It is hard to listen to the video clip in which Republican Presidential Nominee Donald Trump talks about grabbing a woman’s “pussy”. For many sexual assault survivors, this clip can be very triggering. What he describes in fun and laughter others have experienced as violent, invasive attacks on their bodies. In fact, within hours of the clip’s release, millions of women were sharing their stories of sexual assault, and the ways that they were triggered by the clip.
Katie Dupere, a survivor of sexual assault, described the harsh memories that the recording brought up for her. “My assault began when this boy ‘grabbed me by the pussy’,” she writes, using the exact act that Trump brags about on the clip. “To a sexual assault survivor like me, Trump’s words are not the harmless ‘locker room banter’ he claims they are,” she continues. “They are words that reach into the deepest parts of me, plucking out trauma that gets replayed over and over with each new article and retweet. They are reflective of a culture of men that sees women as available to fulfill their desires, even without their consent.”
Another survivor, Chrissa Hardy, who was raped when she was 17, writes that Trump’s bragging “left me frozen in place. These comments are ones that only a sexual predator would make, and they made me relive my rape all over again.”
What’s more, on the tape he has an engaged audience. Billy Bush, a media celebrity and cousin of former president George W. Bush, can be heard laughing throughout, giving Trump the boost and legitimacy for his descriptions of sexual assault. And then it gets worse: Bush convinces Arianne Zucker — the object of Trump’s ogling a moment earlier — to give him a hug. She unwittingly becomes the object in Trump’s fantasy. She went from being an object for ogling to an object for touching.
“When women watch that interaction between Trump, Bush and Zucker, they’ll think of the countless times they walked up to a group of jovial men in mid-conversation and felt something in the pit of their stomach,” writes feminist commentator Jessica Valenti. “They’ll wonder if their sneaking suspicion was right all along — that they were on the outside, that they were the joke.”
Trump issued an apology of sorts, but his words were not consoling. That’s because even in his apology, he was still using toxic tactics, still using words to assault women.
Like so many other moments of the American presidential election, this episode is replete with examples of toxic abuse. The tape is an example of the connection between verbal abuse and physical abuse. They are often intertwined, with one tactic reinforcing the other. As Gloria Steinem said, “Trump’s rhetoric normalizes dominance and violence, and endangers us all.”
As I’ve written here before, the upside to watching abuse happen on a public stage is that it gives us an opportunity to name the dynamics. Shedding light on these tactics, and labeling the toxic tactics that we are witnessing are important steps in dealing with abuse.
So with that in mind, here is a list of nine toxic tactics that we can observe in the events surrounding the release of this clip:
(1) Promoting rape culture
On its most basic level, the tape is a clear example of rape culture. Essentially, these are two men joking about non-consensual sexual activity. They consider it funny and entertaining — in fact, Trump later admitted that the whole point was to entertain.
Trump was familiar with this tactic, having spent seventeen years making jokes like these with radio host Howard Stern. In their world, the best way to be funny is to joke about women’s bodies.
Trump has also promoted rape culture in the military, for example when he tweeted “26,000 unreported sexual assaults in the military — only 238 convictions. What did these geniuses expect when they put men and women together?” As if to say, when women and men get together, it is somehow expected that men will sexually assault the women.
But what seems funny for men in a studio is not funny for women in the world. As Emma Gray writes at Huffington Post, “This is rape culture, and a man who might be our next president doesn’t understand it at all.”
She also reminds us of the real impact of promoting rape culture. “You’d be hard-pressed to find a woman out there who hasn’t been groped against her will or propositioned in a way that felt threatening or had a man yell lewd comments at her as she walked down the street. These experiences are seared into our memories and built into our muscles. They are why we flinch when we sense someone behind us on the street at night, and why we make sure to have a friend nearby at a bar who will intervene if a stranger gets handsy.”
While men like Trump, Bush and Stern joke about groping women, many women are not laughing.
(2) Objectifying another person
Another clear aspect of abuse in the tape is the way they objectify the women they are talking about. Bush says, “Those legs, all I can see is the legs,” as if she is a piece of meat at the butcher and he is purchasing her in segmented parts. Trump responds by referring to her as “it” and not even as “her”: “Oh, it looks good,” he drools, as if his dinner has just arrived.
Zucker, the actress who they are ogling, becomes nothing other than a body, a target, a toy in their little sex game, something to be consumed.
In the dynamic of objectification, the other person is nothing other than a toy to be observed and used. The other person loses his or her entire person. Nothing matters to the abuser other than how the victim’s body can be used to serve the narcissistic desires of the abuser.
Trump has a long, ugly history of objectifying women. He and Stern spent many hours judging women’s sexual appeal, and in fact Stern told Trump that he was the world’s greatest judge of women’s beauty — because that was most of what they did together on the radio show.
He doesn’t only objectify women, but also objectifies girls. Tellingly, one of his alleged rape victims is a 13-year-old girl. And a recent investigative report into Trump’s modeling agency suggests that he has a thing about underage girls. Trump brags about this, too. In one twitter post, he wrote: “’You date girls young enough to be your daughter. That’s perverted’ Dated. No, that’s talent.”
Another tactic that the clip points to is exaggeration. Bush says about Trump, “As soon as a beautiful woman shows up he just, he takes off. This always happens.” Always. As if that is just a fact. Trump always gets his way with women. Women always love him. Exaggeration, like lying and denying, is one of the key truth-aversive tactics of toxic abusers.
Trump loves this kind of exaggerated hype, and you can see it in much of what he says and does. One of his favorite words is “tremendous”. He also says things like, “I have the best temperament,” or “I get big ratings; they call me the ratings machine”, or “I use great words; my words are the best,” or “I’m the healthiest person to ever run for president.” The puffed-chest turkey-walk is reflected in almost everything he talks about. But this exaggeration — which is twisting truths mostly to advance himself — is just another form of lying, and one of the toxic tactics.
There are many examples of Trump’s exaggerations on the campaign trail and even before. One of his many areas of exaggeration is about his own wealth. He repeatedly says that he is worth “billions” of dollars, though according to Forbes, this is not even remotely true. They report that Trump “magnifies his assets, overlooks his liabilities and obscures his ownership stakes to arrive at sky-high valuations”. He exaggerates about the worth of his golf courses by an estimated $1 billion. Gawker found that not only has he been grossly exaggerating about his net worth for decades, but that much of that time he may have been in debt.
Trump also regularly exaggerates on political and economic issues in order to support his points. For example, he told a Reddit forum that “Youth unemployment is through the roof, and millions more are underemployed. It’s a total disaster!” (It should be noted that “total disaster” is another one of his favorite phrases.). Politifact checked this assertion and found it to be a gross exaggeration aimed at getting followers. He exaggerated the same way when talking about unemployment to a group in Michigan, trying to get people hyped up in order to be excited about him.
Sometimes his exaggeration falls somewhere in between hype and complete fantasy. Like when he said Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton founded the Muslim radical terrorist group ISIS. Some Conservative pundits supported him by saying that he didn’t mean this literally. But he actually said that he meant it literally. In his version of conversation, exaggeration is his truth.
Exaggeration is one of the key tactics of emotional abuse, as Suzette Haden Elgin explained in The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-defense. It may seem innocuous, like something that everyone does sometimes. But the way narcissistic abusers like Trump use it — to puff themselves up and put other people down — it is just another form of narcissistic manipulation.
Gaslighting is a toxic tactic in which an abuser tries to deny the victim’s entire experience of events, making the victim out to be crazy or losing her mind. As an abuse tactic, it is very powerful, more common than we believe, and beloved to Donald Trump.
Trump’s so-called “apology” for the tape includes attempts at gaslighting — for example, when he says, “This is nothing more than a distraction from the important issues we’re facing today. As if to say, why are you all making such a big deal out of this? It is nothing.
Trump has been using gaslighting techniques throughout his campaign. When a reporter was beaten up at one of his rallies, his campaign manager looked at her bruises and called her crazy — accusing her of making the whole thing up. When Melania Trump was found to have plagiarized Michele Obama’s speechat the Republican National Convention, the Trump team called the accusations “absurd”, trying to make the entire country of listeners seem likethey were the crazy ones. “’Absurd’ is no accident,” writes Andrea Grimes at The Observer. It’s a short couple steps from ‘crazy,’ and in the realm of ‘unreal’, ‘preposterous’ and ‘bizarre’.”
One of the most outrageous examples of gaslighting was when Trump tried to convince America that Hillary Clinton started the birther movement. As Brian Beutler at New Republic explains, “Rather than disavow and apologize for his birtherism, he fabricated a new history in which Clinton had given life to the birther movement and he had merely settled the issue by forcing Obama to produce his birth certificate. This is top-to-bottom fiction. The Trump campaign is making a bet that … he and his surrogates can gaslight media elites and passive news consumers about Trump’s role in coopting the birther movement, and turning it into an intimidating source of right-wing grassroots politics.” He adds that this “Don’t-believe-your-lying-eyes revisionism has a lengthy pedigree, …[though] we’ve never seen it put to use at such a high level of Republican Party politics.”
Gaslighting is a very difficult toxic tactic to unravel. It is a subtle psychological maneuver that makes the victim think that they might be losing their mind. If you don’t recognize that you are being manipulated, it can have a devastating impact. And yet this tactic has taken center stage. As Mary Elizabeth Williams writes in Salon, “As far as I’m concerned, 2016 should come with a trigger warning.”
(5) Diverting and projecting
The first thing that Trump said in response to the clip was that Bill Clinton has done much worse. The final punchline of his apology was the same. His comment that “I’ve said some foolish things” was followed by an immediate “but” — a tactic for making an apology not an apology. He said, “But there’s a big difference between the words and actions of other people. Bill Clinton has actually abused women and Hillary has bullied, attacked, shamed and intimidated his victims. We will discuss this more in the coming days.”
This is a classic diversion tactic, as I discussed elsewhere. It is where the person absolves himself of responsibility by pointing the finger elsewhere.
Many of his supporters do the same. On my Facebook page over the past two days, every time Trump’s video comes up, his supporters write in comments about Benghazi, emails, and Bill Clinton. These comments do nothing to address the very real abuse that Trump engages in. These are merely attempts at diversion and projection. In another jaw-dropping example, when Scott Baio posted a photo of Hillary under the word, “C*unt”, and a reporter asked him how he can be so vulgar considering he is supposedly a man of faith, he responded by accusing the reporter of being “not nice”, as if he is the real victim. This head-spinning diatribe in which the abuser tries to accuse the victim of being the abuser, is classic projection.
Projection, a slimy and slick rhetorical tactic, is one of several diversion tactics employed by toxic attackers. When the attacker is confronted with his or her own smarmy behavior, he or she will respond by claiming that the situation is reverse. If the victim of the toxic tactician does not recognize what it happening, the strategy can be very effective and disarming.
(6) The non-apology: blame
The “apology” also included a subtle form of blame-shifting in which Trump was trying to say that it wasn’t his fault. “I’ve never said I’m a perfect person, nor pretended to be someone that I’m not,” he said, implying that the entire viewing audience was to blame for making false assumptions about him. As if to say, “Why are you all accusing me of being imperfect? I never said that!”
This is another subtle but unmistakable tactic of the toxic abuser. When confronted with his own misdeeds, he twists it around to make himself out to be the victim.
Similarly, when he said, “I’m sorry if anyone was offended”, this was also not a real apology. It was a subtle, twisted way of accusing the victim for being “offended”. As if to say, “You were offended” but not because of anything I actually did.
Experts in human behavior around apologizing have been pointing out that even though “Trump did use the phrase ‘I apologize,’ to be clear, this was not an apology.” Edwin Battistella, author of Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology, told Vox that “Trump’s response to the video was the exact opposite of an apology: It normalized an extraordinarily degrading kind of banter, attempted to deflect the attention to a rival public figure in Bill Clinton, and used a conditional “if anyone was offended,” placing “the onus on others to react”. Battistella added, “A morally serious apology would respond to the content of way he said — demeaning women — and the effects of his comments.”
Trump, like other toxic abusers, is an aficionado of blame-shifting. As I described in my previous essay, Trump has mastered the technique of blame. He incorporates it so seamlessly that, if you listen to him long enough, you will be led to believe that nothing is ever his fault. Whatever the problem is, Trump finds a way to blame others.
There are countless examples of this, many of which featured in the debate. When he was asked about the many small businesses that he stiffed while he built his business empire, he blamed the business owners. “Maybe they just didn’t do a good job,” he said. In other words, if he doesn’t pay his bill, it’s the supplier’s fault. This is particularly painful for the victims here. The people who he stiffed are victimized twice. First they are literally robbed from money that is rightfully theirs. Then, the robber attacks them a second time by blaming them for their own attack. As if they did it to themselves. This is a classic toxic tactic, and can be excruciating.
Trump blames without even blinking. Right after the previous debate, when he received reports that Clinton “won,” his first response was to blame his supposedly defective microphone. When he loses anything, he always blames. Even when is supposedly apologizing, he is really blaming.
The blaming is a core tactic of the toxic abuser.
(7) Dismissal A: “It was nothing”
Trump and his supporters also tried to dismiss the tape as mere “locker-room banter”, incriminating all the men in the world as potential co-conspirators.
“Everyone does this; I do it,” a Trump supporter wrote on my Facebook page, blending the tactic of exaggeration — “everyone” — with the dismissal tactic. (I told my friend that if he finds himself sharing behaviors with a confessed sexual predator, he might want to have an honest conversation with himself about that.)
This kind of dismissal is the first step towards gaslighting (see above). First, convince the victim that it was “nothing”, and then work on convincing the victim that it is all in her head.
(8) Dismissal B: “I was just joking”
Another core tactic of toxic abuse that could be found in Trump’s reactions is trying to pretend it was a joke. He initially dismissed the entire episode as mere “entertainment”.
“It was just a joke” is a long-used tactic of abuse, especially against women. “Feminists have no sense of humor” is one of the oldest dismissals of emotional abuse against women. But this is just a tactic to mask dangerous language. Trump, for example “joked” about removing a mother and her babyfrom his rally, ”joked” about deporting Clinton, “joked” about assassinating Clinton
Toxic abusers often favor this dynamic, where they follow up on verbal abuse with violence and then “Just joking.” One victim of this kind of abuse wrote about her experience:
“It’s supposed to be funny that he wants to run me through a wood chipper and feed pieces of me to the fish. … He’ll tell me how he’s going to replace the chopping parts of the chipper when he’s through and then divide my chunks into twenty bags. ‘I’ll have bait for a lot of fishin’ trips!’ ….Sometimes he’ll make fun of me in a cruel manner in front of his friends. Then he’ll get up, throw his arms around me, and say ‘I didn’t mean it, honey! I’m just teasing you!’ … He’ll smile and say, ‘I’ll cut you, woman’ while slicing the knife through the air. He puts bread knives to our boys’ throats while holding their heads tight and says he is ‘just playing.’”
Jokes about violence, or rape, or sexual assault are never funny.
Trump never apologizes, and never backs down. The same is true with many of his supporters. In fact, one of the most frustrating aspects of this election has been having conversations with Trump supporters who are impervious to fact, logic, reason, emotion or morality. Trump knows this. He has said he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot a person without losing votes. Even after the backlash from this tape, he was defiant, high-fiving supporters and vowing to “never drop out”.
Toxic abusers do not listen. They are impervious to the arguments that others make. They will never acknowledge that they have been hurtful, will never soften their stance, will never express compassion or empathy for the person standing in front of them, and ultimately end up just saying what they want to say without any regard for another person. As Glenn Kessler writes, “when he is called out for an obvious falsehood, he simply repeats the inaccurate talking points over and over.” This is a key tactic of toxicity. It is the imperviousness to reason, logic, truth, genuine engagement and empathy.
Trump is relentless. He knows that his tactics win. They got him very far towards the White House. He doesn’t need advisors or policy briefs. He has his toxic tactics and his tried and trusted methods for pushing people around, and they get him where he needs to go. It is frustrating to non-abusers, but this is how toxicity and bullying work.
Abusers generally do not budge much from their attack stance. This makes conversations difficult if not impossible. “Clinton is a felon,” one of my Facebook friends wrote almost single time I posted an article about the elections. (Sometimes it was “Clinton should be in jail.”) I didn’t matter how many ways I demonstrated that she has not been charged with any criminal activity, despite unprecedented amounts of federally-funded investigations dedicated to trying to put her behind bars. My friend was completely impervious. He never actually responded to anything I wrote. Perhaps he didn’t even read what I wrote. He was not discussing with me. He was just shouting the same thing over and over again, listening only to himself. Even when I posted on other topics having nothing to do with the election, he would often find some kind of hook to go off again on how Clinton should be in jail. He wasn’t really there. He was using me to say his thing, effectively ignoring everyone else in the room. And yes, I eventually unfriended him.
You may feel like the person you are talking to has not heard a word you say. He or she may continue banging away at the exact same line over and over, as if you have not even said anything.
These are some common and manipulative toxic maneuvers that have been used in this election campaign. Once we start seeing them clearly, we can start identifying them and looking at ways to effectively defend ourselves against attack.
Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman is a feminist thought-leader, anthropologist, and writer whose research and ideas help shape a vision for a compassionate society. She has published five books on gender in society, and today helps women amplify their own voices and find their power through Lioness Booksand Media. She coaches women through the writing process, edits, and ghost-writes women's books, and publishes women's writing through Lioness. She also speaks and consults with groups and organizations around the world on gender issues and women's experiences in the world. Would you like to schedule a chat? Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org