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The Domestic Abuse Cycle: A Framework for Our Politics and a Path Forward, Part Three

Posted in Politics & Media

Republican Abuse

In Part One I introduced my premise: The GOP uses tactics against Democrats that mirror the behaviors and outcomes of domestic abusers and described the foundational tactic: dishonesty. In Part Two I discussed the rest of the Republican abuse toolbox:

  • Demonization
  • Disrespect/Dehumanization
  • Gaslighting
  • Investigations
  • Voter Suppression
  • Opposition Suppression
  • Intimidation and Violence

Today's topic:

Democratic Response to Republican Abuse

Attorney Joy Wagner represents battered women seeking divorce. I spoke to her about the abuse dynamic and she said: “These women become constrained by their coping mechanisms.”

Constrained by their coping mechanisms.

If a woman definitively rejects an abuser at the first manifestation of abuse, the cycle can’t start; but once she chooses to cope, the cycle begins.

The GOP gradually established a pattern of abusive behaviors.

Rather than forcefully rejecting abuse Democratic leaders opted to cope.

Why? I can't know what's in the hearts and minds of Democratic leaders, past or present. And there are undoubtedly a mixture of beliefs, rationales and calculations at work. But I think the crux has been disbelief. We just can't process the idea that GOP elected leaders knowingly, consciously, do harm.

For years most Democrats (at all levels) have personified the battering phases of denial and guilt. We've resisted admitting Republicans act deliberately when they lie, deploy disinformation, bully, cheat, and terrorize. We rationalize bad behaviors — all of us know “nice Republicans”. Our leaders work with people who vote for abuses but aren't themselves abusive, and Democrats/Liberals are predisposed to give others the benefit of the doubt.

We care about people, including Republicans who would hurt us. Similarly, when Republicans level spurious charges at Democrats we wait for evidence to clear the accused because we believe in the rule of law (and if wrong-doing has occurred we want to know). But by the time innocence is confirmed the damage has already been done.

Republicans successfully turned our greatest strengths: caring for others and respect for the law, against us, and we unknowingly enabled them — ignoring, downplaying, excusing, rationalizing and accepting responsibility for their actions.

How many times have you thought: “If only I could explain this better, they (the Republicans) would agree / change their mind / vote for us?”

How many hours have you wasted arguing with Republicans, only to be gaslighted with conspiracy theories, lies, goal-post-moving and ad hominem attacks? How many hours have you wasted fruitlessly refuting false arguments with facts?

How many times have you said or heard: “yeah but if we do that, what will conservatives do/say? What will they say on FOX?”

As Emailgate went on and on, how many of us said: “yes, but if she hadn’t used that server…”

Yes, but...

The abuser’s creed is: “I wouldn’t have hit you if you hadn’t made me mad.” How many variations of that reasoning have Democrats accepted from Republicans?

Bill and Hillary Clinton (and associates and friends) endured a relentless and unprecedented assault throughout the Clinton presidency. If you didn't live through that era you can read about it in the book The Hunting of the President by Joe Conason.

That was when Republicans refined their fake-scandal-manufacturing-and-investigating tactics. This era was also notable for the emergence of cable news and conservative radio (the Fairness Doctrine was abolished in 1987). These new media ventures perfectly complemented the efforts of anti-Clintonites, ensuring people everywhere heard about every single-eventually-disproven-allegation. (Except for Monica Lewinsky.) Democrats failed to appreciate the ramifications of this burgeoning alliance on the right. Hillary Clinton accurately identified the “vast right-wing conspiracy” but was mocked and dismissed.

Republicans (backed by the rightwing-media-machine) learned they could get away with abusive behaviors because the media stood down and Democratic leaders didn't mount an effective response. Republicans engineered the placement of GW Bush as President through an infamous 5-4 Supreme Court decision. Democratic leaders acquiesced. Then GW Bush conducted a presidency considered (until Donald Trump) the worst in modern history. Throughout the Bush years Democratic leaders offered deference to institutional norms and traditions while Bush, Cheney and GOP leaders broke rules, laws and precedents. And throughout this time the GOP/media-machine continued its work to demonize, gaslight, suppress, control and intimidate Democrats.

By the time Barack Obama was elected, the battering syndrome was firmly entrenched. Democrats, Republicans (and most of the media and public) had fully internalized the dynamic that Republicans were free to behave ever more badly and Democrats were expected to be “the grownups”, ever reasonable, always trying to cajole and convince the GOP, the media and the public that Republican behavior was irrelevant, and what really mattered was policy differences.

Barack Obama spent his first term reaching out to Republicans, only to be blatantly rebuffed and mistreated. By his second term his behavior changed; he concentrated on using his Executive powers to advance his goals, having presumably concluded Congress was a lost cause.

He was right. While congressional and senatorial Republicans elevated obstruction to an art form: blocking actions by Obama which they’d previously supported; refusing to approve judges and nominees; sitting at State of the Union addresses, stone-faced and disrespectful (with Joe Wilson screaming “You Lie!”); conducting redundant Benghazi investigations, Democratic leaders remained reasoned, occasionally impassioned, and largely ineffectual.

Their responses were always specific, aimed at individual affronts. It never (seemingly) occurred to anyone to develop a strategy to deal with the underlying pattern of abuse – I think this is because Democrats weren’t aware there WAS a pattern of abuse.

An aside about Tolerance

As people I know have been interacting with Trump supporters and struggling with how to respond, the topic of tolerance comes up a lot. Tolerance IS a core democratic value. BUT! - and this is a big BUT! - tolerance requires reciprocity. If you and your neighbor agree to disagree about something, and treat each other civilly despite your differences, that is tolerance in action. But if you are civil and your neighbor is abusive, tolerance is a non-starter. If you are afraid of your neighbor it's simply easier to be civil and limit your interactions. But you'd likely not confuse your fear with tolerance. Similarly, if you are exchanging thoughts with a Republican, and they begin using GOP abuse tactics, continued “niceness” on your part isn't tolerance, it is masochistic and enabling.

You enable by protecting a person from the consequences of his or her negative or destructive actions. It may be that Democrats expected media figures and the public to lodge sufficient objections to Republican stunts, relieving Democratic leaders of the burden. But as a citizen I remember wanting my leaders to much more forcefully push back against various republican acts. For instance, during the Bush/Gore recount drama I remember when a group of republicans went to Florida and physically forced citizens who were recounting votes, to stop. I was aghast and furious. These were the infamous butterfly ballots and at tables you had a Democrat and a Republican looking at ballots one at a time and coming to agreement about who the person had selected. To me, there's nothing was more fundamentally democratic than letting citizens count votes. But they were stopped, by an aggressive group of Republican men. As we say so often these days, can you imagine what Republicans and their media surrogates would do if the position was reversed? But Democrats did NOT object, at least, with any force. They didn't defend the process, or confront Republican bullying.

Enabling prolongs bad behavior and increases the risk others will be harmed. Joe Paterno and others enabled Jerry Sandusky to continue molesting boys.

Similarly Democrats’ enabling had the inevitable result: Republicans have been emboldened to escalate their abuse. In domestic situations, as abuse continues the victim sinks into a state of resignation; living in fear becomes normal — the abuser’s behavior has become accepted. That is where Democrats have lived for years. Democrats have turned themselves inside-out, trying to figure out what combination of messaging and targeting will bring electoral success. But they have steadfastly ignored and underestimated the harm done to them and the country by Republican tactics.
And now we're here. We have Nazis marching in our streets, daily episodes of harassment around the country. We have a serial liar, sexual predator and criminal in the white house, surrounded by grifters, criminals, loons and incompetents. Republican office-holders are either AWOL or complicit in one horrible act after another.

Fortunately many Americans began resisting almost immediately after the election, but especially after the Women's March the day after the inauguration. Democratic leaders, who initially seemed rudderless and inclined to be conciliatory, drew strength from their constituents and formed a united front. They are playing defense as well as they can, but to really turn this mess around they have to go on the offensive.

Next up: The Media's role and the need for Democratic Enlightenment.

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