This election was triggering for a lot of abuse survivors. Calls to RAINN’s sexual assault hotline surged after Trump’s Access Hollywood tape leaked, and many have pointed out that he used verbally abusive tactics in the debates.
As a survivor of emotional abuse, one tactic of Trump’s in particular reminded me of my manipulative ex partner: gaslighting. This is when someone tells you that your thoughts aren’t based in reality, to the point that you start to distrust your perceptions.
In my case, when I tried to discuss my partner’s habit of borrowing money from me and not giving it back, he’d tell me I was being too negative. When I got upset with him, he told me that life was too short to get angry. If I felt hurt by a word he used, he’d say that nobody can “make” you feel anything without your consent, so it was my problem.
This led me to feel that I was too unreasonable to trust my feelings. I internalized his arguments and believed that if I was unhappy about anything he’d done, I just needed to put it out of my mind because life was too short, nobody can make you feel anything, and it was all my fault anyway.
Since I’ve learned about gaslighting, I’ve understood that all the things my partner blamed on me weren’t actually my fault. Looking at Trump’s words can also help us understand our own relationships, as well as the ways gaslighting can shape our political climate.
While people in relationships may gaslight to discredit and manipulate their partners, Trump does it to discredit his critics and manipulate public opinion.
Here are some phrases he’s used that either were used by my abusive partner or remind me of him – because they’re clear examples of gaslighting.
1. ‘I Never Said I’m a Perfect Person’
After Trump was caught on tape saying that if you’re famous, you can just do whatever you want with women, including “grabbing them” by their genitals as your heart desires, he released a video attempting to mitigate the seriousness of his comments.
“I’ve never said I’m a perfect person, nor pretended to be someone that I’m not,” he said.
My ex has told me something similar: “Nobody’s perfect. What do you expect?”
If anybody ever responds to your concerns about them by saying that they never claimed to be perfect or that nobody’s perfect, be very, very skeptical.
If “I’m not perfect” were a real defense against criticism, nobody would ever be justified in criticizing anyone’s behavior. But obviously, things don’t work that way. If they did, people could just avert jail time by pleading imperfection.
The “nobody’s perfect” defense isn’t just irrational, though; it’s also malicious. Its goal is to imply that by criticizing someone, you’re being so demanding and unreasonable that you expect perfection, and that if you truly understood that humans are flawed, you would’ve kept your mouth shut.
Of course, people’s issue with Trump isn’t that he’s imperfect; it’s that he’s promoted misogyny, racism, ableism, and a whole lot of other negativity and oppression.
By reducing all these nuanced problems to mere imperfection, he’s distracting people from the real issues and painting people as overly critical if they want to talk about them.
Similarly, if your partner is toxic or abusive, you deserve to be treated better – and that’s not an unreasonable request at all. Asking for better isn’t asking for perfection.
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