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The United States doesn’t have a president any more, we have an “Abuser-in-Chief.” The policies and practices of this administration, as I have written before, are modeled on domestic violence. We can effectively subvert this and reject it, but first we have to respect that the abuse is real and the pain it causes is real.
Abusers try to make you feel awful by exploiting your vulnerabilities, and taking away your sense of self-esteem and personal control. Then they try to tell you that you don’t feel what you feel, that you’re just ‘imagining things.’
Well, you’re not. I’m not. I feel like I’m being abused. Perhaps you do too.
Thus, when I claim we have an “Abuser-in-Chief,” I am not speaking metaphorically. Donald Trump’s conduct in office and his policies exactly follow the pattern of domestic abusers.
It’s All About Power and Control
The National Domestic Violence hotline emphasizes that what defines domestic abuse is a “pattern of behaviors used by one partner to maintain power and control” over the other.
The abuser will “insult, demean or shame you.” In Trump world, that abusive behavior often appears as texts. It is hard to keep up with the firehose of insulting, demeaning or shaming rhetoric coming from Trump, but the New York Timeshas attempted a list that they keep updating. The list is informative on the pattern of abuse as ‘power and control’ since almost everyone, including National Football League players who kneel to protest racism and police violence, is called “weak” and/or “out of control.” Some researchers have posited a link between Trump tweets and hate crimes against Muslims.
Abusers will try to exert control over finances, even refusing to pay for needed health care of their partners. The Trump administration has waged a vicious and sustained attack on the Affordable Care Act, up to and including imperiling insurance coverage for pre-existing condition.
Abusers are congenital liars and they will especially lie about the abuse. The Washington Posthas been tracking Trump’s lyingsince the beginning of his presidency. He has lied more than 3,000 times, they document.
This behavior has its own terminology, called “gaslighting,” taken from a classic film. In the article “Donald Trump is Gaslighting America,” published in 2016, the author, Lauren Ducca, pinpointed the abusive political behavior of lying and denying you are lying:
To gas light is to psychologically manipulate a person to the point where they question their own sanity, and that’s precisely what Trump is doing to this country.
Abusers often threaten children as a means of control, and Trump has ripped children, even babies and toddlers, from the parents’ arms and put them in cages. Hearing their cries has been a decisive momentfor many in indicting this abusive administration.
In domestic violence contexts, women often make plans to leave when the abusive partner threatens the children. Massive demonstrations around the countryfollowed revelations about this abhorrent abuse of children and families.We now face a Supreme Court appointment that may very well signal the reversal both of marriage equality and women’s reproductive freedom, as well as perhaps other constitutionally protected rights. This makes many feel especially vulnerable in their marriages and/or their very bodies. This is a threatened loss of control over our own lives and well-being.
No wonder so many of us feel awful.
How to Subvert a Politics of Abuse
The first thing is to claim you feel what you feel. If you feel awful, feel awful. Don’t let anybody, even with the best of intentions, tell you, “Well, now it’s not so bad.” My feelings are mine, your feelings are yours and if we feel awful, nobody can tell us differently.
I have done Bible studies with domestic violence survivors for many years, and I have found the Psalms of Lament to be essential for this work. Over 50 of the Psalms in the Hebrew Bible are these prayers that come from deep pain. Jesus quotes a Psalm of Lament from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22). When we are abused, we can feel God has abandoned us and there is no one to help.
It is validating for our politics of subversion to lament what is happening to our country. It is not a new thing in American history that some with power will organize to exploit and control others, but there is a particular virulence to the cruelty of these times and crying out about that is warranted.
Claiming what you feel, and what is really happening in this nation, is a step on the path to taking back control from the Abuser-in-Chief.
Community is crucial, either in a religious community, a circle of friends, or a political group, and optimally, in my view, all of the above. People should validate each other’s feelings, as well as strategizing together. That is a way to assert control.
Being an agent in your own life, and asserting your right to act rather than be acted upon, is fundamental. Limit your intake of the news. Make your own choices and do so consciously. I never listen to or read the texts of the Abuser-in-Chief. I have perfected the art of scanning past them in reading online or newspaper sources. I severely limit television news for this reason, and because you cannot always avoid seeing his face or hearing his voice. I choose not to see or hear those.
Join and support political movements, especially those that use the techniques of nonviolent direct action. Call politicians, write them, write to your local paper, whether letters to the editor or opinion pieces, and go to marches and demonstrations carrying signs you have made yourself. Do this frequently and don’t let people tell you “that won’t do any good.” It is the only thing that ever has in human history.
Make some art. If, like me, you have no talent drawing or painting, do it anyway. Finger paint, by the way, is terrific for expressing emotion. Or you can write a song or a fiction story. Some of you may know I have started writing murder mystery fiction. If music composition or story-writing does not appeal, create a play with some others and perform it, if only for yourselves.
Above all, party. I learned that from Mujerista theologian Ada María Isasi-Díaz. She once told me, “The problem with you gringas is you don’t fiesta.” So in memory of Ada, let us fiesta like we mean it. Let’s have fun together in our families, whether biological or of choice, in our communities or other groups. Fiesta is a direct insult to the abuser. The abuser does not want us to sing and dance as though we were free.
I like to think that’s why Jesus and the disciples were criticized by the elites of their time for having a good time, eating and drinking together (Matt. 11:19). They were enjoying life and oppressors hate that in the oppressed.
Lament together, march together and party together. And vote. That is subversion in my view.
Let’s take back our lives.
Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite—Professor of Theology and President (1998-2008), Chicago Theological Seminary