Editor’s Note: This article was originally published February 17, 2017 on EverydayFeminism under the title “5 Gaslighting Phrases Donald Trump Used That Remind Me a Lot of My Abusive Ex.” It is republished here with permission. In light of the current impeachment proceedings, we found the piece important to repost as a helpful set of tools for understanding how gaslighting works and how it continues to be deployed as a central mechanism of misinformation and obfuscation by the current president and his allies.
This election was triggering for a lot of abuse survivors. Calls to RAINN’s sexual assault hotline surged after Trump’s Access Hollywood tape leaked, and many have pointed out that he used verbally abusive tactics in the debates.
As a survivor of emotional abuse, one tactic of Trump’s in particular reminded me of my manipulative ex partner: gaslighting. This is when someone tells you your thoughts aren’t based in reality, to the point that you start to distrust your perceptions.
In my case, when I tried to discuss my partner’s habit of borrowing money from me and not giving it back, he’d tell me I was being too negative. When I got upset with him, he told me that life was too short to get angry. If I felt hurt by a word he used, he’d say that nobody can “make” you feel anything without your consent, so it was my problem.
This led me to feel that I was too unreasonable to trust my feelings. I internalized his arguments and believed that if I was unhappy about anything he’d done, I just needed to put it out of my mind because life was too short, nobody can make you feel anything, and it was all my fault anyway.
Since I’ve learned about gaslighting, I’ve understood that all the things my partner blamed on me weren’t actually my fault. Looking at Trump’s words can help us understand our own relationships, as well as the ways gaslighting has come to shape our political climate.
While people in relationships may gaslight to discredit and manipulate their partners, Trump does it to discredit his critics and manipulate public opinion.
Here are some phrases he’s used that either were used by my abusive partner or remind me of him, because they’re clear examples of gaslighting.
1. “I never said I’m a perfect person.”
After Trump was caught on tape saying that if you’re famous, you can do whatever you want to women, including “grabbing them” by their genitals whenever your heart desires, he released a video attempting to mitigate the seriousness of his comments.
“I’ve never said I’m a perfect person, nor pretended to be someone that I’m not,” he said.
My ex has told me something similar: “Nobody’s perfect. What do you expect?”
If anybody ever responds to your concerns about them by saying they never claimed to be perfect or that nobody’s perfect, be very, very skeptical.
If “I’m not perfect” were a real defense against criticism, nobody would ever be justified in criticizing anyone’s behavior. But obviously, things don’t work that way. If they did, people could just avert jail time by pleading imperfection.
The “nobody’s perfect” defense isn’t just irrational, though; it’s also malicious. Its goal is to imply that by criticizing someone, you’re being so demanding and unreasonable that you expect perfection, and that if you truly understood how humans are flawed, you would’ve kept your mouth shut.
Of course, people’s issue with Trump isn’t that he’s imperfect; it’s that he promotes misogyny, racism, ableism, and a whole host of other forms of negativity and oppression.
By reducing all these nuanced problems to mere imperfection, Trump is distracting people from the real issues and painting people as overly critical if they want to talk about them.
Similarly, if your partner is toxic or abusive, you deserve to be treated better. That’s not an unreasonable request at all. Asking for better isn’t asking for perfection.
2. “This is nothing more than a distraction from the important issues we’re facing today!”
Trump said this in the “apology” video regarding his Access Hollywood tape.
Similarly, he said in the second presidential debate of 2016 that we need to forget about the tape so that “we can get onto much more important things and much bigger things,” like defeating ISIS.
He also tweeted, “I’m not proud of my locker room talk. But this world has serious problems.”
As if sexual assault weren’t serious or important.
These comments aim to convey to Trump’s critics that they’re blowing something out of proportion.
This type of gaslighting comes up a lot in conversations about social justice: “How could you talk about eating disorders when some people can’t even afford food?” “Who cares if queer people can get married when in some places, they’re killed?”
It also came up in my own relationship.
If I was angry with my significant other, he implied I was being myopic for focusing on supposedly small issues. He invoked lofty notions of love and forgiveness for the same reason Trump invoked ISIS: to illustrate the necessity of looking past the problems for a worthier cause.
Beware people who tell you your problems are small. They don’t get to single-handedly decide what’s important. And if they claim to be the authorities on the topic, it’s often to serve themselves.
More often than not, the “small” problems are the ones they’ve contributed to — and the “small” problems can add up to something much bigger.
More Radical Reads: You’re Not Overreacting: 7 Ways to Avoid Being Gaslit When You Stand Up For Yourself
When Trump said we need to focus on more important things, he was trying to dismiss people concerned about sexual harassment and assault — many of them survivors themselves — as uncaring, self-centered people who just can’t see the big picture, as if survivors of sexual violence were being petty.
That not only detracts from the real problem, but also penalizes people for speaking out about injustice.
3. “This was locker room banter.”
Dismissing something that hurt another person as a joke or otherwise not serious is textbook gaslighting. And it showed up when Trump called his Access Hollywood comments “locker room banter” in a statement following their release. He also referred to it as “locker room talk” in the debate following his now-infamous remarks.
In our culture, we have phrases designated for the purpose of gaslighting — specifically for men to gaslight women. “Locker room talk” is one. “Boys will be boys” is another.
Both imply that certain misogynistic behaviors are forgivable and even inevitable, so if we take issue with them, we’re just being too demanding.
We’re essentially told that we’re asking for too much when we say that sexual assault and entitlement should not be acceptable casual conversation.
More Radical Reads: Brett Kavanaugh and #MeToo: What Happened to You Matters
My ex-partner didn’t use these phrases, but he did, for example, defend using the word “silly” to describe an observation of mine, arguing that “silly” isn’t a serious or hurtful word.
This language serves the same purpose: invalidation and belittling, by claiming someone else’s concerns aren’t serious — a huge component of gaslighting.
4. “She’s playing that ‘women’s card’…”
Accusing someone of playing a card, like the “woman card” or the “race card,” is also an example of gaslighting because it implies that someone’s trying to find a problem. In other words, the problem they’re seeing isn’t real.
In Trump’s view, if Hillary Clinton tried to talk about gender, she was just doing it because she wanted to win the election. As if being a woman and speaking out about sexism gives any woman an advantage.
Similarly, I and many other feminists have been accused of discussing the struggles marginalized people face just so people will feel bad for us and we’ll get special treatment.
My ex-partner didn’t always use these exact words to make similar points, but I knew what he was getting at. Once, when I pointed out a nudity double standard in a movie, he said I may be interpreting it as sexist because I thought about sexism a lot.
Another partner told me to stop “playing the woman card” after I suggested a hiring decision at his friend’s company could’ve been influenced by sexism.
Both of these instances made me feel like I had to stay silent if I ever had an opinion related to gender again, even if it was based on my own lived experience.
Once again, this form of gaslighting is more than a defense. The person using it is also on the offense, attacking the other person for supposedly making up injustice for personal gain.
Whether it’s used in politics or in the context of a relationship, “woman card” rhetoric accuses the other person of not only being wrong, but also being dishonest and opportunistic.
5. “That’s pure political correctness.”
One gaslighting technique used by many politicians and everyday people discussing politics is accusing people of trying to limit free speech through “political correctness.”
Trump called putting Harriet Tubman on the twenty-dollar bill and moving Andrew Jackson to the back “pure political correctness.” His former campaign manager said it was “political correctness run amok” when people criticized one of Trump’s anti-Semitic tweets.
“We can’t afford to be politically correct anymore,” Trump said in a statement to defend his view of Muslims as terrorists.
When equality and justice become mere “political correctness” and political correctness is portrayed as a threat to free speech, every social movement becomes subject to attack.
And that’s what makes Trump so popular. His supporters have been dying for an outlet for their hateful opinions. They’re sick of being “politically correct” — so much so that he was elected to office.
By deeming efforts to not be oppressive “political correctness,” Trump gives people permission to let out all the thoughts they’ve felt pressured to suppress. He’s brought sexism, racism, and classism (among other isms) back in style.
In reality, “political correctness” is just being considerate. And telling people not to be hateful isn’t limiting their free speech. They can still legally say what they want.
Gaslighters like Trump are themselves trying to silence people by painting their standards as unreasonable and oppressive.
That’s the effect my ex had on me. He often accused me of trying to be the “PC police” if I pointed out a gender stereotype or racist joke he made. I started to feel ashamed and think that maybe I was just being a killjoy.
Trump wants people who care about social justice to feel like killjoys who are just out to rain on everyone’s parade rather than people with legitimate concerns.
Gaslighting can happen on both the macro and the micro levels. It takes many forms. But its message usually boils down to this: “If you have a problem with something I’ve done, the problem is actually with you.”
The same way this reasoning teaches people to “suck it up” when their partners hurt them, it also teaches them to stay silent about injustice.
If we speak up, we often fear we’ll be accused of expecting perfection, ignoring important issues, being unable to take a joke, “playing” a “card,” or limiting free speech.
It’s this kind of intimidation that actually does all these things. Trump criticizes people unfairly, discourages them from discussing issues that are in fact important, expresses extreme defensiveness, takes advantage of his privilege, and suppresses people’s opinions.
And no matter what he’d have us believe, we’re not irrational for observing this.
Trump has put gaslighting on a very public stage. Perhaps recognizing this abusive tactics in this context will help more people build the tools to recognize when it’s happening on a personal level, too.
Suzannah Weiss is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Salon, Seventeen, Buzzfeed, The Huffington Post, Bustle, and more. She holds degrees in Gender and Sexuality Studies, Modern Culture and Media, and Cognitive Neuroscience from Brown University. You can follow her on Twitter @suzannahweiss.
[Feature image: A close-up shot of Donald Trump standing behind a podium. He is wearing a dark suit and blue tie while smiling sarcastically.]