Tonight’s Debate Illustrates How Abusers Use Coercive Control
Why We Must Build an Accountability Culture
Teri Yuan is a social entrepreneur, feminist business consultant, and the host of the weekly podcast, en(gender)ed, which explores the systems, practices and policies that enable gender-based violence and oppression and the solutions to end it.
One hour before Tuesday’s Presidential Debate, my phone started pinging with texts in anticipation. It didn’t take long before these exchanges started making me feel anxious and agitated — the same feeling of dread that I get when I know I will be seeing my abuser — during one of his visits with our son or the night before we are due in court due to a sixteen year family court saga he has perpetuated. As one friend so aptly described, it is a feeling that every sentient being with a conscience can relate to if you have been paying attention the past three and a half years.
The above screenshot exemplifies the kind of tactic I have and continue to experience by my abuser. It’s from an official Trump campaign email sent hours before the debate actually started. In domestic abuse terminology, it’s a form of emotional and psychological abuse that the public has come to know as “gaslighting” that fall under the umbrella of “coercive control” that Evan Stark refers to as a gendered liberty crime.
Yes, folks — we are ALL survivors of coercive control — having been victimized by Trump, by his corrupt administration, and by his enablers and sycophantic base. That overwhelming feeling that ebbs and flows while watching the debate, that fluctuates with the volume and frequency of Trump’s non-stop interruptions, is called trauma. This is how abuse looksand feels. In Jess Hill’s book, See What You Made Me Do (recently re-released in the US), she shares how domestic abusers’ tactics are comparable to those used by North Koreans to torture American prisoners-of-war. All of these techniques have been utilized by various members of this administration and by Trump himself over the past three and a half years. Some were used tonight.
Thanks to Trump’s endless staccato verbal jabs — our heart palpitations, sweaty palms, headaches and chronic pain, have become a familiar visitor to our bodies and to our homes. Abusers like Trump employ this technique to deliberately put our systems into overdrive, into fight, flight, freeze, and fawn, and disable you not only in that moment, but also later. It’s a way to set up our physiology to go haywire the next time and the next time it happens to debilitate our ability to resist because our sensory processing skills are shut down. It’s easy to claim you are right and victorious when your audience can’t remember, think or feel anymore.
Humiliation and Degradation
I can’t keep track of the number of ad hominem attacks Trump made against Biden, whom he called “not smart” because of his college grades, which is rich coming from someone who paid his hatchet man to threaten his college to keep quiet about his. Personal attacks are a logical fallacy and a tactic that is used by a side who can’t use reason and facts to persuade their audience of their argument.
In other words, it’s a below the belt hit employed by a losing side when there are no cards left in his hand. Not only are the words insulting and not true, but Trump’s use of derisive gestures, facial expressions, and denigrating tone serve as bullying taunts that message to his followers that he disrespects Biden, that Biden doesn’t deserve any respect, and that they shouldn’t respect Biden either — because if they do, they will be his next victim.
In court, my abuser’s attorney would delight in repeating the vicious onslaught of lies common to men faced with abuse claims in family court — that I was mentally ill and unstable, that my ex was the wounded party, that I was the one who was “dumped” by him and not the other way around, and that fueled my vengeance, so much so I was willing to turn my child against his father. Just like with Trump, none of these things were true, but one who is louder and repetitive gets to dominate the narrative, regardless of fact, reason, and evidence.
These personal attacks were repeatedly launched on me, my attorney, and anyone who dared show up in court on my behalf; they were made through court colloquy, testimony, or waiting room negotiations. My abuser, his attorney, and the child’s attorney* have all taken swipes at any witness I’ve had on the stand, friends I’ve spent time with, and people in my ever-shrinking network, too exhausted themselves from the bystander impact of his harassment.
No one would blame them for walking away after a certain point, but that’s exactly what the abuser wants — for you to give up and leave the victim alone to fend for herself, discredited, debilitated, and ready to surrender to his will. It’s that tendency that has made leaving an abuser such an isolating experience and contributed to the chaos we saw on TV tonight — we have failed to build a cultural literacy towards recognizing the signs of abuse and responding to it, so we turn away instead. Similarly, we cannot afford to choose not to see what Trump is doing and who he is. Only by seeing can we build our capacity to better know, act, and transform our society for the better.
Monopolization of Perception & Demonstrating Omnipotence
Drowning out both the moderator and Biden so that words become indecipherable to the audience serves the dual purpose to reinforce our perception that Trump is strong, in command, and omnipotent — that it is futile for us to resist, both literally and figuratively. Trump’s plan and strategy is to fully embody his role as Abuser-in-Chief and launch relentless assaults on our senses the way my ex filed motion after motion and enlisted his complicit attorney to stonewall our trial so that I could break down in exhaustion as he reinforced and dominated the narrative that he was the victim instead of me.
When you attack someone loud enough and often enough, no one can or will want to hear your response in defiant defense. They will want the whole process to end no matter the lack of due process, civility, or ethics that should guide our cultural norms, our law and our politics. By the end of my sixty plus times on testifying as the first witness in my abuser’s case, I was so debilitated and exhausted, I didn’t even get a chance to respond in cross-examination; I needed a break from being on the stand for two years straight — defending myself against false claims that the abuser manufactured week after week from real-time interactions her would create and weaponize. Abusers’ goals are to drain you of your resources, deplete you of your energy, and diminish your spirit.
Yesterday, former Trump reelection campaign manager, Brad Parscale, was arrested — for threatening suicide in a showdown after which the police confiscated ten guns following observations of contusions and bruises on Parscale’s wife, who complained of his violence and hitting. Parscale is one of a string of men in Trump’s entourage who have been accused of hurting women. I’ve said it again and again — if we take domestic abusers seriously, they wouldn’t be wielding their power and influence over the rest of society. They wouldn’t be harming, maiming, killing others later. How can we expect our elected officials to adhere to their oaths of office when the people they surround themselves with don’t exhibit integrity or respect in their private lives?
We know that sexism and misogyny are gateways to white supremacy, but rarely does anyone in the gun reform movement speak about gun violence being a gender justice issue. Most of the time, it’s cast as a racial justice issue. This oversight becomes deliberately neglectful when survivors and advocates like myself repeatedly point it out and receive silence from both pundits and the media. It’s time for all of us — especially the media — to stop participating in the erasure of systemic sexism and harm to women, by connecting the dots in their reporting on how gender has a role in almost every story about inequality and oppression.