How My Abusive Father Helped Me Understand Trump Supporters
By Paula M. Fitzgibbons
I know what it is like to seek the love of an abusive father-like figure.
I am struggling to even speak to Trump supporters right now. I am not, however, struggling to feel compassion for them.
I was raised by a man like Trump, albeit without the money and political power. I understand what it is like to seek the love of an abusive father-like figure. And make no mistake — Trump is an abusive father-like figure.
My father swept into our lives when I was four years old. Near my mother’s recent death, she revealed that he appeared when she was at her weakest and convinced her that he could fix her life, that he was the only person who could help her and her five children. Given that he’d had two failed marriages already and that he had no experience parenting, nothing about his ability to convince her of this made sense — except it did to her because her first marriage had stripped her of all dignity and she was desperate. My new father honed in on her desperation and used it to choke her into submission.
My new father honed in on my mother’s desperation and used it to choke her into submission.
Sound familiar? Trump swept into the political scene of this nation when a substantial portion of the population was feeling desperate. We can argue that their perceived disenfranchisement was overly influenced by the media, and we can argue that their perceived desperation was a sign of deeply ingrained white privilege mixed with an educational system that failed them. We can even posit that they created their own desperation through a series of poor choices. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that they felt the kind of desperation that left them wide open to abuse. Trump honed in on that desperation and used it to choke them into submission — just as my father did to my mother.
My father didn’t actually help my mother or my family, though. Sure, he provided some resources that seemed helpful at the time. We were able to purchase cheap groceries and household goods from the Navy Commissary, and we had excellent health insurance through his military service. But he also withheld those resources arbitrarily and often on a whim, when he saw some bizarre reason to punish us.
When I started my period, at 13, he mandated that I would have to get a job and start paying all my own expenses. He told me, though he hadn’t said this to my older sister, the one he doted on for her beauty, that girls “disgusting enough to have periods were obviously sluts,” and he refused to “pay the way of a slut.” He also refused to praise my frequent straight “A” report cards, stating, “Being smart doesn’t mean anything if you’re not pretty, and you are not pretty like your sister.”
It’s not difficult to see why, while he was alive, my father idolized Trump — a man who perseverates on one of his daughters’ beauty and freely shames women who do not fit his paradigm of perfection. Trump really isn’t all that original in his cruelty. Men seeking power have been torturing women over menstruation and beauty for years.
My father, like Trump, made us all feel like we could not survive without him. He convinced us that everything he did was for us, even the things that landed him in jail and the things that destroyed our young souls. Perpetually confused by his spin on such things, I spent many grueling nights trying to figure out how his arrests for domestic abuse or sexual deviance were for our benefit. Sometimes I even asked him. His response typically amounted to a muddy comparison between him and my biological father, one that inevitably put him out on top. “Well, I’ve never held you at gunpoint, like your real father,” he said once. “I never left scars on your mother,” he screamed often, leaving me to wonder if indeed scars were the imaginary tipping point between loving father and abusive father.
He left me feeling tremendous guilt when I had negative feelings about him. Were I to express those feelings, he punished me. Once, he pulled me out of school in the middle of the day, citing a family emergency, to berate me for discussing my struggles with a friend. Having been told by my father that I could no longer live with him after graduating high school, I asked a friend if I could stay with her family until I left for college. My father found this out and, though everything I had said to my friend was true, he managed to convince me that by simply discussing it, I was the one causing trouble.
Perhaps worst of all, immediately upon entry into our family, my father worked tirelessly to divide us. He lied and manipulated situations so that our mother became our collective target. From telling us early on that our mother had taken us from our biological father to ultimately orchestrating bitter estrangements between my mother and her children, he made sure that we were never a unified faction that might rise up against him. Paralyzed by what my mother grew to believe were insurmountable weaknesses, he succeeded, a feat that lasted long after his death. This division elevated him. It gave him the kind of power no amount of money could provide. He played God, separating mother from child, altering the emotions and responses of people who should have clung together.
Immediately upon entry into our family, my father worked tirelessly to divide us.
People like my father and Trump need to divide the people who surround them in order to stay on top. When my father saw any two of us so much as getting along, he found a way to separate us. More painful, he found a way to make us enemies of one another. He pitted us against each other by making hurtful comparisons. No subject matter was off limits. He compared our looks, our grades, our skills, anything that batted at our self-esteem and placed us in direct competition with one another. He punished us for collaborating, one time attempting to throw a couch at me because I was enjoying my adult brother’s company and planning future visits with him. Worst of all, he punished us for developing relationships independent of him, sending emails and letters meant to get us angry with one another. People like this crumble when faced with the unity of those around them.
This is exactly the sort of power that Trump currently holds over the American people. By dividing us, he is dividing his opposition. As long as we are fighting with each other, we are not able to develop enough strength to fight our true enemy, this abusive leader we have allowed to thrive. As in any family where there is abuse, some of us in this country have responded by feeling the abuse deeply and hating the abuser. Some have checked out emotionally and in deed. Others of us have responded by joining the abuser, likely in hopes that aligning with his power will protect them from further abuse. Those in this latter camp are also the most likely to have adopted the belief systems and scapegoats of their abuser, landing Trump supporters squarely on the ugly side of bigotry (and, of course, many were already the bigoted products of our deeply racist society). The safest place to be in an abusive family is on the side of the abuser, after all. It is a survival mechanism and, though it hurts those who are not in good graces with the abuser, I can understand why people choose it.
At the end of my mother’s life, those of my siblings who were most attached to our father, the ones who benefited from his sick views and his abuse of my mother and their own siblings, treated my mother just as our father had. Nearly a decade after his death, they demonized her; they lied about her; they created out of thin air vitriol for a woman dying of cancer. Though my mother had had her own struggles parenting, though she was far from perfect and often teetered the fragile lines between hating and joining her abuser, she did not deserve this treatment that my father had taught some of my siblings.
Men like my father and men like Trump overtake those who are devoted to them, often for life.
Having grown up in a family divided by our abuser, I am afraid for our country. I understand what it is like to be on the bad side of a man like Trump. I lost everything I’d ever known because of my father. It took me decades to rebuild my life, something I could not have done without a vibrant and brave community of helpers.
I also understand Trump’s supporters, people so blinded by his power over them that they react in much the same way as my siblings who doted on my father: They attempt to demonize and destroy anyone left who is not devoted to their patriarch. They claim their own power, by virtue of their devotion to the abusive patriarch. They maintain the cycle he has sold them. They claim power they did nothing to merit. They claim access to resources they did not earn and entitlement to rights they will not share. As they have learned from their leader, they use any means necessary to accomplish these goals they have been fooled into believing are for their own benefit.
I do not advocate these views and behaviors. I find them repulsive and unacceptable. I have no desire to be in a relationship with anyone who spews such vitriol.
And I have compassion for them. I can see their pain. I see them scrambling to heap lies upon the lies that their abusive leader uses to incarcerate them.
I hope that they will grow to recognize that we have one thing in common: We are all victims of political abuse. Take it from a person who grew up under the terrifying and confusing thumb of a man like Trump. No matter how much anyone does for a man like this; no matter how much anyone submits to his will — he is not here for the likes of us. He is here for himself and if he finds a reason, arbitrary or concrete, to crush any one his loyal devotees, he will waste no time in doing so. If his supporters manage to survive, like some of my siblings, they might just become this man and go on to hurt the people they love.
Trump is not the first abusive father of this country.
This is how we got to this place. Trump is not the first abusive father of this country. Politicians have wielded everything from religion to education to taxes in order to abuse the citizens of this country for centuries. In doing so, scads of people joined new abusers each political season. Each new follower of abusive politics delivered greater strength and power to our current abuser.
We were ripe for an abuser like Trump. We were weary and worn. Any person with the wherewithal to abuse an entire nation could have sucked us in.
We as a country need to unite, but not in the way so many who voted for Trump are requesting. We need to recognize that we are all victims of Trump’s wrath, of his abuse of power. Unlike my own family, we can rise above the damage he has intentionally wrought upon us for his own benefit by binding together as a nation, finding strength in our mutual experiences, and moving forward with the unified dignity we deserve.