The Triggered Electorate

Donald Trump has a unique and sickening ability to resurface women’s memories of abuse and trauma.

Trump Clinton Debate Looming
Donald Trump listens to Hillary Clinton during the second presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis on Oct. 9.

Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

Thirty-five years ago, Beth Anderson was raped by a man who’d offered her a ride home.* Unlike most victims, she found a modicum of justice: Her rapist was arrested and, after a plea bargain, served a year and a day in prison. “I moved on,” says Anderson, now 56 and a web developer living in a small town in western Wisconsin. “I’ve never had any issues with having sex. I was able to separate that out. It’s never bothered me. Until now.”

Ever since a 2005 tape emerged of Donald Trump boasting of grabbing women “by the pussy,” the election has been dominated by talk of sexual abuse and misogynist bullying. Watching it unfold, Anderson says, has brought memories of her ordeal flooding back. “It really kicked in with this whole conversation about how rape-y he is,” she says. “The entire conversation has been taken over by sexual assault. And it’s really hard.” Hardest of all for Anderson has been seeing men she knows and trusts defend Trump. “That’s the part that makes me cry,” she says, her voice breaking over the phone. “Because even the men you think are safe, aren’t safe.”

All over America, the squalid denouement of the Trump campaign is forcing women to think anew about abuse they’ve endured. According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, the weekend after the release of the Trump tape saw a 33 percent increase in people turning to its National Sexual Assault Hotline for support. Traffic to the group’s website was up 45 percent. The writer Kelly Oxford says that 1 million women responded to her call to tweet their first sexual assault. On MSNBC, the journalist Ana Marie Cox choked up while discussing sexual abuse allegations against Trump. “I have to say, I’m very concerned for a lot of women out there, because I was brought back by that statement to something that happened to me when I was a young woman,” Cox said. Michelle Obama spoke for many when she said that Trump’s attitude toward women “has shaken me to my core in a way that I couldn’t have predicted.”

Triggered is an overused buzzword that’s too often treated as a synonym for offended, but in this case, there is no other term for it. Trump is triggering. New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito was recently moved to speak out about her own history of sexual abuse, saying that Trump’s words “triggered things that I hadn’t felt in a long time.” NPR host Diane Rehm told the Huffington Post that Trump has triggered her memories of being molested by a congressman when she was 9. It’s as if Trump has shaken a psychic snow globe, and now flickers of half-remembered horror are floating through the atmosphere all around us.

In some ways, the intensity of this reaction is surprising. It’s hardly news, after all, that Trump enjoys demeaning women. The sexual assaults that he’s been accused of are disturbing and, given their credibility, disqualifying, but far more vicious sex crimes are in the news every day. So why is Trump wreaking such havoc on the well-being of so many abuse victims?

Part of what’s uniquely alarming about Trump, of course, is that he could become president. “For me specifically, it has to do with the fact that my experience was with a man who had a lot of influence and power,” Cox tells me. At the time, what upset her most of all was the realization “that I can’t do anything about it, and any man with enough power” can do whatever he wants to her. Trump embodies that impunity. “The idea that that kind of person could be the president of the United States, it’s the most powerful position in the world,” she says. “It frightens me what a man like that would do with that power.”

For some women, the banality of Trump’s alleged transgressions brings back violations that left them distressed but that they’d never before thought to label as “rape” or “assault.” One 40-year-old woman who asked that her name not be used—I’ll call her Laura—describes an incident that happened while she was working for the chamber of commerce in a small city. At a 2005 board retreat, she found herself in a hot tub with several colleagues, including her city manager. He “began to feel my thighs,” Laura says. “I moved. He followed. This dance continued for about a half-hour until he eventually put his fingers inside of me.” She later told her boss what happened, but he wrote it off as a “drunken mistake” by a “good man.” She was left feeling that she was the one who had done something wrong.

Laura has been surprised by how much emotion the election has dredged up. During the second debate, Anderson Cooper confronted Trump with the meaning of his words on the 2005 tape. “You described kissing women without their consent, grabbing their genitals. That is sexual assault,” Cooper said. “You bragged that you have sexually assaulted women. Do you understand that?” For Laura, Cooper’s words were a powerful validation; she jumped out of her chair, shouting, “Yes!” “I don’t know that a lot of women even recognize sexual assault when it happens to them,” she says. “They feel uncomfortable. They know something isn’t right, but they don’t name it.”

For victims of long-term abuse, Trump can be triggering because he takes strategies that abusers use in intimate relationships and enacts them on a national stage. Kristen Slesar is a therapist who works with trauma survivors, most of them victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, at the Bronx District Attorney’s Office as well as in private practice. In recent days she’s seen an uptick in calls and requests for emergency crisis sessions. Her clients, she says, report “increased flashbacks, increased feelings of anxiety and fear, increase in nightmares, increase in intrusive imagery and thoughts about the abuse or assaults they’ve experienced, things like being afraid to go outside more than usual.” She’s thought a lot about why this election is so hard on trauma survivors and describes how much Trump’s behavior mirrors that of abusive men.

Slesar points to a moment at the beginning of the second debate, when Hillary Clinton first sat down. “Trump circled around the back of his chair, and it appeared as if he was going to remain standing while Hillary was sitting,” Slesar says. “For a lot of people, that moment was very triggering because it’s the behavior of a person who is attempting to be domineering and intimidating, someone who is literally standing over the other.” The sense of physical menace emanating from Trump only increased from there. “While both of them would pace and speak directly to the audience, he often seemed to be following her, or leering over her or near her, in a way to express his dominance. And that is something that abusive people do all the time.”

Further, says Slesar, even though Trump’s alleged abuse might “fall on a spectrum of minor or lesser sexual assault,” it can recall a more serious abuser’s opening gambit. “It’s not like the abusive person immediately goes for the gold and rapes them,” Slesar says. “There is a grooming process. There is a testing of boundaries and a sense of entitlement to the victim’s body.”

Like many abusers, Trump is so shamelessly, fluently dishonest that listening to him can be disorienting. “One of the hallmarks of an abusive person is that they do not ever take responsibility for their behavior, ever,” Slesar says. “It is always the other person’s fault, or it never happened.” Abusers, she says, can crowd out their victims’ sense of reality: “In conversation and arguments with this person who is so able to change reality or deny reality and shift blame and responsibility, the victim ends up doubting [herself], getting really confused, feeling really unstable. These are all tactics that people who psychologically torture others use. They’re tactics that are known for batterers and for people who engage in the torture of, for example, inmates: to become so domineering and persistent in what they say that the perpetrator’s truth subsumes the victim’s truth.”

Marie, a 30-year-old massage therapist in Virginia, experienced this firsthand. In Trump, she sees her father. “Trump is my dad,” she says. “I spent my childhood being gaslighted, emotionally manipulated, verbally and physically abused by my father. He was the kind of man that didn’t feel like any rules applied to him, and that everything could be made better with a good con.” Living with him, she says, “was a total mindfuck.”

She describes how she learned to watch her father for certain hand gestures, some of which she now sees Trump making: “the very flippant open-handed shrug,” she says, as well as the pinching motion Trump makes with his fingers. Her father “would get frustrated, roll his wrists, open his palms. What followed was a clenched fist. Then you ran.”

As the presidential campaign has dragged on, Marie has fallen into a depression and has found herself recoiling from her partner’s touch. “I’m just now starting to understand that there’s more to this than the election being superheated,” she says. “It’s realizing that a lot of people are downplaying the fact that women have a voice. The truths that we experience as women are denied. It really brings out the victim mindset: These things keep happening, but nobody will actually say that they’re happening, nobody will acknowledge anything is happening, and we cannot fix anything if we don’t acknowledge it.”

Of course, in the wake of the Trump tape, many people are acknowledging the manifold types of sexual abuse women routinely endure. At times, the election can feel like a referendum on whether we as a nation trust women. Clinton is probably going to win, but the majority of American men are poised to vote for Trump. Even if the country is saved, it will be a long time before it feels safe.

*Correction, Oct. 18, 2016: This piece originally misstated that the rape occurred 25 years ago. (Return.)

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.