By the time he left office, Donald Trump’s record at attempting to overturn the election stood at 1 in 65 in the courts. The solitary case he won didn’t prove any election fraud or shenanigans in the 2020 election either. And yet tens of millions of Americans still believe he won the election. That’s a titanic triumph of disinformation.
The playbook is simple and Trump and many of his most avid supporters have mastered it. You can examine the dynamics from different angles. You can look at social media. You can examine the practice of Russian disinformation or dezinformatsiya. You can even look to the common characteristics of fascism and experience a chilling sense of recognition when you review the features Umberto Eco and others have articulated.
But one simple way of looking at Trump is simply as an abuser, since he bears all the traits a psychologist could rattle off to describe such a toxic personality. In fact, what Trump and his supporters are engaging in—even now—is classic abuser behavior, which adheres to a manipulation strategy wielded by spouse beaters and demagogues alike.
Developed by Professor Jennifer J. Freyd, PhD (University of Oregon), this framework is called DARVO, an acronym, which stands for:
1. Deny the behavior
2. Attack the confronting individual
3. Reverse the roles of Victim and Offender
My wife and I were watching an episode of the Canadian-American sci-fi series Travelers recently, which included an effective depiction of this. One of the main characters is a woman married to a cop, who stalks and beats her. When she moves to expose him, he turns the tables on her by accusing her of assaulting him and goes so far as to fake an assault record for her. Classic DARVO behavior.
But what we experienced the last 4 years is DARVO behavior on a national scale never seen before in the history of our country.
Professor Freyd agrees with this diagnosis. In fact, she maintains a webpage about DARVO, which includes a whipsmart clip from South Park showing a cartoon President Garrison (who looks remarkably like Donald Trump) explaining the behavior.
It's Called DARVO - South Park (Video Clip) | South Park Studios US
2021 South Park Digital Studios LLC. All Rights Reserved. South Park © 2021 Comedy Partners. All Rights Reserved…
Writing in a 2017 piece for the Boston Globe, Louise F. Fitzgerald joined Professor Freyd to explain how Trump’s behavior fits the DARVO framework, showing how he not only denied charges of sexual harassment but viciously attacked the women who leveled them:
In an October 2016 speech responding to the allegations against him, Trump presented himself as not only a victim, but a martyr: “They (his enemies) knew they would throw every lie they could at me and my family and my loved ones. They knew they would stop at nothing to try to stop me . . . I never knew it would be this vile, that it would be this bad, that it would be this vicious.” He concluded his martyr imagery by telling his supporters, “Nevertheless, I take all of these slings and arrows gladly for you.”
His continual posturing and hyperbole would almost be comedic if his responses weren’t believed by so many and so injurious to his accusers.
You could also note how Trump’s continuous accusations of fraud fit the framework, too. So do his continuous assertions that everyone else is lying while he’s “a very honest guy.” His continuous cries of “fake news,” too. A master fabricator always accusing the media of fabrication.
His followers have long modeled his behavior in his defense but their toxic strain of DARVO continues to permeate our culture in the wake of the January 6th assault on the Capitol building. Since then we’ve seen those who criticized the attacks described as “hateful” repeatedly by Trump supporters and right-wing pundits, who portray the insurrectionists as “patriots” battling to expose voter fraud and corruption, despite the overwhelming evidence that Joe Biden won the 2020 Election handily in the Electoral College and by some 7 million votes.
Trump supporters deflected criticism of rioters, claiming that gallows outside the Capitol were actually erected by members of Antifa. They initially floated the idea that the“QAnon Shamen” was a member of Antifa, despite a flood of proof to the contrary, including videos of the furry, horn-bedecked man, Jake Angeli, explicitly articulating the virtues of the Q movement and conspiracy club. In fact, the FBI determined there’s no evidence Antifa was involved in the storming of the Capitol at all.
Even now, as Trump’s impeachment trial is conducted in the Senate, we’re seeing his supporters deploy DARVO. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham spent the last few days gaslighting the nation by inferring that Trump’s trial is overblown and by deflecting attention to Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats, suggesting they were to blame for the violent insurrection on the Hill.
This isn’t a cesspool we’ll dig ourselves out of anytime soon. But we can recognize and highlight these dynamics, when we see them. Interviewers, in particular, should challenge individuals when they attempt to batter us all with toxic misinformation. Counter them with the facts instead allowing them to enjoy their moment of DARVO before an audience of millions without the flutter of a challenge.
Otherwise, the Trumps of the world win. And, in that light? Give Donald Trump his due props. Despite all of his lies, his flaws and his weaknesses, he does excel at something: He has mastered abuse.