Gayatri Malhotra via Unsplash

The Well Actually

Gayatri Malhotra via Unsplash

Trump Employs an Abuser’s Approach to Abortion Rights

The GOP presidential candidate has promised to punish and prosecute anyone who has an abortion. For those who've experienced domestic violence, these tactics feel all too familiar.

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What did your worst ex-boyfriend do when you finally decided to leave him?

I remember what mine did. 

He promised to change. He tried to convince me that all the times he’d put me down, stood me up, and told me he wasn’t sure he could ever love me were just mistakes brought on by stress and youthful ignorance. I wanted to believe him, so I did. 

In the next go-round of our relationship, he hit me. His cruelty and emotional manipulation escalated too. We went through three or four more break-up-and-make-up cycles before I left that guy for good. I wanted so badly to believe he wasn’t the person he repeatedly showed himself to be, in part because I didn’t want to believe that I was the kind of woman—smart, independent, feminist—who could be hoodwinked into staying with someone so abusive.

I haven’t thought much about that relationship for many years now, but it’s been creeping back into my peripheral vision lately, thanks to Donald Trump and the Republican Party’s desperate backtracking and flip-flopping on abortion. Just like my ex’s claims that This time everything will be different, the GOP is scrambling to convince us that they Didn’t really mean it, babe, with all those abortion bans.

I know y’all have heard it before, and I have, too: It was all just a misunderstanding. Don’t get hysterical. You’re blowing it out of proportion. It’s impossible not to hear the gaslighting and manipulation. And it’s even louder now that we’re eight years into Donald Trump’s abusive relationship with the American voters who are closer than ever to finally leaving the guy for good.

If you’ve been there, and too many of us have, you know the cycle: It starts with love-bombing claims that he’s the only guy on Earth who will ever treat you this well. (Remember “I, alone, can fix it”?) Then once you’re hooked, the emotional abuse, and maybe even physical violence, begins. You start to see the guy’s true colors. When you try to pull away, the sweet-talking, the equivocation, and the promises to do different this time, all start up again. He’ll say whatever it is he thinks you want to hear, knowing it’s all false promises. And if you actually make it out? He’ll be even worse the next time around. (This is the guarantee of Project 2025, the right-wing policy manifesto custom built for President Trump, round two.)

With the breakup imminent—Republicans have lost again and again on state abortion-rights ballot measures, and Trump’s polling numbers are tanking hard with all kinds of voters—the former president and the GOP have moved into another sweet-talking phase, pretending as though they’ve seen the error of their ways. Suddenly they’re sending big bouquets of red roses, with a card reading: “Let’s compromise on abortion.” Surprise! It’s a new pair of diamond studs, along with a promise to stop banning IVF. What are you mad about, honey? You didn’t like the bottle of drug store knock-off perfume, Eau de Maybe I’ll Let You Have An Abortion If You’re Nearly Dead Anyway?

But for those on the receiving end of abuse in a violent relationship, leaving is known to be the most dangerous time —it’s when abusers escalate their tactics, and try anything to keep their targets under their thumbs. This is what we absolutely must bear in mind as we slouch toward November, while the political media tries to keep the conversation squarely in the realm of horse-race politics. Because if Trump takes office again, the effects will be devastating—more devastating even than the horror stories we’ve heard and experienced so far

The question is not “What will happen in November?” but rather “What will happen in the rest of our lives?” Because what’s happening now—indeed, what’s been happening for nearly eight years and running—is not and has never been business as usual, just the normal tick-tock of politicians wheeling and dealing to secure office. It has been eight long years of gaslighting, manipulation, and yes, abuse. And its normalization, and the focus on electoral politics and the never-ending horserace, has got to stop.

Most of us have recognized that MAGA politics are abuser politics since the day Trump began campaigning for president nearly a decade ago; he was the gaslighting candidate par excellence before he was the gaslighting president. But the media has consistently presented Trump not as the unrepentant abuser he is, but as a maverick loudmouth who simply can’t be—and can’t be expected to be—nailed down on the issues, and especially not on abortion

This too carries echoes of the ways we absolve abusers of responsibility and blame their victims. The headlines should be that Donald Trump—the president who proudly ushered in the end of Roe v. Wade—is such a dissembling, desperate mess on abortion that he still doesn’t even have a coherent policy position seven months before the election. Instead, politicos have treated Trump as if he’s either playing a masterful game of four-dimensional chess or just a hapless guy doing his best to run a campaign under tough circumstances. That sounds a lot like what we hear from abuse apologists—he didn’t mean it, he didn’t know what he was doing, and even if he did, he can’t be held responsible (and maybe he was even provoked!)

MAGA politics are about control, as all abuser politics are, but anti-abortion politics are the ur-expression of the form. They are the apotheosis of control, explicitly rooted in wresting away the most essential decisions about bodily autonomy from pregnant people and putting their fates—indeed, their lives—in the hands of government patriarchs hell-bent on requiring compliance or else. And with Trump’s hand-picked, right-wing Supreme Court poised to allow anti-abortion states to ban life-saving emergency abortion care, the “or else” part is particularly chilling.

As someone who knows how hard it is to leave an abusive relationship, I’m seriously on edge looking at November and beyond. I don’t know if voters have had enough yet; I don’t even know what enough looks like. It can feel tempting to want to believe an abuser’s lies when they say that they’ve really changed this time. I know there are Republican voters (I’m related to several) who are desperate to believe that the GOP and Trump have had a genuine change of heart on abortion. 

Because it’s not just about the abuser—it’s about how your relationship with an abuser makes you feel about yourself. I didn’t want to believe I could be deceived, lied to, and manipulated. That my relationship could be anything other than just averagely dysfunctional, the kind that simply “takes work.” White, suburban women, especially Republican women and the elusive “independents” and centrists, have been cast as the key to tipping elections away from Republicans, but whether they’re ready to face the terms of their relationship with the Republican Party is an open question.

For those inclined to believe in the GOP’s latest change-of-heart ploy, I ask them to consider which is more likely? That the “abortion is murder” party that overturned Roe is only publicly backpedaling to secure votes in a highly consequential election so that it can continue to enact the anti-abortion policies it holds dear at its core, or that dozens—maybe hundreds—of people who’ve been crowing lies about post-birth abortions for a decade suddenly became okay with finding “compromise” on legal, accessible abortion care?

Do you believe the lies, or do you believe your eyes?

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