My little brother is 17. He’s tall and skinny, a track runner, with thick, dirty-blonde hair in the old Bieber side-sweep and bright blue eyes. He’s in high school in the deep south and is the picture of preppy, constantly decked out in Vineyard Vines and Polo.
When he was about eight years old, I was helping him clean out his email inbox when we stumbled across a message he had written to his “girlfriend” (I know, I know). I don’t remember the wording exactly, but it was something along the lines of,
*Girl’s name*, don’t talk to me. You will NOT say hi to me in class. You will NOT act like you’re my girlfriend when we’re at school. You can when we’re not at school. But you will not talk to me in public. You’re lucky to be my girlfriend, so you’re GOING to listen to me.
I was flabbergasted. My sweet, caring, klutzy little brother, with whom I had been through so much and who I thought respected me, and by extension respected women because of my example, was speaking like this to a little girl. It was a hot button. Why?
Because I grew up with his dad’s, my ex-step-father’s, abuse and gaslighting and in that instant, who I thought my little brother to be turned on its head, and I saw him going down the path of being like Dave. And it wasn’t his fault. At eight, he was following the example set by his male role model. That was exactly how Dave spoke to my mother, and if an adult models that behavior, how could my little brother be expected to see that it was wrong? I was horrified that he had been so aware of Dave’s verbiage that he was now parroting it.
On Tuesday, we elected a man who has been accused of and makes light of sexual assault and violence against women, and advocates for abuse and systemic disenfranchisement against minorities, the disabled, and anyone who speaks against him. When talking about sexual assault in the military, he said “what did these geniuses expect…?”, as if the assault was women who joined the military’s fault. He assumes that any success earned by a woman is due to their sex appeal alone. He has openly and disgustingly spoken about women’s bodies for as long as he has been in the public eye, as if we are his toys. And, perhaps the worst part, when any of this is brought up, he brushes it off as normal. As if we women are in the wrong for making it a big deal. That we’re overreacting, since that’s what women do, right? It is not overreacting to take what a man has consistently said over decades as what he believes.
And that’s where Trump scares me most. His rhetoric. The example he sets of what is okay. Like Dave set for my brother, Trump is now the model for what is acceptable in our actions. He didn’t create racism, sexism, bigotry, or misogyny, but he’s made it allowed. As many of us fight tooth and nail against it, he has fanned the flame of hate while telling us we’re crazy for thinking it exists. (see also: the EXACT definition of gaslighting.)
In this election, it’s barely been about the politics (which is sad). It’s about the fact that it is now okay, by the cosign of the future leader of the free world, to treat women like objects, only there for the possession and entertainment of deeply sick men. It is now okay, by his example, to treat minorities and the LGBTQ population like second class citizens. It is accepted, at his urging and cheering on, to treat those with disabilities like animals. And beyond that, it is acceptable to act like none of these are actual issues.
I know that each of these things already happened. Black men gunned down in the streets. Women whose rape is treated as a non-event. Muslims who are profiled and killed for their faith. Gay people who are beaten to a pulp for holding hands. That is the America we live in.
But it was also the America we were emboldened to fight against, because we felt like we had leaders who were fighting alongside us. As an empowered and privileged woman, I didn’t think we’d be back here. Back to this place of non-acknowledgement. Back to our issues being swept under the rug as not real. But when our President-elect is chief abuser, how can I feel like anything I’m fighting against will stick?
It wasn’t until I was older that I realized just how abusive Dave was. At three, I was his playmate. His toy to show off. I relished in it. At six, with my own father having walked out, I craved Dave’s attention. He would tell the story of how he fell in love with me and my dimples before he fell in love with my mom and I would swoon. At nine, I was so proud when people would comment about how much we looked alike. I’d beam. “Our smiles are the same huh? Genetics!”
When I hit ten, I instantly became an adult with my type 1 diabetes diagnosis. I was no longer a carefree little kid. My life was in my hands, and I had to grow up. With this new weight on my shoulders, I became more aware of everything around me. And by being a complete person with a mind and thoughts that could go against his, I was no longer his to mold as he pleased. I became aware of his manipulation of everyone around him through charm. Of his severe need to be the most important person in the room. Of his ability to speak with conviction as if he were an expert on things he had barely even heard of. And people believed him. I would watch him in a state of awe, constantly impressed that the bullshit he was spewing was being believed. And I felt alone in knowing that. I would look into the faces of those he was lying to and watch their genuine smiles. I was confused.
I started to hear stories of his abuse against my older brother. I started noticing how Dave treated my mom with such utter contempt. He loved her in the way that Scar loved his army of hyenas, which is to say, he was attached to his power over and possession of her. I watched him mentally abuse my mom for almost two decades and, as the person at the receiving end of the abuse, my mom couldn’t justify leaving because, of course, it was all her fault.
People in public had no idea of his sociopathic behavior, that he treated everything and everyone like his property, or that he was constantly making up stories about my mom and I and broadcasting them to our family in an attempt to isolate us from them (like the time he sent a mass email to everyone we knew that my mom and I had become lesbian lovers, or the time he stole my mom’s underwear and sent it off to a lab to be tested for evidence of cheating). He was dramatic, volatile, and believed that everything he said and did was within his right. But to everyone else, he was just so smart. Such a great business man. Meanwhile, he had run our family into bankruptcy and, in the midst of it, left my mom, me, and his son, nine months old at the time, to fend for ourselves for a year.
And when I turn on the TV and see Trump, I see Dave. I see severe mental health issues. I see abuse. I see years of gaslighting and lying and manipulation. And it baffles me – leaves me utterly stunned – that anyone could have thought that was okay. That, in trying to drive toward governmental and economic change (which I understand is needed) getting the package of insane was an acceptable deal. I see people cheer him on for fighting the establishment, for being the successful entrepreneur who bucked the status quo to fight his way into the White House. And I want to grab those people by the shoulders and shake them. Can they not see how this man is? Could they not see it on his shows? Did they really think it was okay, ever?
That’s the scary part of abusive behavior – that the abused never actually sees it. That they never fully understand the true extent of what they’re going through. I see women with shirts like “Trump can grab THIS pussy” and I am so incredibly saddened, not only for our country and our presidency but for these women who don’t seem to understand how severely they are being manipulated and abused.
And beyond his own behavior, in Trump, my little brother and people across the globe have the ultimate example that this behavior and this rhetoric against women is okay. Justified. Entertaining, even. Can be said and still afford you the position of President of the United States of America, worthy of slaps on the back in a men’s locker room or executive board room (because apparently same/same).
I see Trump and I shake with anger and resentment and fear. I’ve never been able to watch one of his shows, nor was I able to watch the debates. I’ve only ever read his speeches, because I cannot watch him speak. Memories of years of abuse grip my heart and shake me to my core. And it terrifies me that there is a portion of our population who doesn’t see it. Who thinks I’M crazy. And the gaslighting starts all over. And I cannot go through it again.