Politics

America Is Attempting to Exit an Abusive Relationship

And it’s when the woman finally leaves that things tend to get violent.

Close-up on Trump looking stern, with his chin raised
President Donald Trump at the White House on Nov. 26. Erin Schaff/Pool/Getty Images

On Saturday, members of the pro-Trump white supremacist group the Proud Boys descended on Washington, resulting in violence in which at least four people were stabbed, leaving them with life-threatening injuries, according to the Washington Post.* The reason: fury over Donald Trump’s election loss and the failure of his last-ditch efforts to have the Supreme Court overturn the election in his favor. Days earlier, in nearby Riverdale, Maryland, 61-year-old Kenneth Aaron Tillery killed his ex-girlfriend Tina Harvey, as she sat in her sedan on an early weekday morning. She was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital.

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These stories are very much, and very frighteningly, the same.

Every year across America, thousands of women are killed by their domestic partner—a husband, a boyfriend, a fiancé. The catalyst in these murders tends to be the same: The women end relationships after enduring years of abuse, and the men who will become their killers are not prepared to let them go.

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More than 70 percent of domestic homicides occur shortly after the woman leaves her abusive partner. The act of leaving puts her at much higher risk than at any other moment in their relationship. As Wendy Mahoney, executive director of the Mississippi Coalition Against Domestic Violence, told the Clarion-Ledger in 2017, “domestic violence is all about power and control, and when a woman leaves, a man has lost his power and control.”

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Here’s what else is about power and control: Donald Trump and this presidential election. For Trump and his supporters, losing their last-gasp effort to overturn the election results in the courts has released the same rage, the same sense of impossible, inconceivable loss of face, of domination and command, that drives men to kill their girlfriends and wives. They are pushed by the same impulse to do whatever it may take to recapture that command, power, and control—and just like for so many domestic abusers, for some of Trump’s most fervent supporters, “whatever it may take” might include violence.

That is why Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson had to deal with armed “protesters” outside her home as she decorated for Christmas with her 4-year-old son; that is why a foiled plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer included the hopes of overthrowing the government and launching a civil war. Men refusing to let women leave abusive relationships is being scaled up into our national politics. In fact, this impulse—one of many links between domestic abusers, terrorists, and mass shooters—has had counterterrorism officials on alert for some time. The FBI’s former assistant director for counterintelligence, Frank Figliuzzi, for instance, warned last week that America is now witnessing, in real time, the trajectory of radicalization. The probability of an attack is increasing as a result.

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“When you see this radicalization process,” he told MSNBC’s Nicolle Wallace on Thursday, a day prior to the Supreme Court decision, “when you see a flashpoint coming, meaning that the outcome they wanted isn’t going to happen, eventually the Supreme Court is going to say no, you got nothing, and it’s the court of last resort. And so what cults do in those circumstances, what organizations that seek violence do, is they do something called ‘forcing the end.’ They make happen what they wanted to happen when they see it’s not really going to happen without them, and that’s when the violence occurs. And that’s what I’m most concerned about.”

To be sure, the number of angry, violent abusers who have taken to the streets or moved to threaten local elections officials remains relatively small. And, as Sunday’s violence in Washington revealed, there are some women among the violent abusers too. But it remains clear that in the face of a loss of power, imagined respect, and honor, the turn to brute physical violence has become a means to accelerate a crisis.

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It is useful to stop and name what we are witnessing: the frantic rage and fury that is inspired and impelled by a man who clings desperately, even now, to a power he does not possess, to a fantasy he cannot bear to recognize has no substance. He is devastated by the rejection, the humiliation not only of losing an election, but of coming in second place. Donald Trump, like so many seemingly powerful men, is struggling to understand that he is no longer the most powerful man in the world. He is refusing to accept that he might be an ordinary man.

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How could someone else be more loved than he is? “Your favorite president, me,” he would often sign his tweets. Yet now he has been rejected by an America who has chosen someone else. And so, for the past few weeks, the entire country has been forced to live inside that incredulity, the disbelief, and the humiliation with him. It’s the same set of circumstances that has resulted in a great deal of rage on the part of many men, and a fair amount of fear on the part of many women. Indeed, the dynamic itself—weeks after the contest should have been over, was legally considered finished, and should have been resolved—is familiar to women who are well aware that the abusive relationship rarely ends with a restraining order, a divorce decree, or even a new legal residence. Such formal legal resolutions can actually further inflame the abuser by increasing the imagined humiliation. And make no mistake, even the Wall Street Journal’s sophomoric posturing about who gets to decide whether a woman is entitled to an honorific is part of the same braying, slightly menacing effort to keep women in their place.

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This last act of Donald Trump—his refusal to admit defeat, to leave the stage, to recognize that he is not the chosen one—is deeply familiar to women who have escaped from an abuser. As his authority dwindles, the threats and unreality grow. As his actual power slips away, the sense that something sudden, dramatic, and violent may yet happen lingers on. And like battered women who finally break free, America, too, has been forced to spend these 10 long weeks after the election connected to the man who lost, spectacularly and extravagantly, months before. And America, too, may be forced to mollify him for a time, this narcissist who demands to be bargained with, puffed up, and soothed.

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This strange period has been defined by legal arguments and court rulings, but what we are witnessing is not the stuff of democracy and law. It is the stuff of intimate threats, violence, and power imbalances. America has ended up attempting to escape an abusive relationship, hoping it neither escalates nor detonates. If it does, it will be America and its most vulnerable at the receiving end—while the abusers, as they so often do, emerge unscathed.

Correction, Dec. 16, 2020: This article originally misstated that members of the Proud Boys stabbed four people in Washington over the weekend. The perpetrators of the violence were not yet clear. 

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