With the tsunami of evidence of Donald Trump’s dangerous mental instability crashing daily into my news feed, my frustration at the lack of action by members of Congress and the Cabinet mounts to a level of high urgency.
Those who dismiss or downplay Trump’s cruelty, volatility, and authoritarianism are making a big mistake in assuming that these signs are not predictors of future behaviors or that there will be some other specific warning sign before he becomes completely unhinged. These assumptions are not supported by any evidence we have about the behavioral, emotional, and cognitive patterns of people with violent, amoral tendencies, such as malignant narcissists, sociopaths and abusers. (The use of these labels is not a diagnosis of Trump. These terms do provide a shorthand for categorizing his behaviors. Having said that, I believe his long history of extreme behaviors gives us ample evidence to draw correlations to well-established and predictable behavioral patterns.)
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.” And, yes, Donald Trump is a predator and an abuser. His behaviors track exactly with what I see professionally in toxic relationships and what I experienced in my own abusive marriage. Just hearing Trump speak on television triggers in me revulsion and disgust, because I instinctively know he is an extremely unstable, dangerous man.
Trump’s behaviors are as obvious as a Times Square billboard to me, but I recognize many people are unconcerned because they may be misinformed about the implications of Trump’s character flaws.
While predicting human behavior is not an exact science, those who have a history of violence and abuse actually behave in many predictable ways. They almost never improve unless they receive extensive psychotherapy. Importantly, they are known to erupt into extremes of behavior without warning and with no apparent provocation. Most abuse victims report they are shocked at how abusers can switch in a spilt second from seemingly loving and kind to hateful and vindictive.
I experienced these head-spinning behavior flips in my ex-husband, Ray, during our brief marriage. One time I was driving with a friend and Ray was in the back seat. We were all laughing when the next thing I knew Ray inexplicably and without a word jumped out of the car, which was going 50 miles per hour. He later said he thought we were joking about him. He felt ashamed and reacted impulsively.
Another time we were enjoying a night out with friends when he instantly became angry and demanded to leave. In the car he accused me of flirting with a guy at the bar — an 82-year-old who was so drunk he could barely converse. At home his screaming quickly escalated to hours of intense physical intimidation and threats, blackout raging, then violence.
I call people like Trump and my ex-husband Other-Blamers, because they are deeply insecure and when they feel shamed or are held accountable, they shift the blame to others. Abusers, narcissists and sociopaths exhibit a variety of behaviors that may seem unrelated, but the core emotional or characterological fault at their core is poor shame tolerance.
Other-Blamers are extremely sensitivity to shame, which may appear to them as real or perceived criticism, failure, or rejection. It is immediately followed by hyper-reactivity, usually defensive anger.
Just like my ex-husband, Trump has regularly revealed his tremendously thin skin — he often perceives provocation and shame where others would not. His fear sensors are chronically elevated and set to hair-trigger response. This means he will be thrown for a loop by the most inconsequential policy dispute, need to compromise, or perceived denigration or loss.
Trump’s volatile impulsivity has been on display for years and is worsening. Recent examples include firing the Secretary of State via tweet, threatening to veto the spending bill for no strategic reason (also by tweet), and impetuously announcing a troop pullout in Syria during a campaign rally in Ohio. Weeks later he has threatened to bomb Syria. And in a complete reversal and surprise to his staff, he announced the United States should re-enter the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin recently wrote about Trump’s lack of rationality. (There’s No Plan, March 25, 2018). This irrationality may be partly due to Trump’s lack of intellectual self-discipline, but is largely due to his fearful reactivity to any sense of threat to his self-worth. Trump and Other-Blamers fear the use of rationality by others (hence Trump’s frequent accusations of “Fake News”), because logic and facts can prove them wrong, an experience that triggers feelings of shame and inadequacy.
Anyone who has disagreed with an Other-Blamer knows that their arguing is usually irrational, because the goal for the narcissist is not to win an argument with a thoughtful compilation of facts, but to be right at all costs so that they feel better emotionally. My ex-husband once accused me of having an affair with a very flamboyantly gay colleague. Even though I pointed out the utter nonsense of this accusation, Ray insisted for hours he was right.
We have seen similar abusive irrationality and inability to back down in the face of facts in Trump. We must acknowledge the imminent and real danger in this pattern of blame-shifting behavior that is driven solely by an emotional need, with no apparent intervention by the thoughtful, deliberative cognitive brain.
Trump starts with a baseline hypersensitivity to shame and criticism. This makes him desperate to be right and look good. He distrusts facts, because he might be proven wrong. Trump may misperceive that he is being demeaned by, say, a foreign leader. When enraged by this humiliating experience, he may refuse to accept deliberation or input from more well-informed Cabinet members or staff. His fearful brain will be triggered into a survival-level response to preserve his sense of self. His rage and fear will make it impossible for him to process or accept facts presented to him. The result will be poorly thought out decisions that may endanger us all.
Ultimately, these erratic, volatile Other-Blaming behaviors are abuses of power. To consistently blame others, deny facts and rationality, and refuse to accept accountability are predictors of a pattern of toxic or even abusive relationships.
We have considerable evidence that interpersonal abuse nearly always escalates, unless someone intervenes, such as law enforcement, or the victim ends the relationship.
With extreme Other-Blamers like Trump, their need to protect their fragile psyche is so great they will go to extremes to manage incoming threats — such as the truth about their behavior. They will intimidate and dominate others to control their behavior and subvert the truth. (Note Trump’s repeated efforts to stop the Russia investigation via firings, alleged offers of pardons, and demands for loyalty). Other-Blamers become extremely reactive and abusive when they don’t get their way, including when their partner or opponent is not cooperating with the dance of dominance and submission.
Murders of abused partners and mass killings by extreme Other-Blamers often occur when the abuser believes they have lost control of the partner or a situation. The shame of this rejection, coupled with the shame of the abuse coming to light, leads to a violent over-reaction.
It was only later that I realized how close I had been to being killed by my ex-husband. After I got divorced I was told that Ray had taken potshots with a handgun at my dog one night. Fortunately I had left the house after he had been enraged and abusive for hours. What if his vengeance had been directed at me?
To know what will happen next with Trump, just ask any of the millions of survivors of abuse. As Robert Mueller’s investigation stalks closer and evidence of criminal activities comes to light, Trump’s behaviors are very likely to worsen. Trump will be increasingly afraid and ashamed. Feeling cornered, the frequency and intensity of his irrational rages will increase. This will be acted out as more unsubstantiated accusations, defensive cover-ups, excuses, lying, and blame-shifting. I worry that if there is no action on impeachment or the 25th Amendment, Trump’s insults may taunt an unstable foreign leader into hostile action against us, or he will impulsively begin a war.
Those who have better shame tolerance and are not Other-Blamers must bear in mind that Trump’s sense of danger is completely out of whack compared to most of the rest of us. Trump’s world view is askew because he sees others as potentially threatening to his fragile psyche. Simply: Things that would never trigger us, trigger him and to levels of fear and reactive anger far out of proportion to the emotional threat. If we apply our norms of psychological functioning to Trump, we will miss the significance of his behaviors.
We can’t wait for a warning sign or wait to discover the level of Trump’s response. Other-Blamers like Trump will not give a specific signal that their behavior is flipping into complete irrationality. Instead, his decades-long blatant pattern of volatility, threats, violence and immorality are the only signs we need.
In abusive relationships, if the victim waits too long before leaving, the abuser’s behaviors worsen and may even lead to severe injury or murder.
Most abuse victims rationalize and justify the abuser’s behavior: “He only shoved me into the wall. It wasn’t that bad. He had been drinking.” In the same way with Trump, this can become a situation of “malignant normality,” as Robert Jay Lifton described it in our book, wherein the country begins to accept a very disturbing reality as normal.
As a country, we are in a relationship with an abusive president and must not continue to excuse his immoral behavior. We cannot wait for Trump to cross some imaginary line before we act.
When I counsel an abused woman, I do not advise her to stay in the abusive relationship, to wait for some more serious abuse to occur. Can you imagine a therapist saying: “Oh, he only punched you once and that’s not a very bad black eye, so you really should just ignore that behavior and stay with him.” Absolutely not. We tell victims to leave at the first sign of physical abuse. In the same way, the citizens of this country, presumably represented by Congress members, should end our relationship with Trump by removing him from office. He has already exhibited plenty of warning signs of a deeply unstable person, who is so completely lacking in empathy that he is willing to repeatedly abuse others verbally and physically to serve his own emotional needs.
Another reason it is important to identify Trump as abusive, is that Trump is a chronic danger that should not be ignored. Extreme Other-Blamers who are empowered by the apparatus of the state are exactly the type of personalities who become tyrannical and authoritarian. The cultural creep we are experiencing toward authoritarianism and hate has implications beyond politics. Lack of empathy for others is a violation of essential human decency and morals. As social animals, we evolved and succeeded based on our ability to care, share, and cooperate. Behaviors such as self-serving greed, violations of the law, and a lack of concern for the less fortunate are clearly the opposite of tolerance, generosity, fairness, and compassion on which our human species was built.
Trump’s lack of character, morals and integrity are doing immeasurable and long-term harm to our social fabric, which will cause trauma — in the same way an abusive relationship alters a victim’s self-identity and emotional functioning for years to come.
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