I came across a tweet the other day that gave me pause.
I had seen this in action. There are plenty of sources calling Trump a child: Eggers wrote the piece from the above tweet, multiple outlets have interviewed child psychologists and experts about his behavior, it’s become a common trope in political cartoons, and Anderson Cooper even accused him of acting like a 5 year old to his face. Doing some light internet searches, the Esquire psychologist interview is the only thing I can find written by a woman.
On the other hand, a quick search for “Trump abuser” finds article after article written by women about Trump’s use of textbook emotional abuse tactics. It seems the only man claiming that Trump is an abuser is the man himself.
Why is There a Stark Gendered Contrast in the Way People See Trump?
I think I have an answer.
To (many) men, the closest we’ve come to dealing with an abuser is dealing with our childhood bullies. To the extent that we recognize Trump’s behavior, it codes to us as “bullying”, which codes as “child”. We are able to leave such behavior behind for the most part as we get older, so seeing it recalls childhood to us. (Many) women have not been so lucky, and cannot assume that they will be, and so know the signs of an abuser, and take those signs more seriously.
The thing is, we shouldn’t be making this mistake. We know Trump is an abuser. How? Well, for one because lots of women are telling us. Women who were sexually abused by Trump came out in droves during the election, all telling very similar stories and establishing a pattern of behavior. In addition both men and women who discuss working for him have revealed organizations fraught with distrust, brutality, and enforced loyalty to Trump.
If the testimony of other people doesn’t sway you, then don’t forget that Trump admitted to being a serial abuser on tape. Bragged about it to a twittering Billy Bush. Bragged about how he knew it was wrong, but did it anyway because he could.
These are not the reflexive actions of a child, but deliberate, calculated abuse perpetrated by someone in a position of power.
The Dangers of Dismissing Abusers as Bullies
There are three major differences between a bully and an abuser, and mistaking the abuser for a bully empowers them to keep abusing.
The first is that a child might not know what they are doing, whereas an abuser is purposeful and often calculating. When we call Trump a bully or a child, we are implicitly granting that he doesn’t have control over his actions, and so shouldn’t be held as accountable for them. In taking a “boys will be boys” approach to destructive behavior exhibited by adult men, we give them implicit permission to continue those destructive behaviors. Rather than being punished for them, they get attention and affirmation instead.
The second difference is that children are expected to learn and change over time, while that cannot be the default expectation of adults. The expectation that people will change and situations will get better is at the heart of most “sick systems”, systems designed in order to make a person stay of their own choice and continue to be abused. It’s the continued “let’s give him a chance, give him the benefit of the doubt” that will lead us to worse and worse situations which will do real harm.
Finally, we assume that children have no power over us, whereas the abuse can and will hurt us. This can look like hubris from the outside, but to the person making the mistake it’s simple underestimation. It’s seeing others be abused and thinking “well, they’re falling for it but I won’t.” It’s why Romney went the way of Cruz, who went the way of Christie, who went the way of Theon Greyjoy (aka Reek). It’s why “politicians captured at the exact moment they realize they’ve sold their soul for nothing” is a subgenre of photojournalism this year.
It is a mistake to assume that Trump will learn from his mistakes, that indeed they are mistakes. It is a mistake to assume that he’s harmless. He is not. He has run his business and personal life as someone who uses up other people until he doesn’t need them any longer, and then discards them. He will continue to use the country in the same way, and resistance must be strong and realistic about his capabilities.
So listen to women. Take Trump seriously. He knows what he’s doing, and he’s not going to change.