Weeks before the inauguration, I started a screenshot collection of viral tweets or other social media posts comparing the relationship of the U.S. with Trump, Mitch McConnell, and/or the GOP to an abusive relationship. I eventually gave up because there were too many and they were all so similar and it was depressing. Most of them said things like “the most dangerous time in an abusive marriage is when you leave” or “‘consequences will only make him madder’ is the justification of someone in an abusive relationship” or “the most dangerous time of all is when you’re trying to get the abuser out of the house.”
Whenever I feel the self-sabotaging urge to engage with social media discourse, I always want to include a disclaimer acknowledging that I know how narrowly social media can capture reality; there’s always a possibility that I’m seeing drama or discourse on my screens solely because I’m spending too much time looking at them. But this time, people that are often trusted on topics like politics and power dynamics, who have wide audiences and large platforms, were engaging enthusiastically with this particular kind of content, and the resulting cognitive dissonance was difficult to handle.
It’s not a new trend; people have been comparing public figures to personal abusers for years now. It even dogged Bernie Sanders a little, when he was still in the presidential race—some tweets surfaced from people (mainly, it seemed, Hilary Clinton supporters) who didn’t like him, comparing the way he talks to their fathers, or abrasive uncles, or something like that. This trend may have begun because of the way people started describing Trump’s rhetoric early during his presidency, especially after the infamous 2016 essay in Teen Vogue, “Donald Trump is Gaslighting America”—a phrase that has now become a shorthand of its own.
Like any social media formula that often uses politics as its main vehicle, these posts could be seen as just another form of clout chasing; whoever can phrase it in the quippiest way gets the most engagement. But the sheer prevalence—at least for people who have timelines similar to mine—of this particular analogy for the political tumult we are in makes it feel like an obsession from a certain part of the liberal population struggling to describe political discord and harm in this country without defaulting to an interpersonal or sexual framework. After the most obvious connection between the two situations—violence that is difficult to easily or safely escape, and makes for a scarily unpredictable future—it really doesn’t make any sense. Linking one bad thing to another in the name of analysis doesn’t work.
It’s possible that people are using the vocabulary around domestic violence and abuse that has filtered into the mainstream to describe the presidential transition because they wanted to convey that they take the latter seriously. But such a repetitive insistence that these two things are similar enough that one can easily be understood as a metaphor for the other insinuates that this country overall pays attention to domestic violence or abusive relationships as seriously and consistently as we’re all now paying attention to whatever is happening with the GOP, which just isn’t true. The rush to use the phrase or framework “post-MeToo era” when describing anything about today’s cultural climate has been and still is wildly premature. We are post nothing.
These comparisons almost always focus more on the emotional effect of the relationship—abuser vs. victim or survivor—instead of institutional complicities, while simultaneously ignoring how isolating and lonely trying to leave an abuser can be. It’s a lot less tricky to focus on how Trump spent four years exploiting, manipulating, or lying—truths that elicit reliable emotional responses—than it is to bring up just how many people actively voted for him a second time, or how many people from his administration will continue to have access to power and proximity to power even though he is technically gone. The same goes for public discussions or portrayals of domestic violence, which often focus on the interpersonal relationship so much more than the ways in which survivors are failed fantastically by law enforcement officials, child support systems, educational institutions, etc.
Not incidentally, these kinds of analogies are a cousin of a particularly uncomfortable, usually cheap kind of political satire, in which the Statue of Liberty or “Lady Justice” is portrayed as bound, gagged, stepped on or otherwise facing some sort of bodily, sometimes sexual threat, usually in a very feminized frame. There were a slew of these after Trump’s inauguration and after Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony against Brett Kavanaugh and his appointment to the Court—and not just in the States, but abroad, too. Like comparisons of Trump and McConnell’s grip on the US to abusive relationships, the shock value that these cartoons offer isn’t worth their cheapening nature.
Some people seem to be trying to use this framework in a more sympathetic way, insinuating that a lot of Trump’s fans are simply manipulated victims instead of straight-up white supremacists and neo-Nazis, another misconception that helps no one and pulls attention away from accountability. But the people I’ve seen use these analogies the most tend to group all Americans together, as if we are all in solidarity against Trump and his enablers—which in some ways is technically true, but doesn’t take into consideration how many people actively worked every day to keep him in power. It also glosses over the fact that we don’t need to rely on a tired metaphor to convey how much violence came directly from his policies and rhetoric, intimately affecting and killing real people, and the sexual harm he has perpetrated himself.
This kind of quippy language on Twitter is par for the course, and writing about it is pointless 99% of the time; if you tried to write 1000 words on every idiotic or aggravating trend that lasts too long, you’d have to give up any semblance of a life. But given that enough people seem to earnestly think interpersonal violence is a useful and adequate way of framing and understanding the fraught transition between Trump and Biden’s administrations, the ick factor is worth at least a discussion, especially given the wealth of weak and misguided writing already dominating mainstream narratives of Trump voters. Plenty of journalists, historians, and activists are writing with nuance and precision about the enormous harm that Trump’s administration has caused, and how they were able to get so far; there’s no need for this kind of comparison to have the hold it does on the public imagination. Sometimes you just don’t need the metaphor.