For the US, the next four and half months with Donald Trump as president will be like the ending of an abusive marriage. In “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump”, I compared Trump to an abusive spouse in relationship with the country because the behavior traits of abusers, narcissists and sociopaths overlap.
This election season could be compared to a couple who has argued for years and has even talked about divorce repeatedly (See: Impeachment, 25th Amendment, numerous Assessments of Presidential Fitness). The abuser (Trump) knows the divorce papers are going to be filed soon, but is in denial.
On Nov. 3 or when election results are certified, Trump (and his GOP enablers) will have to admit that the divorce papers have been filed and this toxic marriage between a democratic country and the Trumpian pathocracy is coming to an end. (I will not even consider the alternative of Trump winning!)
But, be warned: Just because divorce papers are filed, doesn’t mean bad behavior ends in an abusive marriage. Up to and even after the divorce (inauguration day), sociopathic abusers can spiral into increasingly destructive behavior patterns that harm themselves and others.
During a divorce or separation, abusers often have two disparate behavior patterns or they alternate between these two modes of behavior. Many are at first desperate to make the marriage work and act very cooperatively — which is often a shocking change in behavior. They may finally agree to go to couples therapy or may vow to quit drinking or abusing or cheating. They may, at some level, want to stay married, but this behavior is largely about them trying to avoid the shame of divorce and having to consider or admit they were at least partly responsible for the problems in the marriage. As I have written, abusive, narcissistic and sociopathic personalities are all driven by fear of shame. They will engage in lots of unhealthy relational behaviors to avoid being wrong or looking inferior or being held accountable.
What Trump and abusive spouses never seem to understand or admit is that if they had just been good, loving, moral, thoughtful partners during the relationship, these last-ditch efforts would not be necessary. The marriage wouldn’t even be heading to divorce court!
Most first-term presidents can depend on a fairly easy glide to re-election if they’ve done a decent job, because most people are reluctant to change something that is working. In marriages, the same holds true. I find most people who come to therapy wondering about ending a marriage are very reluctant to do so, preferring to honor their vows and stay committed and loyal. It takes a lot to get most people to abandon their spouse. But if the behavior is abusive enough, that decision gets easier and easier to make.
What can be confusing about divorcing an abusive spouse, is that abusive personalities very often engage in very counter-productive behaviors during this final fraying of the marriage and even after the divorce is final. They may have moments of good behavior and make efforts to reconcile, but can also alternate with behaviors of increased arguing, violence, manipulation and coercion toward their partners. To deal with their anxiety, they may make more impulsive choices in terms of drinking, spending, or drugs. They are in an emotional panic to avoid feelings of humiliation.
Narcissistic spouses are well known for fighting divorce and custody agreements for years in court, causing parental alienation and chaos in the family and home. Arguments over minor issues such as who gets the dining table or whether a child visits on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day drag on for years and cost thousands in attorney fees.
In the same way, we can see these confusing patterns in Trump right now. He asks voters to support him and stick with him based on his claim he’s made America great again and he is the “only one” who can save the country. But he also states that the country is in terrible shape with crime, riots and chaos that are all somehow the fault of Joe Biden and the Democrats. This is the classic alternating behavior of the narcissist from self-aggrandizing to martyrdom and victimhood. They blame others when they can and they avoid accountability always.
We see Trump making “unforced errors” by his continual tweeting of inappropriate topics and by unnecessary policy decisions such as canceling diversity training for federal workers. He did not have to make these decisions, but he is flailing about in irrational, blame shifting anger.
In a marriage, the period during the divorce negotiations and court hearings is difficult, but sometimes what is worse is when the divorce is finalized and spouse and children move out and move on with their lives.
This stage, when the abuser is really having to admit to the finality of the divorce and they feel rejected, can be the most dangerous. He dreads the humiliation and rejection of divorce so much that he may even engage in murder against his partner or murder/suicide.
When I got divorced from an abusive spouse and was moving out of town, Ray invited me over for a “last goodbye.” Or so I thought. He actually offered me a drink and tried to get me to spend the night — one last, desperate plea to stay together. It was so pathetic, I almost laughed. But I should have also been on guard. I now realize that he used that meeting to follow me to my new house out of state. I had made a lot of efforts to avoid having him know where I lived, but he was many steps ahead of me, as sociopaths often are. In an ultimate act of manipulation and betrayal, he lured me in to meeting him with an emotional plea to say goodbye, knowing all the while that he was also hoping to stalk me to my new home.
Underestimate the behaviors of narcissistic and sociopathic people at your own peril. If a person has no ability to feel shame, guilt or remorse, they will engage in all sorts of shameless behaviors without the moral stopgap of guilt.
In Trump’s world, this means that the time between the election and inauguration may be the most dangerous for the planet. If Trump loses, many are concerned that he may incite his cult followers to rise up in violence against their fellow citizens. Since he has already engaged in this sort of language many times in his term of office, this is also a very predictable response that we should be ready for. He possesses nuclear weapons and the world’s most powerful military, which he can use at his whim.
To those who dismiss this concern as hyperbole, I say you don’t understand this personality. Their sole goal in life is to avoid feeling any more self-loathing than they already feel. Trump is a deeply insecure and frightened person who does not have skills at “losing”. Have you ever seen Trump apologize? Admit he made a mistake? Admit he does not know something or is not an expert? No. The opposite behavior has been broadly observable throughout his life — he is incapable of accountability. He even said about his response to the coronavirus and the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans: “I take no responsibility at all.”
He disparages “losers” and “suckers” because he is so afraid of admitting that he might also be a loser and sucker. So when an election confirms that millions of people think he is a loser and a sucker, how do you think he will respond? With calm and equanimity? I think not. He won the last election and he still brings up the popular vote totals like a like a four-year-old who can’t let go of the fact that someone got a bigger cookie.
If Trump loses the election, it will trigger shame and rage reactions that may not be containable. Just like an abusive spouse, he cannot hold himself accountable for the ways that he behaved during his presidency that might have led to his defeat. So his only option is to blame others (this is why I call these personality types “Other-Blamers.”) He will lash out in anger and defensiveness at others in any way he can, and that may mean starting a war abroad or with our own citizens.
I certainly hope the Democrats, civil servants, the FBI, and the Secret Service have a plan in place to contain Trump from November 4 through January 20. I would hate to have survived four years of this abusive relationship only to die as we were getting free of it.
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