Watching Donald Trump's much-hyped interview with Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly on Tuesday was a physically uncomfortable experience.
It wasn't just that it made Trump look like a self-contradicting train wreck, though that was part of it. It wasn't just the awkward silence as Trump tried to wiggle out of addressing how he called Megyn Kelly a "bimbo" through strategic retweets on Twitter, though that was part of it too.
It was something much darker and more disturbing. Something I couldn't laugh at in the same way I laughed when Trump literally said that "presidential" can be "a bad word," or when Kelly actually asked Trump if he could "go four years without threatening to sue somebody."
I felt it when, during one of Kelly's many attempts to squeeze even a drop of vulnerability or self-reflection out of Trump, she asked him if he had ever been bullied as a child. He said no, but that he's "seen" bullying. And it doesn't have to happen when you're a child, he noted; it can happen when you're 55. ("It can happen when you're 45," the 45-year-old Kelly interjected dryly, clearly referring to her own nine-month ordeal of being bullied by Trump and his supporters.)
Then Kelly pressed Trump further on bullying. She asked him how American parents are supposed to "raise their kids to not bully, to not name-call, to not tease, not taunt ... when the frontrunner for the Republican nomination does all of those things?"
Trump's response chilled me to the bone: "You know, I've been saying during this whole campaign that I'm a counterpuncher, you understand that. I'm responding. ... I mean, I respond pretty strongly. But in just about all cases, I've been responding to what they did to me. So it's not a one-way street."
Trump is often compared to a playground bully. Someone who taunts, who belittles, who calls people names. But as childish as Trump can be, he is not actually a child. He is a grown man who is running for president, and he has a frighteningly good shot at winning.
I think there's a better word to describe grown men who act this way. They’re not "bullies." They’re abusers.
I don't use this word lightly. I'm also not arguing anything new or surprising about Trump. There are many kinds of abuse out there: physical, emotional, sexual. It can happen online or in your living room; it can be impersonal or intimate. Some abusers get criminal convictions. Many of them should but never do. But all of them systematically inflict harm on the people around them, whether or not that harm ever rises to the level of criminal activity.
Nearly half of both women and men have experienced some form of psychological aggression from an intimate partner, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
And not all abusers are intimate partners. I lived with an emotional abuser once, someone who used to be my best friend until I realized what he was doing. I've spent countless hours hearing the people close to me tell stories about their fathers, their mothers, their siblings, their boyfriends, their spouses, even their bosses or co-workers.
Trump pivots and deflects with abandon, often resorting to some form of self-aggrandizement. The best self-aggrandizement, the most excellent self-aggrandizement.
It's the same damn story, over and over again. They are actually pretty boring, these abusers, considering all the drama and heartache they cause. I hear others recall the same boring, horrible script, the same boring, horrible tactics.
There's the gaslighting, when they scrupulously deny they did anything wrong and avoid taking responsibility until they make you question your grip on reality: I never said that. I never did that. It's your fault. I'm the victim here.
Trump followed this script more than once in his interview with Kelly. "I've been responding to what they did to me," he said when asked about his bullying tactics.
Then there were exchanges like this:
KELLY: Have you made any mistakes in this campaign? You had said publicly you thought the retweet about Heidi Cruz was a mistake. Let me just —
TRUMP: Well, I said I could have done without it, to be exact. I mean, I could have done without it —
KELLY: You said "a mistake." Are you walking that back?
TRUMP: Well, I didn't — No, no, I am not walking it back. But I, but I, I actually didn't say it that way.
Actually, he did.
Another form of gaslighting, and another way of avoiding responsibility, is minimizing: It wasn't that bad. You're just being dramatic. You're being too sensitive.
Trump's most obviously cringeworthy moments came when he tried to tell Kelly that what happened to her wasn't a big deal, because it could have been so much worse:
TRUMP: But when you and I were having our little difficulty, um, you probably had some pretty nasty tweets sent your way. ...
KELLY: But you retweet some of those. It's not just the fans.
TRUMP: Yeah, but not the more nasty ones. You would be amazed at the ones I don't retweet.
A few seconds later, Trump added: "Over your life, Megyn, you've been called a lot worse, is that right, wouldn't you say?"
Yet another classic abuser move is self-justification, when they realize they can't gaslight their way out of this one: I did the right thing here. I know what I'm talking about. It's for your own good. You'll thank me later.
Trump is a master at this. He pivots and deflects with abandon, often resorting to some form of self-aggrandizement. The best self-aggrandizement, the most excellent self-aggrandizement. This interview was no exception.
TRUMP: Uh, absolutely I have regrets. I don't think I want to discuss what the regrets are, but absolutely. ... But overall, I have to be very happy with the outcome. And I think if I didn't conduct myself in the way I've done it, I don't think I would have been successful, actually. If I were soft, if I were, you know, "presidential."
Here's another gem from the discussion of "mistakes" and Heidi Cruz:
KELLY: But it was a mistake, wasn't it? I mean, that — you shouldn't have done that, right?
TRUMP: I, I wish I didn't do it. Although, you know, I guess you could say she's fair game, 'cause she's very much involved with the campaign. But I don't know, she just seems like a nice woman —
KELLY: But that, that tweet mocked her looks —
TRUMP: Well, you know what? I have millions of followers @realdonaldtrump. I have millions of followers.
KELLY: I'm familiar.
At one point, Kelly tried to get Trump to take some responsibility for inciting violence at his campaign rallies. He seemed so close to a mea culpa, but nope:
TRUMP: And when I see the fervor — when I see 25,000 people that have seats, and not one person, during an hour speech, will sit down — I say, "Sit down, everybody, sit down." And they don't sit down. They refuse to sit down. I mean, that's a great compliment. But I do understand the power of the message. There's no question about it.
This was right after Trump denied that he was "powerful" at all, that he was just "fighting for survival" like everybody else.
As frustrating and out of touch as that last comment seems, though, there's some real truth to it. Many abusers do what they do because they feel powerless most of the time, and because dominating others is the best way they know to feel powerful again. Some of them feel so powerless in part because they were once victims of abuse themselves.
In his conversation with Kelly, Trump often seemed most honest when he was talking about his own struggles and his own feelings of powerlessness. His brother's 1981 death from alcoholism clearly hit him hard, even though he used that anecdote to deflect an even more probing question from Kelly about whether anyone had ever "hurt [Trump] emotionally."
My heart breaks just a little when I hear Trump say things like, "My whole life is a debate," or "When I'm wounded, I go after people hard." Perhaps all his bluster and aggression is, as he put it, an attempt to "un-wound" himself.
But such un-wounding can, in turn, cause new and terrible wounds.
We cannot ignore that the accusations of Trump’s bullying and potentially unlawful treatment of women are wide and varied. Trump hasn't just said countless boorish things about women in public. Nor has he just been accused of sexually aggressive and creepy behavior in private, as a recent New York Times story revealed. He's also been accused, in sworn statements, of a brutal 1989 rape by his ex-wife Ivana, and of sexual assault by another woman, Jill Harth.
We cannot ignore that the accusations of Trump’s bullying and potentially unlawful treatment of women are wide and varied
Neither of the women like talking about the incidents publicly, and Ivana explicitly denounced a recent news story about it. But despite backpedaling on various aspects, neither woman has actually recanted the details of her original testimony. Harth has said outright that although she dropped her 1997 sexual assault lawsuit, she stands by her allegations.
But one thing it seems he will always deny, as he showed in his interview with Kelly, is any hint of weakness or regret.
"Make a mistake, you go forward, and you — you know, you can correct a mistake," Trump said, asked about offensive comments he made about John McCain and Carly Fiorina. "But to look back and say, 'Gee whiz, I wish I didn't do this or that,' I don't think that's good. I don't even think — in a certain way, I don't even think that's healthy."
I can't stop thinking about Ivana's story in particular. I know she walked back her story — from calling it "rape" during their divorce to saying that she had merely "felt violated" when a book featuring her testimony came out in 1993 to then calling reporter Tim Mak's 2015 story about it in the Daily Beast "totally without merit," even though she didn't specifically dispute any particular aspect of the story.
I know she doesn't want people to talk about it, so I want to apologize to her for doing so now. But I also want to tell her: Lady, I get it. I've been there. When the guy who raped me asked me to meet for breakfast the next day like nothing was wrong, I accepted, like nothing was wrong. It's so much easier that way. Just like smiling long enough can actually make you happier, sometimes acting like nothing is wrong makes it feel just a little less wrong, makes you feel just a little less violated. Only a little, though, in the end.
But as Ivana said in her 2015 statement, she and Donald have raised three kids together, and they are the "best of friends" now. I believe her when she says this. These things are complicated.
I also can't stop thinking about Ivana's story because (warning, this next part is pretty graphic) of the details she related during her testimony. If true, they're horrifying — Donald, raging and in pain after scalp reduction surgery (which he later denied having had), bending Ivana over the bed and forcing himself inside her for the first time in 16 months, ripping out chunks of her hair to make her feel the same pain he felt. The story continues the next morning, when she dared to come back into the bedroom and Donald asked her coldly: "Did it hurt?"
But it's not just that the details Ivana described are so shocking. It's that they ring so true to me, and that they tell me so much about the kind of person Trump could very well be.
It reminds me of the stories my boyfriend has told me about his own hideously abusive father — whom I've thankfully never met, and never plan to. My boyfriend tells me that the most violent his dad ever got was while he was recovering from a painful inner ear surgery; his dad could never stand to be seen as weak or vulnerable, and so his most vulnerable times were always the most violent times for their family.
But, my boyfriend says, the rages weren't always the worst thing. Sometimes the worst was the gaslighting, the denial, the coldness. My boyfriend recalls confronting his father about the worst offenses — and his father literally wouldn't remember them, or at least not admit to remembering them. Or if he did remember them, he'd say things like, "You have to understand, I was just trying to get something done."
He also seems, from the stories I've heard, like the kind of guy who compensated for his insecurities with material extravagance (whether or not he could actually afford it) and with constant boasting about his greatness.
My boyfriend came home Tuesday night to find me watching the Kelly interview. He listened for a bit, then went into the bedroom, then came back out to the couch. He was quiet for a while.
Then he said, sort of joking but not really: "My father is running for president."
"Yeah," I said. "I know."
Emily Crockett is a Vox staff writer.