With the guilty plea and conviction of two of Donald Trump’s closest staffers and friends, Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort, we are watching what for many of us is the predictable denouement of Trump’s presidency. Those of us with expertise in abusive and narcissistic relationship patterns have known that people like Trump usually bring an ignominious downfall on themselves due to their character flaws.
I see this daily in my psychology practice, as spouses, parents and children behave in ways that cause emotional and physical distress, provoke financial ruin, destroy childhoods, and generally sow unhappiness and toxicity in their wake.
I witnessed this happen with my abusive ex-husband, Ray, who said he loved me, but at the same time became increasingly volatile and violent, eventually wrecking our marriage.
In the same pattern, Trump says he has the best interests of the country in mind (MAGA!), yet repeatedly behaves in ways that are weakening our democratic norms and devastating our social and cultural values. For example, after Paul Manafort was convicted by a jury Trump continued to defend Manafort. Trump does not care that he is siding with a criminal and that this violates his oath of office and sends a terrible signal about morals and our justice system to Americans. (Hey, it’s OK to break laws! Even the president says it’s OK!) Trump’s only concern is his own emotional need. He wants to feel good about himself by avoiding admitting that Manafort is guilty, and that Trump, at the very least, showed poor judgment in hiring his former campaign chairman who had a long history of shady foreign lobbying deals and was $10 million in debt to a Russian oligarch with close ties to Vladimir Putin, making Manafort a prime target to be made a Russian covert asset.
Beyond this one decision, Trump has on a daily basis provided ample evidence of his extremely poor character, integrity and morals.
As I describe in the bestselling “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump,” he is an example of what I call an Other-blamer. These types of people, due to their childhood attachment traumas, do not learn healthy shame tolerance. They grow up to have low self-worth and are highly sensitive to shaming experiences, such as being criticized, making mistakes, failing, or being “less than” in any way. As a result, they learned to blame-shift to others to preserve their fragile psyches and avoid feeling additional shame.
Of course, this blame-shifting leads Other-blamers to make bad choices that we would label as immoral and sociopathic: lying, cheating, stealing, excusing, justifying, gaslighting, manipulating and abusing. Even while they are blatantly engaging in these behaviors they refuse to acknowledge their faults, holding themselves above the law.
Abusers don’t like the justice system because the law holds people accountable. A core behavior of Other-blamers is a resistance to being held responsible for their behaviors — because that provokes shame. They hold in high esteem those who violate the law and get away with it and they sympathize with those who are held accountable. Notice, again, that Trump is our country’s chief executive who should be upholding the laws and he is, instead, saying that he would prefer that Manafort get away with his crime.
Other-blamers seem compelled to behave in immoral ways, even when it does not serve their best interest because these decisions are not logical. Other-blamers are driven by a deep, primal fear of being discovered as unworthy. They experience even normal imperfections and mistakes as deeply shaming, leading to a secondary emotional response of defensiveness.
Because they have lied to themselves and others so often and for so long, Other-blamers get very good at it and may not be able to distinguish between right and wrong. Lying becomes a reflexive and automatic habit — hardly the behavior of a thoughtful, wise, deliberate leader that I would want for my country.
Their stubborn inability to back down and admit they are wrong becomes a sense of entitlement — that they are above the law. Abusers are often shocked that they are arrested and charged with a crime. They have worked so hard to convince themselves they are perfect and flawless, that they cannot comprehend that the very opposite is true.
Narcissists also come to depend on having what is called their “narcissistic supply.” In Trump’s case this means he is used to having millions of people provide him adulation and supply him self-worth, which is severely lacking.
The problem is that these behaviors don’t affect just the Other-blamer. Narcissistic and sociopathic abusers tend to take people down with them, destroying relationships and lives without empathy or concern for their effect on others. I help people every day recover from the effects of narcissistic emotional abuse, the effects of which can linger for a lifetime. The frustrated victim often sees the predatory abuser going on about his life without shame or punishment.
In the same way, I see nothing in Trump that indicates he is remorseful for the ways he is disrupting our lives by:
- inciting violence
- increasing racial divisiveness
- sowing fear and anxiety
- decreasing confidence in government through his corruption and greed
- lying constantly
- encouraging and engaging in corrupt practices that enrich himself and his family at the expense of the country
- weakening the USA diplomatically and economically
- treasonously supporting a cyber-invasion by Russia
- violating his oath of office to uphold the laws of the land
- and literally harming the planet and its people by his decisions.
Another pattern I see in victims of narcissistic abuse is that they have a difficult time focusing on their own lives in healthy ways. They spend much of their time in and out of therapy ruminating about the reasons for the perpetrator’s behaviors.
Similarly, much of the news cycle currently is about the criminal behaviors of Trump and his staffers, dozens of whom have been indicted, fired or been forced out of office because of their misbehaviors. This will be the ongoing legacy of Trump’s abuse of our country — he is distracting us from the important issues we should be facing.
I will end with this excerpt from my chapter in “Dangerous Case”:
“Victims of domestic abuse describe how their jealous spouse gets mad and texts them 30 times a day, calls repeatedly, and argues for hours. The effort it takes to manage the abuser causes the partner to have less time and energy for parenting, career, or self-care. In narcissistic relationships one has little left over after the arguments. Partners tend to over-focus on the relationship, rather than address their own self-improvement, until the relationship has ended.
In the same way, since the election much of the world has been in a panic, over-focused on Trump and unable to deal with much else but his foibles and follies. The world is scrambling to respond to chaos, leaving little energy to address legitimate issues that are being ignored. When the Japanese Prime Minister visited, the discussion about Trump’s bizarrely aggressive handshaking style overtook talk of trade deals or North Korea. Antarctic ice shelf breaking off? Wars, refugees, EU in turmoil? These issues receive inadequate attention because the world is trying to make sense of the attention-seeking distraction in the White House. This is potentially tragic for those people and issues ignored as a result of the dysfunctional relationship we have with this president.
I am experiencing this personally, as I spend much more time reading news articles, organizing rallies, writing letters, and making phone calls. This is time and energy I could be spending championing worthy causes. In fact, here I am writing about Trump’s mental health when, with a different person in office, I could be working to improve the mental health care system.
This narcissistic president is doing what all narcissists do — sucking the air out of the room. When in relationship with an Other-Blamer one must spend one’s time and energy arguing about the arguing, rather than resolving substantive issues. Trump will continue to have a toxic effect at the individual and global level, not just through his harmful, ill-considered policy decisions, but through increased anxiety and the diversion of attention from other issues.
A true leader or a caring spouse manages his or her behaviors and emotions in a mature, temperate way. The country will have less ability to focus on solutions to complex problems until we get rid of the Other-Blamer in Chief that we are in relationship with. The coarsening of society and loss of civility and empathy will likely be unrepairable in the near term. We can only hope that we break up with this abusive president before he breaks up the country.”
If you have not registered to vote for November 6, 2018, get information at https://www.usa.gov/register-to-vote