It’s been seven years since Lisette Johnson’s abusive husband shot her and then turned the gun on himself, but nowadays, whenever she turns on the TV, she is confronted with a man who sounds just like him.
He lies. He bullies. He threatens. He calls women names. And he’s the Republican nominee for president.
“Substitute my husband’s face and body and you have the exact same person,” she said. “It makes me relive the crazy final days before my shooting when it was so confusing why he behaved the way he did.”
Donald Trump and his bombastic, truth-free persona is still baffling to many. But for one select group of people ― survivors of domestic violence ― Trump is immediately and intimately recognizable.
He reminds them of the men who ruined their lives.
“Trump is triggering so many abuse and rape victims including me,” Angel Marie Russell wrote on Facebook after the first presidential debate. “His behavior is almost exact to my abusive exes. It’s terrifying. I can’t even watch him.”
While domestic abuse is often characterized as acts of physical violence, it’s more accurate to understand it as a cluster of specific behavioral tactics that abusers employ to control, intimidate and coerce victims.
His behavior is almost exact to my abusive exes. It’s terrifying. I can’t even watch him. Angel Marie Russell
Many of the behaviors that Trump exhibited at the first presidential debate were strikingly similar to those used by abusers, said Rus Ervin Funk, a consultant for several domestic violence non-profits who has worked closely with men who batter.
“His efforts to control Ms. Clinton and the dynamics of the debate (through his interrupting, his talking over and more loudly than Ms. Clinton) coupled with his very well-developed ability to evade accountability of any kind certainly reminded me of how men who batter operate,” he said.
Abusers place blame on others for their own failings, Funk said, recalling that Trump blamed moderator Lester Holt and his “unkind” questions for his poor debate performance, and claimed that his microphone didn’t work.
Men who batter their intimate partners tend to play down or even deny their past actions. When Trump was called out for taking advantage of the U.S. housing crisis, and his habit of not paying federal taxes, he replied that he was a “smart” businessman. He took no responsibility for his actions or even acknowledged he’d done any harm, Funk said.
On multiple occasions during the debate, Trump denied saying things that he had said before, such as when he claimed he never supported the Iraq war or said climate change is a hoax, despite clear evidence to the contrary.
This willingness to aggressively deny objective truths is a form of emotional abuse, called “gas-lighting.” Gas-lighting can cause victims to doubt their own memories and perceptions, and make it hard to distinguish fact from fiction.
Karla Fischer, a professor at University of Illinois College of Law, pointed to another common trait of abusers which Trump shares: Making themselves out to be the victim.
“Sometimes when perpetrators file protective orders against their victims, they say everything they have done to her, but claim she did it to him,” Fischer explained. “And then there’s the rationalizing: ‘I only did it because I was [drunk etc.],’ the outright denials of wrongdoing even when caught.”
Trump follows this pattern to the word. When he is accused of causing harm, he often makes himself out to be the one who has been wronged.
For example, during the debate, when pressed on perpetuating a racist conspiracy theory about President Obama’s place of birth, Trump insinuated he should be congratulated for the good he’d done.
“I think I did a great job and a great service not only for the country, but even for the president, in getting him to produce his birth certificate,” he said.
In other words, Obama owes him thanks.
Trump had the same reaction after facing criticism for how he treated former Miss Universe Alicia Machado. She told reporters that after she gained a few pounds, Trump belittled her, fat-shamed her, called her Miss Piggy and that his emotional abuse contributed to her eating disorders.
Instead of taking responsibility for his insensitive comments, Trump has since doubled down, claiming he actually helped her.
“The company itself wanted to fire her. I saved her job,” he told Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly. “Look what happened? Look what I get out of it? I get nothing.”
For many survivors of abuse, just hearing Trump speak can be triggering and painful.
Domestic violence survivors have a unique experience when it comes to Trump because we’ve fallen victim to men like him. Kate Ranta
Kimberly Brusk, a domestic violence survivor in Atlanta, said she spent half of her most recent therapy session discussing Trump and how he is reminiscent of her ex.
“He lies about things he just said. He can’t win an argument with [Clinton] fairly so he tries to hurt her,” she said. “When he’s talking I can feel my heart racing.”
Kate Ranta, a domestic violence survivor who was shot by her estranged husband in 2012, said the most triggering moment for her was when Trump “joked” about someone assassinating Clinton.
“Domestic violence survivors have a unique experience when it comes to Trump because we’ve fallen victim to men like him,” she said.
Jennifer Tetefsky, who cofounded an advocacy organization for domestic violence survivors to tell their own stories, said she’s had to go off the grid because Trump was triggering her PTSD. She can no longer watch TV.
“It got so bad in my social media feed that for several weeks I’ve been unable to connect and be online,” she said. “Even hearing his voice makes my stomach seize and my head spin.”
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Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline .