Although the memories have dimmed over the years, I can still recall my terror when Ray, my husband at the time, would flip into a blackout rage. After hours of irrationally screaming, accusing, and threatening me, he would abruptly change personalities to an even more frightening version of anger. Ray’s eyes would glass over, and the blue seemed to change to black. He seemed to be disconnected from reality, unable to hear or recognize me, although he continued to be violent in very personal ways. The most terrifying aspect is that in this rage he was completely unreachable. My cries for pity were ignored. He seemed to be taken over by another being who was entirely unmoved by concern or empathy.
Most abuse survivors describe this same sudden and confusing transformation in their abusive partner. They recognize, as I did, that this level of anger was beyond anything they had experienced before. Most survivors also report that later their abusive partner did not remember what they did during this out-of-control state – or perhaps they chose not to remember due to guilt and shame.
I am a clinical psychologist and expert in abusive and narcissistic behaviors. My chapter in the bestselling book, “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President,” is entitled “In Relationship with an Abusive President.” I strongly believe that Trump shows many signs that he has the distinct potential to become blackout enraged.
His rages have become so routine the word is used in headlinesand his Twitter posts are often called “rage-tweets.” Apparently, an enraged president is now commonplace.
This is deeply concerning given his access to nuclear weapons — what would happen if he became enraged to the point where he could not be reasoned with? Would his sycophantic staff attempt to stop him from launching a nuclear weapon or taunting a foreign leader into doing the same? Given all the existing evidence of their enabling behaviors, it doesn’t appear likely. In his new memoir, “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership,” former FBI Director James Comey writes about the enablers surrounding Trump who do not challenge him. “I could see how easily everyone in the room could become a co-conspirator to his preferred set of facts, or delusions.” He says he watched Trump build “a cocoon of alternative reality” around the people in the room. Given a staff who cannot even question Trump’s blatant lies and misstatements of fact, could we honestly expect them to intervene if he issued an illegal or immoral order?
It may be difficult to believe that our president would actually become blackout enraged, but there are endless examples of Trump’s behavior that could be considered indicators. He has a lifelong history of abuse and violence, starting as a very young child. He has been accused of rape three times, including the rape of a 13-year-old. He has admitted to sexual assault and been accused of it by at least 16 women. His exhibitions of extremely unpresidential impulsivity and verbal abuse against others occur on a daily basis. He has incited others to violence at his campaign rallies, has encouraged the assignation of Hillary Clinton, and told police to allow injuries to those they arrest. Sadistic cruelty to immigrants, minorities and women has been a constant theme of his behavior, policies and proclamations. He feels entitled and privileged, states he is above the law and has committed repeated violations of the law. His lack of kindness, caring and empathy are well documented.
Given the recent releaseof a legal brief by Trump’s defense team that asserts he has king-like immunity from prosecution and the ability to pardon anyone, including himself, we have further confirmation of Trump’s severe sense of entitlement. This means that as the legal noose tightens the chance for him to become enraged is great. Other-Blamers like Trump hate to be held accountable, because it feels shameful. They tend to position themselves as beyond the reach of laws, or they justify and make excuses to set themselves up as such.
With Trump’s history as a spoiled rich kid and enabled adult, he apparently has never been held accountable. He has escaped justice for federal race discrimination crimes in his real estate business. He has used bankruptcy repeatedly to avoid accountability for his financial mistakes. His businesses are rife with corruption, money laundering, and deals with shady oligarchs and mobsters.
With a person who has already exhibited many signs of proclivity to violence, law-breaking, abuse and cruelty, I consider that their anger is chronically at, say, a 9.8 on a 10-point scale. If an incident triggers Trump over 10 to the red zone of rage, and he loses his already tenuous hold on reality and logic, what will the consequences be?
Certainly, any one of us can become enraged if we are driven to that point. Stories of mothers lifting cars off their trapped toddlers are evidence of a form of blackout rage, although with a good result.
We all have a threat detection and protection system that helps us assess danger, then respond. Fear triggers a neurophysiological response throughout the body that energizes us to take action. Commonly called the “fight-or-flight” response, it also includes freeze and submission responses. Early childhood experiences predispose individuals to perhaps be more likely to default to one of the responses. With people like Trump, the “fight” response is predominant. He is well known for making comments about “punching back ten times as hard” as his opponent, using figurative language that clearly evokes his “fight” response.
It is well known that the experience of shame for some people escalates them into a fearful response and then anger. All his life Trump has exhibited especially poor shame tolerance followed by defensively lashing out at others. Any time he even perceives he is being criticized, humiliated, or being held accountable, he reacts emotionally in a variety of means to shift the blame, including abusive namecalling, lying, excusing or justifying. The result is behaviors that can only be described as immoral or even criminal. This blame-shifting is why I use the term Other-Blamer in my work on shame intolerance to describe those like Trump.
As I can attest, these Other-Blamers are so hypersensitive to shame that they are triggered into fear, then anger, in situations where most of us would not become angry. They live their lives much closer to the red zone of rage than most of us, making it more likely that they will reach that frightening level of behavior.
We should not have someone in the presidency who is already hovering at a 9.8 on the fear and anxiety scale, just ready to be tipped over into rage. This office should be occupied by someone with better-than-average emotional regulation abilities — someone who is calm, thoughtful, deliberative and unruffled by setbacks. Any president is constantly in the spotlight, constantly being challenged and criticized by the public, the press and the opposition. A good president should even welcome opposing points of view by her staff and others. We see none of these traits in Trump.
Some people with Other-Blamer personalities can be decent human beings part of the time. The rage rarely appears. But when it does, the consequences can be horrific. We must ensure that the country and the world do not have to suffer the consequences of Trump’s blackout rage. Surviving his “normal” levels of anger on a daily basis is horrifying enough.