10 Emotional Abuse Tactics That Trump Blatantly Used in the First Debate

Photograph of Donald Trump at a lectern with a "Trump Pence" sign and two American flags in the background. Photograph by Gage Skidmore via Wikipedia.

Photograph of Donald Trump at a lectern with a “Trump Pence” sign and two American flags in the background. Photograph by Gage Skidmore via Wikipedia.

The current United States presidential election has many people on edge.

Therapists around the country are reporting spikes in patients dealing with election anxiety. Clinical psychologist Stephen Holland told The Atlantic, “Among people who are not Trump supporters, we’re hearing a higher level of concern and dismay than I’ve probably heard in any election cycle, in 25 years of clinical work.”

Self reporter Haley Goldberg even described the feeling as “right in my chest, a tightening sensation that sent adrenaline through the rest of my body. It felt like I was gearing up to run away from a bear. But, unfortunately, I couldn’t physically run away from the source of my anxiety: Election 2016.”

Political Anxiety Disorder, says the Wall Street Journal, is definitely a thing. Although this may ring true in all elections, this time the anxiety is different. This time, one of the primary causes is Donald Trump.

For some people, the anxiety comes from Trump’s proposed policies, which include banning all Muslims, and building a wall between Mexico because, in his view, all Mexicans are rapists.

For many others, though, the language and rhetoric coming out of the elections isn’t just about policy, but is actually personal.

One Mexican-American young woman named Carmen created a powerful video in which she responds to the fear that she has felt since hearing Trump’s attacks on Mexicans. “To witness a prominent politician speaking on national television saying these things to a cheering crowd is just unreal,” she says. “Am I supposed to feel ashamed of myself? Or where I come from? It had me questioning my heritage.”

Another woman named Tali Liben Yarmush described the shame that Trump evokes when he calls women fat, or when he described Rosie O’Donnell as a “pig.” “It is not meaningless to me that a man who is running for president thinks it is okay to tell a woman he disagrees with that she is a ‘fat pig,’” she writes.

“Do you not think it will affect some other young and impressionable girl when she hears him say that one of his opponents was too ugly to be president? What kind of message are we sending to children when we tell them it’s okay to call people we don’t like ‘disgusting,’ or to tell them they have the ‘face of a dog?’”

The reason why this year’s election has caused a heightened and exacerbated sense of anxiety among many people is because Trump’s language is not your typical political rhetoric. In fact, the language he employs comes straight out the handbook of toxic masculinity.

That is, he uses toxic tactics of emotional abuse – especially emotional abuse aimed at women – in order to put other people down. The tactics are powerful, emotionally violent, and often disarming against their victims.

For many people who have lived with abusers, this election brings back terrifying memories. As author Pam Houston, a survivor of child abuse, wrote, “Maybe it’s because I grew up in my father’s house that I can see Trump so clearly for what he is.  A desperately insecure bully, with no moral center – no center of any kind really – who feels momentarily powerful only when he is able to break those unlucky enough to step into his path.” 

If you’re not accustomed to identifying and recognizing these tactics as abusive, they can leave you with unexplained emotional tremors. And if you are used to them – that is, if you’re a survivor of emotional abuse – watching this happen in public can be triggering and frightening.

One of the best ways to deal with emotional abuse is to shed light on the toxic tactics. Even when the abuse is leveled vaguely at entire groups from a public podium – as opposed to you personally in the privacy of your home – the first crucial step to identify what is happening, and to name the tactics for what they are.

With the goal in mind of shedding light on emotionally abusive strategies, here are ten of the toxic tactics that Trump has been using during this campaign, including some examples from the recent debate.

1. Lying

Trump is an expert at lying straight into the camera. Even when there is clear proof or recorded evidence, he will often lie without flinching.

The New York Times called Trump “Lord of the Lies.” The Washington Post wrote that “Donald Trump must be the biggest liar in the history of American politics, and that’s saying something. Trump lies the way other people breathe. We’re used to politicians who stretch the truth, who waffle or dissemble, who emphasize some facts while omitting others. But I can’t think of any other political figure who so brazenly tells lie after lie, spraying audiences with such a fusillade of untruths that it is almost impossible to keep track.” 

Pulitzer Prize-winning PolitiFact, which conducted the most comprehensive fact-check of presidential candidates in the 2016 election, found that Trump has more statements in the notorious “pants on fire” category than all 21 other candidates combined.

“How can we discuss the economy when Trump suggests that the unemployment rate, just under 5%, is actually 42%? Or debate the Paris climate accord, when Trump falsely claims it ‘gives foreign bureaucrats control over how much energy we use on our land?’ Or deal with terrorism, after Trump said he knows ‘more about ISIS than the generals?’” asks Timothy Egan at The New York Times.

In this week’s debate, for example, moderator Lester Holt confronted Trump with the fact that the police policy “stop and frisk” was ruled unconstitutional by a US district court. Trump yelled, “That’s not true,” even though it was exactly true.

It’s extremely difficult to have a normal conversation with someone for whom facts and truth are irrelevant. This is one of the first and most disarming tactics of an emotional abuser.

It’s the twisting of facts and thus the elimination of basic rules of fair discourse.

2. Denial

Related to lying is denying.

In the debate, for example, Trump denied several recorded facts about himself – such as the fact that he supported the Iraq war, that he said Clinton didn’t have a “presidential look,” and that he ever claimed that global warming was a hoax.

All of these facts are easily verified, yet Trump continued to deny them and ignored the facts and the moderator.

In July, 2016, PoliFact began tracking how many times Trump said one thing and then denied it. The seventeen instances they came up with then included denying that he called women names like “fat pigs” and “dogs” and “slobs,” denying that he cast doubts on John McCain’s status as a war hero, denying that he offered to pay legal fees for people who beat up protesters, and denying that he knows Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.

Denial, like lying, changes the rules of fair discourse. It makes it very difficult for the abuser to be held accountable for their words when they say whatever they want and then refuse to continue to engage about it.

Denial, like lying, is one of the key tactics of toxic abuse.

3. Blame Shifting

In one of the first and most important books on verbal abuse, The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense written by the late Suzette Elgin in 1980, one of the central toxic tactics named is blame.

Trump has mastered this technique and completely incorporates it to such an extent that nothing is ever his fault. Whatever the problem is, Trump finds a way to blame others.

When he was asked about the many small businesses that he stiffed while he built his business empire, he blamed the business owners. “Maybe they just didn’t do a good job,” he said.

This is his approach to policy as well. When he was asked in the debate about the American economy, for example, he replied that the fault is with China, who he said, “is stealing American jobs.” Even right after the debate, when he received reports that Clinton “won,” his first response was to blame his supposedly defective microphone.

Perhaps the most outrageous example was when he was asked about why he spent so many years fueling the birther movement and repeatedly claiming that President Obama wasn’t born in America. His response: It was Clinton’s fault.

Yes. Despite a clear public record in which he spent years giving speeches and interviews to spread this lie and delegitimize the president, when confronted about it, he tried to completely blame Clinton instead of taking responsibility for his own actions.

This response actually incorporates all three of these tactics together – lying, denying, and blame-shifting.

Trump’s tactic of blame is especially aimed at Clinton, who he blamed for almost every issue that came up in the debate. He effectively said that the government has failed in everything it has done for thirty years while she represented The Entire Government. At one point, Clinton even quipped, “I’m pretty sure that by the end of the night, I will have been blamed for everything that ever happened.”

Yes, that was exactly Trump’s intention. Indeed, he responded, “Why not?”

Blame-shifting, like the previous tactics, makes it extremely difficult to have a discussion. It also has the effect of making the person it’s wielded against feel defensive and angry, desperate to clear their name and get back to the truth.

4. Moving the Goal Posts

This is a sophisticated tactic in which the manipulator, in order to avoid having to answer for an issue, will redefine the goals of the exchange. It aims to “humiliate the victim, to keep them preoccupied so as to accomplish nothing else with their time, or to simply wear them out.”

Trump does this relentlessly, and did it several times in the debate, to such an extent that the moderator occasionally tried to bring him back to the subject at hand.

So, for example, in the discussion on creating jobs, Trump turned what should have been a discussion of his plan to an attack on Clinton’s “thirty years of experience” in politics. Trump supporters have done this often regarding Trump’s record on women, by using the topic to attack Clinton about her husband’s record on women.

Fox News regularly employs this tactic as well, such as this clip in which they defend Trump’s record on women by avoiding it, and instead creating a replacement story about the New York Times’ record on gender discrimination, as well as Bill Clinton.

5. Bait and Switch

This is a tactic, similar to moving the goal posts, in which a manipulator pretends to be talking about one issue in order to end up talking about what he really wants to say.

So, for example, when pressed on the issue of releasing his tax returns, Trump shifted the conversation to talk about Clinton’s e-mails: “I will release my tax returns when Hillary releases her deleted e-mails” – to which the audience, astoundingly, cheered.

Clinton even called it out at the time, saying, “I think we just witnessed a bait and switch.”

6. Projecting

This is a tactic in which the manipulator accuses the victim of doing exactly what he is being accused of. Trump does this with astonishing efficiency.

For example, he has created an entire campaign around the idea that Clinton is the most dishonest politician in history, despite the fact that he is actually the most dishonest man in American politics today.

Jill Abramson, the former Executive Editor of The New York Times says that her research concluded that “Hillary Clinton is fundamentally honest and trustworthy.” In a country in which 40% of the people consider Clinton untrustworthy, Abramson herself was surprised to discover such a huge gap between perception and reality.

But that’s a function of how skilled Trump has been at projecting – giving someone else the label of “dishonest” to avoid how dishonest he himself is.

Even more challenging is the projecting manipulations around accusations about his treatment of women.

Despite his appalling record on his treatment of women, whenever he’s confronted about it, he switches the conversation to talk about how “not nice” women are to him.

He did this in the Republican debate earlier this year when Megyn Kelly asked him about his record on women and he told her that she was being “not nice” to him. He did it again in this debate, turning the discussion around to talk about how “not nice” Clinton is for her campaign against him – on his record on women.

This tactic, in which the abusive one asserts that the victim is “not nice,” is related to moving the goal posts – and it is an incredibly manipulative tactic and can be very difficult to deal with.

7. Generalizing and Exaggerating

One of the main differences between Clinton and Trump has to do with attention to detail.

Clinton has over ten times as many policy pages on her website than Trump, and her speeches are filled with details about her proposals and plans. Trump, by contrast, prefers grandiose generalization and hyperbole.

His speeches are filled with language such as “it’s a disaster,” “this is tremendous,” “we are in a big, fat, ugly bubble,” “it’s unbelievable,” and “it’s the greatest.” He also loves to use language of “everyone” and “always.” He cushions many of his egregious claims with statements like “everyone tells me” – a claim that is very difficult to prove or disprove or fact-check.

Generalizing is also one of the classic abusive patterns that Suzette Elgin pointed to over 35 years ago.

8. Yelling and Shouting Over

In the debate, it was easy to see how Trump was constantly shouting over Clinton. He interrupted her no less than fifty times. He repeatedly refused to stop talking when the moderator told him there was no more time, he interrupted Clinton even when she was given only a small amount of time to answer, and he refused to ever let Clinton have the last word.

He would speak into the microphone while it was her turn, literally yelling over her in order to be heard.

This is typical of toxic manipulators and abusers for whom voice is a tool of violence. They use their voices as weapons in order to ensure that their voices are the ones heard most.

9. Fear-Mongering

In most of the key issues in the campaign, Trump’s approach feeds into fear-mongering.

In discussions about race, for example, he said that the police are “afraid to do anything.” He aims to make his audiences terrified of Mexicans, Muslims, African Americans, Iran, ISIS, and China.

Almost all of his platforms incite fear.

This is a very powerful tactic of manipulation, as it is very hard to fight back in an atmosphere of terror.

10. Body Shaming

Trump has a particularly troubling history of body-shaming women, and was widely panned for body-shaming Megyn Kelly about “blood coming out of her wherever” during one of the Republican debates.

Although he did not directly body-shame Clinton (or the moderator) this week, he did slip in an undetected body-shaming comment. During the discussion about cyber-terrorists, he said, “It could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, okay?”

Body-shaming is a debilitating tactic that can have severe impacts, causing a person to be too humiliated to speak, advocate, or appear in public.    


These are some of the toxic tactics of emotional and verbal abuse that are becoming normalized in the 2016 elections – which only goes to show how acceptable we, as a society, allow toxic masculinity to be.

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Elana Sztokman is an award-winning author and sociologist specializing in gender issues in society. Her latest book is The War on Women in Israel: A Story of Religious Radicalism and the Women Fighting for Freedom (Sourcebooks 2014). She is currently at work on a book about the dynamics of emotional abuse. You can follow her on her website, on Facebook, or on Twitter @jewfem.