Guest author Justine Andronici is a feminist lawyer, advocate, and analyst who has been working in the women’s rights arena for more than 20 years. She specializes in domestic violence, sexual assault, harassment and women’s rights law and politics. She offered ILNH the following piece which first appeared in Medium. Due to the length, we’re providing a portion of the article, which can be read in it’s entirety here.
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 Trump’s 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 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 long-standing 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.
H/T to Paige Barnett for connecting us with Justine. You can reach out to Justine via Twitter at @justineandronic