Four years of Trump will leave some bruises, but we can own them.
The most dangerous time in an abusive relationship comes when the victim tries to leave. If you recognize President Donald Trump’s relationship with American democracy as an abusive one—and the comparison to domestic abuse is certainly popular—then you can imagine how destructive the two-month transition period to a Biden presidency is going to be.
Every abuser has enablers. In Trump’s case, they are powerful Republicans using his lame duck period for their own selfish gains: these include Mike Pompeo, who is clearly eyeing a 2024 run, and is courting Trump’s base with little “jokes” about “a smooth transition to a second Trump administration” even after Joe Biden’s decisive win; or Mitch McConnell, who is supporting Trump’s refusal to concede because the president remains a useful tool for him to wield against the Democrats. This is not a coup, but it’s still destructive and dangerous. By trying to convince the public that he didn’t lose the election, Trump and his enablers are eroding the public’s already shaky trust in U.S. institutions; worse, this is happening in the midst of a pandemic and a financial crisis, which further exacerbate the country’s black mood.
Shortly after the 2016 presidential election, I wrote about my experience of working for a pathological narcissist and how it taught me to recognize and predict Donald Trump’s behavior patterns. One way the editor I worked for manipulated and punished writers who displeased him was purposely to leave errors he could have fixed in their pieces, and then use those errors to attack them. This made no sense: by publishing texts with errors, the man in charge was ultimately damaging his own credibility. But narcissists don’t see things that way. Every situation is about the narcissist and not the organization to which they belong, or which they represent. This is why Trump will try, as his psychologist niece Mary Trump is predicting, to “burn it all down” before he is forced to leave the Oval Office on January 20. A narcissist does not feel beholden to any office, even if it’s the highest office in the most powerful nation in the world. A narcissist is only beholden to a fragile ego.
By firing officials like Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, pushing out senior advisors like acting undersecretary of defense James Anderson, and threatening to sack any staffer who looks for a new job or shows support for outgoing officials, Trump is demonstrating narcissistic rage in full bloom. The Republicans in power are going along with Trump, partly because they obviously don’t believe the Democratic party will deliver any kind of repercussions for their craven, destructive behavior.
If you’re upset about what’s going on, that’s good! You ought to be! It’s an upsetting situation.
At the same time, there are useful and useless ways of being upset. You’re not helping anyone, including yourself, if you allow this situation to beat you down. Remember, one of the abuser’s most salient goals is to create chaos and to exhaust you. Don’t let Trump do this to you.
Second, we shouldn’t treat Trump as a dictator. He is not. I would argue that he has exposed just how vulnerable the United States is to the rise of a dictatorship. But treating Trump as a dictator can only create a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Instead, Donald Trump is an aspiring dictator who wants to tear the country apart. This is why it’s important to have dialogue — but not the fluffy, “let’s understand the violent racists who gleefully voted for Trump” kind. Rather, we need to have a serious, grounded conversation about our political realities with people we can actually reach.
It is easy to succumb to dismay and despair with the knowledge that 70 million voters cast their ballots for Trump. But despair is a luxury and dismay is counter-productive. We must internalize the understanding that our society is sharply divided over the pandemic response; that we have different psychological models for engaging leadership; that we are drowning in disinformation; and that the vast majority of white evangelical Christians support Trump not despite his racism, misogyny and authoritarianism, but because those characteristics reflect their own worldview. Remember, instead, that voter turnout was at historically high levels for this election, with an enormous grassroots organizing effort bearing fruit with significant early voting that flipped red states blue and won Joe Biden the presidency. Yes, there are unsavory political realities on the ground; but rather than be discouraged, we should categorize and prioritize them right now. You might not be able to change the mind of a Nazi who loves Trump, but you can certainly engage with and combat disinformation.
Now is the time to hold our elected leaders to account. Political battlegrounds are important too — which is why we should look to Georgia, where former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams built a grassroots effort to register more than 800,000 voters who were primarily Black, Asian, and Latinx. Her success, and the historic voter turnout for the Biden/Harris ticket, show the power of organizing, and of positive messaging. All three candidates emphasized the power of the individual and community to effect change, and the importance of compassion. This is clearly what a tired, angry populace needed to hear.
History holds important lessons for this moment. In Rome’s Last Citizen: The Life and Legacy of Cato, Mortal Enemy of Caesar, authors Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni paint a vivid picture of Cato the Younger, a follower of stoicism who fought against corruption brought on by wealth and empire; and against both Pompey and Caesar, as each man struggled to control Rome. This narrative should sound familiar. Yet even as Trump tries to hold onto the presidency in order to avoid being prosecuted for his debts—echoing Caesar’s own financial troubles—we should remember that Donald Trump is no Julius Caesar. On the other hand, Cato’s rigid idealism is a cautionary tale for Americans in that it shows how refusal to compromise can help bring an entire republic crashing down. For all his inspiring integrity, Cato’s life comes with its own warnings.
The lesson is this: like Cato, we should retain our principles; but unlike Cato, we should be cognizant of realities with which we live. Yes, the United States is a messed-up country, but it’s our country. We’re not going to recover from Trump without bruises, but we can own those bruises. We shouldn’t entertain illusions about life simply going back to normal with the Biden administration, but we can draw valuable lessons from the Trump era going forward. Surviving an abuser has its own advantages, as I know personally. The experience makes one stronger and wiser. After four years of abuse at the hands of Donald Trump, you will never lose your ability to identify a malignant narcissist.