppose Trump’s abusive behaviors and take every possible legal action to remove him from a position of power, they fall into one of the above malignantly dangerous categories.
Healthy, ethical persons must not only respond directly to Trump’s abusiveness, they must respond directly to the pernicious and pathological behaviors of those who, for any of the above reasons, decline to exert their own power to oppose the severely abusive behaviors of Trump.
Let the chips fall where they may.
About the Authors:
David M. Reiss, M.D. (Twitter: @DMRDynamics) has been a practicing psychiatrist for more than 30 years, specializing in “front-line” adult and adolescent psychiatry. He has evaluated and treated over 12,000 persons of diverse social and cultural backgrounds, from every occupational field. Dr. Reiss has been recognized internationally for expertise in character and personality dynamics. He is often interviewed and quoted in the print, Internet and radio/TV media, nationally and internationally, to help the public understand the psychological aspects of current events. Dr. Reiss was a co-author on the New York Times bestselling book, “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump.” He is an authority on issues regarding social and political phenomena, medical and mental health treatment, PTSD, violence in society, and the functioning of the current mental health system.
Seth Davin Norrholm, PhD (Twitter: @SethN12) is an Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Emory University School of Medicine, a full-time faculty member in the Emory Neuroscience Graduate Program, and a member of the Emory Clinical Psychology Graduate Program. Dr. Norrholm has spent 20 years studying trauma-, stressor-, anxiety-, depressive-, and substance use-related disorders and has published over 90 peer-reviewed research articles and book chapters. The primary objective of his work is to develop “bench-to-bedside” clinical research methods to inform therapeutic interventions for fear and anxiety-related disorders and how they relate to human factors such as personality, genetics, and environmental influences. Dr. Norrholm has been featured on NBC, ABC, PBS, CNN.com, Politico.com, The Huffington Post, Yahoo.com, USA Today, WebMD, The History Channel, and Scientific American.