Last fall, when presidential wannabe Donald Trump famously boasted on CNN that he would “be the best thing that ever happened to women,” some may have fallen for it. Millions of women, however, reacted with laughter, irritation, disgust, and no little nausea. For while the media generate a daily fog of Trumpisms, speculating upon the meaning and implications of the man’s every incoherent utterance, a great many women, schooled by experience, can see right through the petty tyrant and his nasty bag of tricks.
By March, the often hard-earned wisdom of such women was reflected in a raft of public opinion polls in which an extraordinary number of female voters registered an “unfavorable” or “negative” impression of the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee. Reporting on Trump’s “rock-bottom ratings” with prospective women voters, Politico termed the unfavorable poll numbers — 67% (Fox News), 67% (Quinnipiac University), 70% (NBC/Wall Street Journal), 73% (ABC/Washington Post) — “staggering.” In April, the Daily Wire labeled similar results in a Bloombergpoll of married women likely to vote in the general election “amazing.” Seventy percent of them stated that they would not vote for Trump.
His campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, seemed untroubled by such polls, claiming that “women don’t vote based on gender” but on “competency,” apparently convinced that it was only a matter of time before female voters awoke to the dazzling competency of his candidate.
Think again, Mr. Lewandowski. Since at least the 1970s, women have been voting on the basis of gender — not that of the presidential candidates (all men), but their own. Historically, women and children have been more likely than men to benefit from the sorts of social welfare programs generally backed by Democrats, including Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Even after, in the 1990s, both parties connived to scale back or shut down such programs, a majority of women stayed with Democrats who advocated positions like equal pay for equal work, reproductive rights, improved early childhood education, affordable health care, universal child care, and paid parental leave — programs of special interest to families of all ethnic groups and, with rare exceptions, opposed by Republicans.
A majority of women have remained quite consistent since the 1970s in the policies (and party) they support. (Among women, loyalty to the Republican Party seems to have fallen chiefly to white Christian evangelicals.) It’s men who have generally been the fickle flip-floppers, switching parties, often well behind the economic curve, to repeatedly vote for “change” unlike the change they voted for last time. The result is a gender gap that widens with each presidential election.
Still, the 2016 version of that gap is a doozy, wider than it’s ever been and growing. Add in another factor: huge numbers of women with “negative” opinions of Donald Trump don’t simply dislike him, but loathe him in visceral ways. In other words, something unusual is going on here beyond party or policy or even politics — something so obvious that most pundits, busy fielding Trump’s calls and reporting his bluster on a daily basis, haven’t stepped back and taken it in.
Even Hillary Clinton, when she comes out swinging, politely refrains from spelling it out. In her recent speech on foreign policy, she declared Trump temperamentally unfit to be president: too thin-skinned, too angry, too quick to employ such “tools” as “bragging, mocking, and sending nasty tweets.” Admittedly, she did conjure up a scary, futuristic image of an erratic bully with a thumb on the nuclear button, describing as well his apparent fascination with and attraction to autocrats like Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un. But she stopped short of connecting the Trumpian dots when she concluded: “I will leave it to the psychiatrists to explain his affection for tyrants.”
In truth, most women don’t need psychiatrists to explain the peculiar admiration of an aspiring autocrat for his role models. Every woman who has ever had to deal with a Trump-style-tyrant in her own home or at her job already has Trump’s number. We recognize him as a bloated specimen of the common garden variety Controlling Man, a familiar type of Household Hitler.
In fact, Donald J. Trump perfectly fits the profile of an ordinary wife abuser — with one additional twist. Expansive fellow that he is, Trump has not confined his controlling tactics to his own home(s). For seven years, he practiced them openly for all the world to see on The Apprentice, his very own reality show, and now applies them on a national stage, commanding constant attention while alternately insulting, cajoling, demeaning, embracing, patronizing, and verbally beating up anyone (including a “Mexican” judge) who stands in the way of his coronation.
Let me be clear. I’m not suggesting that Donald Trump beats his wife (or wives). I’m only observing that this year the enormous gender gap among voters can be partially explained by the fact that, thanks to their own personal experience, millions of American women know a tyrant when they see one.
The tactics of such controlling men, used not on women but on other men, were first studied intensively decades ago. In the wake of the Korean War, sociologist Albert Biderman, working for the U.S. Air Force, explored the practices used by Chinese communist thought-reformers to try to break (“brainwash”) American prisoners of war. (Think The Manchurian Candidate.) He reported his findings in “Communist Attempts to Elicit False Confessions From Air Force Prisoners of War,” a 1957 article that caused the Air Force to change its training tactics. Following Biderman’s report, that service chose to give its high-risk personnel a taste of those tactics and thereby steel them against the pressure, if captured, of “confessing” to whatever their interrogators wanted. The Air Force program, known as SERE(for survival, evasion, resistance, escape), was extended during the war in Vietnam to special forces in the other U.S. military services.
In 1973, Amnesty International used Biderman’s article, augmented by strikingly similar accounts from political prisoners, hostages, and concentration camp survivors, to codify a “chart of coercion.” Organizers in the battered women’s movement immediately recognized the tactics described and applied them to their work with women effectively held hostage in their own homes by abusive husbands or boyfriends. They handed that chart out in support groups at women’s shelters, and battered women soon came up with countless homespun examples of those same methods of coercion in use behind closed doors right here in the U.S.A.
The great feminist organizer Ellen Pence and the staff of the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project (DAIP) in Duluth, Minnesota, worked with battered women to refine and summarize those coercive tactics on a handy circular chart they named the Power and Control Wheel. Since its creation in 1984, that chart has been translated into at least 40 languages, and DAIP has become the international model for community-based work against domestic violence.
It’s probably fair to say that sometime in the last 30 years just about every survivor of domestic violence in the United States — about one of every three American women — has come across that “wheel.” That works out to more than 65 million women, 21 or older (a figure that doesn’t include millions of young adults who also have been targeted by controlling partners, pimps, traffickers, and the like).
Such survivors of violence against women have taught us a lot more about coercive techniques and their insidious use in what appears to be “normal” life. We know, for one thing, that a controlling man almost always has a charming, seductive side, which he uses to entice his targeted victims and later displays from time to time, between abusive episodes, to keep them in thrall.
More important, we know that when such controlling tactics are skillfully applied to targeted victims, no violent physical coercion is necessary. None. The mind can be bent without battering the body. Hence the term “brainwashing.” When a controlling man inflicts physical force or sexual violence on his victim, the act is a demonstration of the control he has already gained through less visible, more insidious tactics of coercion.
Knowing that, it seems reasonable to assume that plenty of men also recoil from Trump’s tactics for the very reasons women do. After all, such tactics have also been systematically used by men to control men and when applied to an intimate relationship they may have the same destructive impact on men that battered women report. Men, too, get charmed, coerced, beaten, and raped. In this country, one man out of every seven has been a victim of sexual or physical assault by an intimate partner. But this is no battle of the sexes. Whether the victim is female or male, the controlling assailant is almost always a man.
The Tyrant’s Toolkit
So how does a Controlling Man operate? First, according to Amnesty International’s chart on the “methods of coercion,” he isolates the victim. That’s easy enough to do if the victim is a prisoner or wife. You’d think it would be harder if the controlling figure is running for president and targeting millions of voters, but television reaches into homes, in effect isolating individuals. Each of them voluntarily attends to the words and antics of the clownish performer who, with his orangey bouffant do and dangling red tie, stands out so flamboyantly from all the bland suits. Those prospective voters may have tuned in seeking information about the candidates (or even for entertainment), but what they let themselves in for is a blast of head-on Trumpian coercion.
Second, the controller “monopolizes the perception” of the targeted victims; that is, he draws all attention to himself. He strives to eliminate any distractions competing for the viewers’/victims’ attention (think: Jeb, John, Chris, Ted, Carly, and crew), and he behaves with enough inconsistency to keep his potential victims off-balance, focused on him alone, and — whether they know it or not — seeking to comply.
Trump has used such tactics gleefully. The TV networks, like the media generally, and the Republican establishment thought his candidacy was a joke, yet in the process of publicizing that joke, they gave him an estimated $2 billion in free air time. Often in those months, as in his post-primary “press conferences,” he was not challenged but awarded endless time to rant and ramble on, monopolizing the perceptions of viewers and networks alike. To justify their focus on him and their relative neglect of all other candidates, the networks cited the bottom line. Trump, they said, made them a lot of money. And they made him a daily inescapable presence in our lives.
All of this Trumpianism can be electrifying, exhausting, and undoubtedly mentally debilitating, which not so coincidentally is the third coercive tactic on Amnesty International’s list. The relentlessness and incoherence of the controller’s harangues tend to weaken a victim’s (or viewer’s) will to resist, and thanks to the media, Trump is everywhere — the big man at the podium always talking at us, always looking at us, always watching us.
After that, the rest is easy. Amnesty International lists the tools: threats, degradation, trivial demands, occasional indulgences (a flash of charm, for example, or a bit of the feigned reasonableness that keeps Republican bigwigs imagining that Trump’s demeanor will turn “presidential”). The Power and Control Wheel identifies similar tactics with specific examples of each: using threats, intimidation, emotional abuse, especially put-downs and humiliation (think: low-energy Jeb, little Marco, lyin’ Ted, crooked Hillary), minimizing, denying, and blaming (“I never said that!”), and using male privilege; that is, acting like the master of the castle, and being the one to define men’s and women’s roles — as in “Hillary doesn’t look presidential.”
The battered women who have faced such tactics and survived to tell the tale have taught us this: the controlling man knows exactly what he is doing — even when, or especially when, he appears to be out of control or “unpredictable.” Think of the good cop/bad cop routines you see in any police procedural. The skilled controller plays both parts. One moment he’s Mister Nice Guy: generous, charming, ebullient, entertaining. The next, he’s blowing his stack, and then denying what’s just happened, or claiming he’s been “misconstrued,” and making nice again. (Think: the saga of “bimbo” Megyn Kelly.)
That seemingly unpredictable behavior is toxic because once you’ve felt an incendiary blast of wrath and scorn, you’re likely to do almost anything to avoid “setting him off” again. But it wasn’t you who triggered him. In fact, the controller sets himself off when it serves his purposes, not yours, and he leaves you scrambling to figure out how to deal with him without setting him off again. (Think of Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Jeb Bush rolling out new approaches at every debate only to be clobbered and humiliated yet again.)
We’ve witnessed so much of this, seen so many coercive tools flung about and so many competitors slinking away that such conduct now passes for normal “political” exchange. In the current extraordinary electoral process, we have been spectators at the performances of a man skilled in the sort of coercive tactics designed to control prisoners and hostages, and ruthlessly applied to the criminal abuse of women. We have watched that man put those tactics to use in plain sight to vanquish his opponents and force to his side the battered remnants of a major political party and a significant part of the electorate.
Trump has been at it for months on national television — and no journalist, no politician, no Republican Party leader, no contender has named his behavior for what it is. Nobody has called him out — except in the public opinion polls where women voters, millions of whom know the tyrant’s playbook by heart, have spoken. And they said: no.
Ann Jones, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of several books on domestic violence, including the feminist classic Women Who Kill and Next Time, She’ll Be Dead: Battering and How to Stop It, which Gloria Steinem calls “the one book you should read” on the subject. At the request of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, she co-wrote with Susan Schechter a popular guide for women in relationships with controlling partners: When Love Goes Wrong. She is also the author of the Dispatch Books original, They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars — The Untold Story.