A few years ago, I was interviewing a domestic violence survivor when she made an unexpected comment. Quietly and with something akin to shame in her voice, she told me that she found her partner’s emotional and verbal abuse more harmful than when he slapped or punched her.
The physical violence, at least, had a beginning and an end. Bruises and cuts healed. But the psychological abuse — the taunting, the lying, her partner’s penchant for aggressively denying events that clearly happened, his constant humiliating attacks on her character — it left her on edge, unable to get her footing.
I’ve heard this many times since. Emotional and verbal abuse can corrode a person, undermining their very sense of self. It is nearly impossible to try to reason with someone employing these tactics, as the goal is to make the person on the receiving end feel crazed and confused.
Advocates will generally tell victims of such abuse to disengage and detach. Walk away. No one wins in an argument with an abusive bully. An abuser will goad you into their game and force you on the defense, where you will end up quibbling over absurd claims that have no basis in reality.
So what to do with the president of the United States of America who uses similar tactics against his opponent on the national stage? In the first presidential debate on Tuesday, Donald Trump exhibited all the classic signs of verbal abuse. He bullied, interrupted, smeared and tried to intimidate Joe Biden, while lying about his own record and framing himself as the misunderstood hero, the true victim.
Of course, this behavior is not shocking. Trump did the same thing in his primary debates in 2015 (remember the litany of derogatory names he shelled out to his opponents?), and then in the presidential debates with Hillary Clinton.
The day after the very first presidential debate of 2016, I wrote about how Trump’s behavior was deeply familiar to domestic violence victims. The exact same article could be written in light of last night’s performance.
On Tuesday, faced with Trump’s lies, insults and constant interruptions, Biden remained on the defense for most of the night. It was excruciating to watch as he struggled to keep up with Trump’s rapid-fire barrage of attacks, a taxing task under any conditions. Biden laughed; he grimaced; he shook his head in bewilderment. He tried to reason with Trump and to correct the record. But by the time he could address one of Trump’s false statements, the president had spewed out a handful more. While laudable, Biden’s desire to return the conversation to a place where facts matter is not going to happen in a debate with Trump.
People who are skilled in verbally abusive tactics never admit they are wrong. They don’t listen. The way they win is by dominating the conversation and forcing the other person into a defensive crouch.
Trump wanted to sabotage the debate, and he did. There was no substantive discussion of policy issues, no new understanding of the candidates’ positions on issues that are important to the American public.
So, what can be done?
Here’s an idea: Unless the format is radically altered in a way that facilitates intelligent discourse, we should consider calling off the rest of the presidential debates. No one got anything out of Tuesday night except a master class in how to bully another human being. What’s the point of repeating it?