As the Russian invasion of Ukraine unfolded, I was reminded over and over again of the behaviour of abusive ex-husbands and boyfriends. At first he thinks that he can simply bully her into returning. When it turns out she has no desire to return, he shifts to vengeance.
Putin insisted that Ukraine was rightfully part of Russia and didn’t have a separate existence. He expected his army to grab and subjugate with ease, even be welcomed. Now his regime seems bent on punitive destruction – of energy infrastructure, dwellings, historic sites, whole cities – and rape, torture and mass murder. This too is typical of abusers: domestic-violence homicides are often punishment for daring to leave.
Everything I needed to know about authoritarianism I learned from feminism, or rather from feminism’s sharp eye when it comes to coercive control and male abusers. Sociologist and gender violence expert Evan Stark, in his book Coercive Control, defined the title term as one that subsumes domestic violence in a larger pattern of isolation, intimidation and control. (The book has been so influential that in the UK, coercive control is now recognised as a crime.) The violence matters, Stark writes, “but the primary harm abusive men inflict is political, not physical, and reflects the deprivation of rights and resources that are critical to personhood and citizenship”. This connects it directly to what dictators and totalitarian regimes do to the people under their rule – it’s only a matter of scale. And the agenda at all scales is to control not just practical matters, but fact, truth, history; who can speak and what can be said.
The antithesis of this is, of course, democracy, which is likewise a principle that works at all scales. A marriage can be called democratic if both parties exercise power equally and are unconstrained and unintimidated by the other. Equally, a marriage can be a little tyranny in which one gains and the other surrenders rights and powers through the union, which was until recently how marriage was defined legally and socially. Likewise we call democratic those nations in which national decisions are (however imperfectly) made by representatives elected by, and accountable to, the public.
At the very root of tyranny, no matter whether it’s personal or public life, lies the belief that the agency and agenda of others is illegitimate, that only the would-be tyrant should control the household or the nation. You can see this in authoritarian politicians’ rejection of the outcome of elections – Donald Trump, or in the Maga candidate Kari Lake’s unsuccessful run for Arizona governor, or the 8 January riot in Brasília to reject Lula’s victory.
One term formerly used to describe relationships between an abusive man and a manipulated woman, gaslighting, became an indispensable word in public life when Trump became president. The gaslighting, the bullying, the fury to crush dissent, the assumption that he should be in charge of everything including facts, the rage, the insistence that every other power and voice is illegitimate: these are all hallmarks of dictators in the domestic and the political sphere. He began his presidency in the shade of a recording in which he infamously advocated grabbing women “by the pussy”; he ended it in the shadow of an insurrection that was a refusal to accept the verdict rendered by more than 80 million voters and the rules laid down by the US constitution.
What’s striking about gaslighting is that it’s an attempt to push a lie or a distortion by using advantages of power, including credibility and social status, to overwhelm the gaslit person or people – or populace. It’s another kind of violence, not against bodies, but facts and truth. In stories of abusive households, the Trump administration and histories of authoritarianism, the men in charge regarded fact, truth, history and science as rival systems of power to be crushed or overwhelmed. And they are rival systems: a democracy of information means what prevails is what’s demonstrably true and substantiated, whether or not it’s convenient to whoever’s in power.
That gaslighting was a staple of the Soviet Union is well known through the work of George Orwell and later historians (when I wrote about Orwell, I found a striking example cited by Adam Hochschild: that when Stalin’s demographers showed that the Soviet population was declining, he had them killed, causing the next round of demographers to offer more pleasing numbers). It’s also true in brutal households, where the first rule is that one must not say that it’s brutal, lest more violence transpire.
Another way that studies of domestic abuse inform our political understanding is “Darvo”, an acronym that the domestic violence expert Jennifer Freyd coined in 1997 for how abusers respond in court or when otherwise challenged. It stands for deny, attack, reverse victim and offender. You insist that anyone mentioning what you’ve done is insulting you, is a liar, then insist that your accuser is the abuser and you are the victim, and keep shouting it until you believe it and maybe convince others. Freyd herself, with another psychologist, recently noted “a growing trend in the world of civil litigation: alleged perpetrators of interpersonal violence are filing defamation lawsuits against the individuals who have named them as abusers … For abusers, these lawsuits are an opportunity to enforce Darvo through civil litigation.”
Darvo happens all the time in political life. In the US, the Republicans have a pattern of claiming to defend what they’re attacking and to be the victims of what they’re perpetrating. Or as the New York Times columnist Charles M Blow put it in January, describing the agenda of the new Republican majority in the lower house of Congress: “Understanding that they can’t throw federal investigators off the trail of multiple conservatives – including, and perhaps principally, Donald Trump – they have decided to complicate those investigations by kicking up so much dust that the public has a hard time discerning fact from fiction.” The very mention of those crimes is treated as an insult and an outrage, with those complicit the offended parties, and so they shout down the evidence. Prolonged loud noise is an effective tactic.
Blow mentions that the Republicans in the house are creating the select subcommittee on the weaponization of the federal government, which will label the pursuit of Republican crimes, notably Trump’s around January 6, as baseless political vendettas. It’s, of course, a cover-up masquerading as a crusade. He continues: “The Republicans are using a fundamentally Trumpian tactic, accusing others of that which one is guilty of. It was Donald Trump, not the Democrats, who attempted to weaponize the federal government against his enemies.” That’s Darvo at its purest.
Individuals can be bullied into silence and obedience. So can whole populations. And so can facts and truth. Democracy matters at all scales.
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