This election was triggering for a lot of abuse survivors. Calls to RAINN's sexual assault hotline surged after Trump's Access Hollywood tape leaked, and many have pointed out that he used verbally abusive tactics in the debates.
As a survivor of emotional abuse, one tactic of Trump's in particular reminded me of my manipulative ex partner: gaslighting. This is when someone tells you that your thoughts aren't based in reality, to the point that you start to distrust your perceptions.
In my case, when I tried to discuss my partner's habit of borrowing money from me and not giving it back, he'd tell me I was being too negative. When I got upset with him, he told me that life was too short to get angry. If I felt hurt by a word he used, he'd say that nobody can "make" you feel anything without your consent, so it was my problem.
This led me to feel that I was too unreasonable to trust my feelings. I internalized his arguments and believed that if I was unhappy about anything he’d done, I just needed to put it out of my mind because life was too short, nobody can make you feel anything, and it was all my fault anyway.
Since I've learned about gaslighting, I've understood that all the things my partner blamed on me weren't actually my fault. Looking at Trump's words can also help us understand our own relationships, as well as the ways gaslighting can shape our political climate.
While people in relationships may gaslight to discredit and manipulate their partners, Trump does it to discredit his critics and manipulate public opinion.
Here are some phrases he's used that either were used by my abusive partner or remind me of him — because they’re clear examples of gaslighting.
1. ‘'I Never Said I'm a Perfect Person'
After Trump was caught on tape saying that if you're famous, you can just do whatever you want with women, including "grabbing them" by their genitals as your heart desires, he released a video attempting to mitigate the seriousness of his comments.
"I've never said I'm a perfect person, nor pretended to be someone that I'm not," he said.
My ex has told me something similar: “Nobody’s perfect. What do you expect?”
If anybody ever responds to your concerns about them by saying that they never claimed to be perfect or that nobody’s perfect, be very, very skeptical.
If “I’m not perfect” were a real defense against criticism, nobody would ever be justified in criticizing anyone’s behavior. But obviously, things don’t work that way. If they did, people could just avert jail time by pleading imperfection.
The “nobody’s perfect” defense isn’t just irrational, though; it’s also malicious. Its goal is to imply that by criticizing someone, you’re being so demanding and unreasonable that you expect perfection, and that if you truly understood that humans are flawed, you would’ve kept your mouth shut.
Of course, people’s issue with Trump isn’t that he’s imperfect; it’s that he’s promoted misogyny, racism, ableism, and a whole lot of other negativity and oppression.
By reducing all these nuanced problems to mere imperfection, he’s distracting people from the real issues and painting people as overly critical if they want to talk about them.
Similarly, if your partner is toxic or abusive, you deserve to be treated better – and that’s not an unreasonable request at all. Asking for better isn’t asking for perfection.
2. ‘This Is Nothing More Than a Distraction From the Important Issues We’re Facing Today’
Trump also said this in the “apology” video regarding his Access Hollywood tape.
Similarly, he said in the second presidential debate that we need to forget about the tape so that “we can get onto much more important things and much bigger things,” like defeating ISIS.
He also tweeted, “I’m not proud of my locker room talk. But this world has serious problems.”
As if sexual assault weren’t serious or important.
These comments aim to convey to Trump’s critics that they’re blowing something out of proportion.
This type of gaslighting comes up a lot in conversations about social justice: “How could you talk about eating disorders when some people can’t even afford food?” “Who cares if queer people can get married when in some places, they’re killed?”
It also came up in my own relationship.
If I was angry with my significant other, he implied I was being myopic for focusing on supposedly small issues. He invoked lofty notions of love and forgiveness for the same reason Trump invoked ISIS: to illustrate the necessity of looking past the problem for a worthier cause.
Beware people who tell you your problems are small. They don’t get to singlehandedly decide what’s important. And if they claim to be the authorities on the topic, it’s often to serve themselves.
More often than not, the “small” problems are the ones they’ve contributed to – and the “small” problems can add up to something much bigger.
This type of gaslighting functions to dismiss people’s very real problems on the grounds that they’re not serious enough. And when it’s used as self-defense, it has another insidious effect: It makes the person who brings up the issue look petty.
When Trump said we need to focus on more important things, he was trying to dismiss people concerned about sexual harassment and assault – many of them survivors themselves – as uncaring, self-centered people who just can’t see the big picture.
That not only detracts from the real problem, but also penalizes people for speaking out about injustice.
3. ‘This Was Locker Room Banter’
Dismissing something that hurt another person as a joke or otherwise not serious is textbook gaslighting.
This defense only worked because “locker room talk” serves a very specific function in our society. Without the connotation of “not serious” or “not a problem,” it wouldn’t even be a defense. It would just mean something unacceptable that’s said in a locker room.
But in our culture, we have phrases designated for the purpose of gaslighting – specifically for men to gaslight women. “Locker room talk” is one. “Boys will be boys” is another.
Both imply that certain misogynistic behaviors are forgivable and even inevitable, so if we take issue with them, we’re just being too demanding.
We’re essentially being told that we’re asking for too much when we say that sexual assault and entitlement should not be acceptable casual conversation.
My ex-partner didn’t use these phrases, but he did, for example, defend using the word “silly” to describe an observation of mine, arguing that “silly” isn’t a serious or hurtful word.
This language serves the same purpose: invalidation and belittling, by claiming someone else’s concerns aren’t serious – which is a huge component of gaslighting.
4. ‘She’s Playing That Woman’s Card’
Accusing someone of playing a card, like the “woman card” or the “race card,” is also an example of gaslighting because it implies that someone’s trying to find a problem because the problem they’re seeing isn’t real.
In Trump’s view, if Hillary Clinton tried to talk about gender, she was just doing it because she wanted to win the election – as if being a woman or speaking out about sexism gave you an advantage.
Similarly, I and many other feminists have been accused of discussing the struggles marginalized people face just so that people will feel bad for us and we’ll gain special treatment.
It wasn’t always in these words with my ex-partner, but I knew what he was getting at. Once, when I pointed out a nudity double standard in a movie, he said I may be interpreting it as sexist because I thought about sexism a lot.
Another partner told me to stop “playing the woman card” after I suggested a hiring decision at his friend’s company could’ve been influenced by sexism.
Both of these instances made me feel like I had to stay silent if I ever had an opinion related to gender again – even if it was my own lived experience.
Once again, this form of gaslighting is more than a defense. The person using it is also on the offense, attacking the other person for supposedly making up injustice for personal gain.
Whether it’s used in politics or in the context of a relationship, “woman card” accuses the other person of being not only wrong, but also dishonest and opportunistic.
5. ‘I Think It’s Pure Political Correctness’
One gaslighting technique used by many politicians and everyday people discussing politics is accusing people of trying to limit free speech through political correctness.
Trump called putting Harriet Tubman on the twenty-dollar bill and moving Andrew Jackson to the back “pure political correctness.” His former campaign manager said it was “political correctness run amok” when people criticized an anti-Semitic tweet by Trump.
“We can’t afford to be politically correct anymore,” Trump said in a statement to defend his view of Muslims as terrorists.
When equality and justice become mere “political correctness” and political correctness is portrayed as a threat to free speech, every social movement becomes subject to attack.
And that’s what makes Trump so popular. His supporters have been dying for an outlet for their hateful opinions. They’re sick of being politically correct – so much so that he’s been elected into office.
By deeming efforts to not be oppressive mere “political correctness,” Trump gives people permission to let out all the thoughts they’ve felt pressured to suppress. He’s brought sexism, racism, and classism back in style.
In reality, “political correctness” is just being considerate. And telling people not to be hateful isn’t limiting their free speech. They can still legally say what they want.
Gaslighters like Trump are themselves trying to silence people by painting their standards as unreasonable and oppressive.
That’s the effect my ex had on me. He often accused me of trying to be the PC police if I pointed out a gender stereotype or racist joke he made. I started to feel ashamed and think that maybe I was just being a killjoy.
Trump wants people who care about social justice to feel like killjoys who are just out to rain on everyone’s parade – rather than people with legitimate concerns.
Gaslighting can happen on both macro and micro levels and takes many forms. But its message usually boils down to this: “If you have a problem with something I’ve done, the problem is actually with you.”
The same way this reasoning teaches people to suck it up when their partners hurt them, it teaches them to stay silent about injustice.
If they speak up, they fear they’ll be accused of expecting perfection, ignoring important issues, being unable to take a joke, playing a card, or limiting free speech.
It’s this kind of intimidation that actually does all these things. Trump criticizes people unfairly, discourages them from discussing issues that are in fact important, expresses extreme defensiveness, takes advantage of his privilege, and suppresses people’s opinions.
And no matter what he’d have us believe, we’re not irrational for observing this.
Trump has put gaslighting on a very public stage. Perhaps recognizing this abuse tactic in this context will help more people build the tools to recognize when it’s happening on a personal level, too.