Donald Trump is the worst kind of bully: The kind who is also a sniveling coward. This past weekend represented another uptick in the violence emanating from the Trump campaign, both its leaders and supporters. Trump fans love to crow about how honest and authentic their candidate is — how he stands against "political correctness" and "tells it like it is" — but this supposed paragon of honesty is far too gutless to admit what is screamingly obvious, which is that he's using the threat of violence to rile up supporters and intimidate his way into the White House.
If this were a movie, he'd be the kind of villain who talks a big game while sending minions after his enemies, but then cowers in a corner and pees himself when the heroes show up to confront him directly.
Trump's craven inability to admit what he's doing comes out in two ways that feminists in particular should be familiar with, after years of documenting how abusive men use these strategies to evade responsibility for violence against women: Gaslighting and victim-blaming.
"Gaslighting" is a concept that comes up a lot in anti-domestic violence work, and in sum, it's when an abuser denies that the horrible thing happened by claiming that the victim doesn't remember things correctly. It's usually accompanied with accusations that the victim is mentally ill and that makes her prone to hallucinating or making things up.
"It is an extremely effective form of emotional abuse that causes a victim to question their own feelings, instincts, and sanity, which gives the abusive partner a lot of power," the National Domestic Violence Hotline explains. The name comes from the 1944 movie "Gaslight", where Charles Boyer plays an abusive husband who keeps turning out the lights and then telling his wife, Ingrid Bergman, that she's just imagining the lights are out.
It's the "believe me and not your lying eyes" strategy, and Trump is a huge fan of it, as the nation learned when he acted like he didn't know David Duke's name. Trump and his surrogates will confidently deny all sorts of horrible incidents — even when there are witnesses, even when there is video — knowing, as domestic abusers do, that reducing this to a he said/she said situation means everyone will just throw up their hands and act like the truth in unknowable. It could be that he's lying but it could also be that the entire rest of the nation is just seeing things! Opinions vary!
The incidents of Trump just flatly denying well-evidenced incidents are piling up rapidly. Despite multiple witnesses, an audio recording and bruises showing that Trump's campaign manager Corey Lewandowski grabbed Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields, Lewandowski and Trump, reading directly from the abuser's handbook, just accused Fields of being crazy, and let misogynist stereotypes about women do the work for them.
Trump has also denied that he offered to pay the legal fees of anyone who beats up protesters, even though it was widely recorded that he offered to do just that at an Iowa rally. Now there's video of Lewandowski manhandling a protester at this weekend's Arizona rally, and Trump once again denied that we are seeing what we are seeing, pinning the blame on the other man who seems to be grabbing the protester.
"Speculation about whether Lewandowski or the other man were responsible for the forceful contact has circled on social media," the Washington Post reports, "but there has been no clear consensus."
In other words, Trump gaslights because it works. The focus of the debate is shifted away from the violence that he is encouraging and towards whether or not your eyes are deceiving you. It's the same technique every wife-beater in history quickly figures out: As long as you're debating whether she's a crazy bitch, you aren't talking about holding him accountable for hitting women.
Victim-blaming is the other favorite weapon of the Trump campaign for deflecting accountability, like the pants-pissing cowards they are. After a Trump supporter was caught on video kicking and punching a protester at the Tucson rally over the weekend, Trump insisted on focusing the blame on the protesters for supposedly provoking the violence. Protesters are "not innocent lambs" and "professional agitators" and the poor dears who kick and punch are "incensed" for good reason.
Sheriff David Clarke of Milwaukee, a frequent Fox News guest, picked up the baton of victim-blaming in language that lays out exactly the asinine logic behind it: "I’m not encouraging them to start the fight but I’m one of those that comes from the school of if a fight is inevitable, hit first and hit hard."
In other words, hit first, but when someone tries to point out you hit first, suggest that somehow the other guy still started it by somehow provoking you. That's victim-blaming in essence. What feminists have been railing against for decades when it comes to rapists blaming their crimes on short skirts or wife-beaters blaming their crimes on smart mouths is now everyone's problem, not just women's.
Sometimes you see both techniques combined into a single argument, what I like to call the "It didn't happen, but if it did, she caused it!" strategy, a stance whose contradictory nature has never stopped it from being a favorite amongst garden variety sexual harassers and hardened sexual predators alike. Now Trump is reworking it into a de-gendered form to excuse his campaign manager's behavior.
While speaking to George Stephanopoulos, Trump pulled off this contradictory two-step, both denying that Lewandowsi did anything wrong while also rolling out justifications for the wrong things Lewandowsi does.
"I give him credit for having spirit. He wanted to take down those horrible, profanity-laced signs," Trump said, while still maintaining that it didn't happen.
So somehow he wants us to believe both that it's not happening and that it's justified. No doubt Trump supporters reading this are already spinning out elaborate pretzel logic theories about how both things can be true at once, and will attempt to draw Trump critics into a pointless, dithering debate about that.
That's why strategies like gaslighting and victim-blaming work. They shift attention away from the person who committing and/or encouraging violence and towards digressive and ultimately unimportant issues like "how can you be sure it's not your lying eyes" and how much blame the victims bear and whether one can simultaneously be innocent of a thing while claiming it's justified. Anything, really, but talking about the moral responsibility for violence borne by the people who are actually committing and encouraging it.