In the very early hours of Friday morning, the White House announced that Donald and Melania Trump tested positive for COVID. The immediate response by many was something a little short of schadenfreude. People were not quite taking pleasure in Trump’s bad news. The response was more like satisfactory scorn.
After listening to ten-month long neglect of the pandemic, common reaction to Trump’s diagnosis was “Serves him right. Look, if he is going to sit there and tweet pandemic denial all day or golf while more than 200,000 Americans die from COVID… Hell, he does worse than nothing: His actions encourage people to get it. His statements undermine attempts to control the damn thing. Sure, if he has it, he won’t learn a damn thing, but he needs to feel a bit of the pain the country has.” Who among us wasn’t thinking a variation of that?
The second response to the news, which came very, very quickly after the initial COVID announcement, was, “Can we trust this to be true?” I didn’t read any hard-set “He is hoaxing us” (though it was out there), more like, “The man is a liar who will do anything for power. His ‘whatever she is’ Hope Hicks will do anything for him, so she can’t be trusted. His whole entourage will lie for him. While past presidents have lied away illness, only Trump, that we know of, has a history of using lies about medical condition to aid himself, i.e. bone spurs. The man cannot be trusted.” Even those who condemn conspiratorial thinking ran that script Friday morning. (By Saturday morning, the reality of Trump’s risk taking, his already poor health, and the infection of those around him killed many people’s doubts.)
So, first we react to news that the president has contracted a deadly disease with a cold-hearted, “Well that’s what you get.” Then we react with, “The man is a liar who can’t be trusted.” This is where the country is now. This is where Trump and his petty meanness, anti-empathy, paranoia, and conspiracy-minded thinking has led us. Certainly, the man deserves no special treatment and everything that he or his people says must be questioned, but we have gone beyond a healthy contempt for authority, natural wariness of those in power, and holding all people to a single standard to something darker, something harsher, something that is a reflection of Trump’s inner world.
Tuesday night, at the “debate,” we got a good look at what goes on inside of Trump’s mind. The tantrums and bullyfied bulldozing that we’ve read in ex-administration tell-alls and from behind-the-scenes leaks was finally on public display. We saw the epitome of the classic abusive male. Trump was full of rage, specifically narcissistic rage. He might not have been able to control the onset of that rage, but once he felt it, he knew to harness it and was happy to do so. Trump looks at ability to target rage as an asset, a skill that sets “killers” like him apart from “the weak.” Trump knew exactly what he was doing.
In the “debate” and the media, Trump has been criticized for his lack of policy or plan. The criticism is unfair for Trump does have a plan. It is “If I am not going to get my way, I will destroy everything.” That plan informs the COVID lies, his unwillingness to condemn white supremacy, and his shout out to the Proud Boys. It was there in the Hunter Biden attacks. And it was especially there in his voter fraud rant at the end.
Again, Tuesday’s Trump performance is classic abusive male behavior. Anyone who has been in a fucked-up relationship – partner, parent, child, boss – saw the abuser in Trump. Anyone who has worked on anger issues or was close to someone who has struggled with anger saw what was happening.
Notice the people who surround Trump – the henchmen not the “public servants” or even opportunists, people like Stephen Miller, Mike Pence, and Chad Wolff. These officials aren’t alphas. They are cruel insecure people, toadies like Tolkien’s fictional Grima Wormtongue. While the Millers, Pences, and Wolffs would like to be Trump, they are blocked by their lack of charisma, even animated personality. They are fearful sneaks who carefully positioning themselves so they escape their boss’s ire. Behind those smirks and smug expressions are flinches and ticks.
Watch Trump’s family closely when they are around Donald Trump. As a performative unit, they exude an unstable confidence devoid of familial love and respect. Have you ever seen a warm moment between Trump and his sons, particularly Don Jr. and Eric? Watch the eldest sons share space with their father and what you see is diffidence and caution. The boys are always a careful distance from Trump, either by their design or his desire.
Together, the three Trump men lack the air of leisure that many “dads” and “little buddies” put off when hanging out. There is no play or joy in their interaction, which is always one way. Everything is about father, just as it was with Trump and his “dad.” If Don Jr. and Eric wanted to feel anything from their father, they had to sublimate their egos and uncritically accept everything Donald threw at them. Their father modeled selfishness, cruelty, entitlement, prideful ignorance, and fear, all traits you see in Don Jr. and Eric.
Melania Trump has done much to keep the youngest son, Barron, out of the spotlight. When Barron does make an appearance, the sullen teenager becomes a protected lamb. His mother acts as a barrier between Barron and his father. She is her son’s protector. As with the other boys, there is no warmth between father and son. You never see Trump saddle up to Barron and ruffle his hair. No nuggies. No playful teasing or fake fighting. No play. Scouring the internet for photos of Donald and Barron enjoying a game of golf together, I found on shot of mother and son, dejectedly following an irritated, suited-up father across the green.
Melania and her husband show so little warmth between them, the coldness of their relationship is now a late-night comic’s cheap gag. We know about Trump’s record of spousal abuse with his first wife Ivana. We know that Trump’s second wife, Marla Maples, fled to California with her daughter so she could raise Tiffany away from her former husband. Whatever Trump’s relationship with Ivanka, it is not normal or healthy. Normal warmth shared between father and daughter has been replaced by the father’s incestuous lust. Ivanka responds to her father’s pawing and proposition with resignation, embarrassment, and annoyance. She carries the fatigued edge of a woman tired of being pursued.
Trump’s behavior towards his family does not excuse his family’s behavior toward other people, their corruption, or their vane greed. However, Trump’s abusiveness does explain their behavior. It also explains why they stay in this abusive relationship: They fear being destroyed, emotionally, psychologically, and financially.
We know that Trump is fickle about his relationships. We know that Trump will try to destroy whomever he believes is disloyal or has betrayed him, especially if he thinks that the target is weak or less powerful than he is. Trump harasses and bullies staff and appointed officials. Those who displease Trump and then quit or are fired are immediately treated as traitors, and are derided for months, if not years later. In business, when small contractors complain about being stiffed, Trump attacks them with bankruptcy notices and lawsuits. He delights in putting people out of business.
Trump’s obsession with non-disclosure agreements (NDA) is an abusive/control thing. The NDA is more paper guarantee that Trump’s abuse goes unreported. Every NDA inks a destructive relationship with Trump, one in which the signatory is obliged to keep Trump’s secrets. Fear of retaliation for breaking the NDA leads to the signatory’s silence on all things Trump. The silent sharing of sins enables Trump to continue his abuse, something which is now co-owned by the signatory. In this light, the NDA is not just a document designed to keep secrets. It is also a pink slip. Sign the document and Trump owns you. You are his to do with as he pleases.
When trouble comes, those who Trump has bought or employed are expected to sacrifice themselves for Trump. No matter that Trump is the boss of his campaign and presidency, too often, when a Trump crime is exposed, Trump pawns off responsibility on others. Don Jr. is “responsible” for the secret Manafort/Russia meet up, Jeff Sessions is “responsible” for the Ukraine scandal, the “Generals” are “responsible” for far more than I have space to list.
Many of the people Trump frames for his actions are immediately disowned. Michael Cohen served Trump for decades as lawyer and fixer. When Cohen got popped for the Stormy Daniels payment, Trump not only abandoned him, he claimed that he did not know Cohen well and that his role at Trump Org. was inconsequential. Trump’s proclamation of ignorance about people and things he clearly knows well (Cohen, Rob Porter, David Duke, Brad Parscale, Proud Boys) is another punchline to the sick joke that is Donald Trump.
I noted above that Trump has charisma. Cambridge defines charisma as “a special power that some people have naturally that makes them able to influence other people and attract their attention and admiration.” Charisma does not have to be positive. It can be negative. Plenty of dictators have charisma, so do cult leaders and serial killers. It is said that Trump can be a very charming man. The same thing was said about the killer Ted Bundy.
Charisma is Trump’s key to survival. It enables him to surround himself with human shields and sacrifices, buffers between everyday functioning and his extreme level of malevolence and rage. Trump’s sociopathic performance on Tuesday was that of a solitary man full of anger and destruction. However, his charisma helped soften the immediate response. After acknowledging the “shit-show,” pundits and reporters were quick to normalize the affair by discussing “who won the debate” and how each man’s performance would impact the vote.
Forget this framing, what Trump did on Tuesday night was not normal behavior. It was abusive and very much so. We were subject to that abuse, some of us entranced by the abuse. Much like a person caught in a destructive long-term relationship, we divorced ourselves from the moment and let the rage shower down on us.
I felt trapped while watching the “debate.” Instead of turning the damn thing off, I waited for a commercial break to save me. After it was over, I left the screen numb and wrote a short review of the “debate.” My review asked “Who benefits from the debate?” and commented on his call out to fascists to disrupt the election. I wrote nothing about Trump’s sociopathic abuse or that he was trying to burn everything down because he was not getting his way. That thought didn’t come until later, when I was out walking the dog in the cool of the night.
When I got past my initial reaction to the “debate,” I started to see how much we’ve been sucked into this abusive relationship with Donald Trump. Like a cult member, my first reaction to his “debate” hostility was how it would impact Trump, then Biden, then the election, then democracy. The first thing I focused on was dear leader. I did not leave space for me.
During the debate, I joke-criticized his narcissism, but divorced myself from it. As people do in abusive relationships, I projected myself outside of the situation, something that might have immediate psychological benefit, but long-term, psychologically and politically, is harmful.
That realization did not keep me from reacting to Trump’s COVID diagnosis with both vengeful gratification and suspicion, two things that do not come natural to me, but are definitely part of the Trump persona. Like the NDA signatory taking on Trump’s secrets, this citizen of Trump’s America (and you, too) has started to model his sociopathy. This abusive relationship with Donald Trump – enabled and encouraged by the Republican Party – has corroded everything.
While we were thrust into a relationship not of our choosing, we are not trapped. We have the ability to blunt Trump’s psychological impact. This, of course, starts with acknowledging that Trump is an abuser, not just of women and family, but of everyone he deems as weak or the enemy. We acknowledge that we are among those he seeks to dominate. We examine our role in this relationship while rejecting shared ownership of Trump’s pathology and spurning responsibility for the toxicity of the relationship.
Understand that Trump’s legacy is not confined to the political and systemic damage his has done while in office. His legacy can also live on in the way we treat one another. We must fight misogyny, white supremacy, xenophobia, and fascism without dehumanization. Let’s come at the bigots hard, with justice, not joy, in our hearts. Schadenfreude cannot be second nature. Vengeful gratification and suspicion are not feelings we want to hold onto. In our fight against Trump and Trumpism we cannot emulate Trump.