As the flood of accusations against powerful men continues to grow, people have begun to wonder why some of these men are forced from public life when their predations are revealed — and some are not. In particular, as noted by the Guardian when introducing a list of the 20 or so women who have accused Donald Trump of predatory sexual behavior: “The most powerful one of all has faced (no consequences).”
Why this disparity? It is possible, of course, that those who survive may have committed less egregious acts — harassment, though always damaging, does occur in more and less serious forms — but that doesn’t appear to be the explanation here. On the contrary, the accusations against the most powerful but as yet unscathed perpetrator include multiple instances of full-blown sexual assault.
We suggest there is another explanation for the survival of our alleged harasser-in-chief; he is an expert practitioner of DARVO — Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender. Instead of admitting error and apologizing or offering evidence that the accusations are false, the perpetrator, outraged at having his power challenged, denies having done what he is accused of doing and attacks his accuser, thus reversing roles and assuming the mantle of victimhood. The true victim is transformed into an offender.
There is no question that Trump has vehemently denied the accusations against him. One need only recall his tirade of October 2016: “These are lies . . . They are all false. They’re totally invented, fiction, all 100 percent totally and completely fabricated..” Earlier this month, he reiterated his denials, blaming the allegations on his political rivals: “(T)he Democrats have been unable to show any collusion with Russia,” he tweeted Dec. 12.: “Now they are moving on to the false accusations and fabricated stories of women who I don’t know and/or have never met.”
It should come as no surprise that Trump bought Roy Moore’s arguments: “He totally denies it. He said it didn’t happen. And you have to listen to him also.” Perhaps reinspired by Moore, Trump recently denied that the voice on the “Access Hollywood” tape, which described grabbing women by their genitals, was his, a denial contradicted by seven witnesses present at the time.
But denial is only the first element of the DARVO defense. The second is “attack.” Trump is clearly a master of this strategy. About the women alleging sexual assault, he said,“These people are horrible people. They’re horrible, horrible liars.” And also: “She wouldn’t be my first choice,” Trump asserted, implying that Jessica Leeds was insufficiently attractive to draw his attention, an argument his lawyer generalized to his other accusers.
Of course, predatory men have been denying and attacking their accusers for centuries; those who speak truth to power too often find that power speaks back — loudly. What is perhaps new to our time is the third element of DARVO: reversing the roles of victim and offender. Who can forget Clarence Thomas’s ringing denials at his confirmation hearings, his assertions that Anita Hill’s allegations of pornography and graphic sexual conversation were false, his dramatic accusations of a “high tech lynching”?
It is thus not surprising to hear Trump cast himself as a victim set upon by political rivals, fake news, the FBI and . . . evil women! Like Anita Hill’s chief tormentor, Senator Alan Simpson, he is terrified that unknown women might “come out of the night like a missile and destroy a man.”
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.”
Deny. Attack. Reverse the Victim and Offender. Perpetrators use DARVO because it works. Clarence Thomas does, in fact, sit on the Supreme Court; Donald Trump is the president of the United States; and Roy Moore came within a hair’s breadth of the US Senate. DARVO affects how the victim responds as well as how observers interpret both the actions of the perpetrator and the victim. Unchecked, DARVO frightens victims, confuses observers, and supports the perpetrator’s denial by allowing him to define the situation.
We can begin to put an end to DARVO by calling it out when we see it. We can not only prevent it from working, but also use it as a valuable indication that the man in question is addicted to power, incapable of apology, and afflicted with such narcissism that he cannot bear to be out of control. Such a response to accusations or disclosure is itself a behavior for which men must be held accountable. If the accusation is true, a man who is not addicted to “masculine” power will apologize. If it isn’t true, he can just state the facts.
Although an honest response does not erase responsibility, a dishonest, manipulative one constitutes an entirely new injury. DARVO not only exacerbates the original harm, it also inflicts another entirely separate one — often in ways that are ongoing in the victim’s life long after the media has moved on.
Just as sexual harassment is an abuse of power, the response to any accusation is about addiction to power versus a capacity for empathy. This means that in the midst of our current shock and uncertainty, there is a guideline: We may not always be sure about the truth of allegations, but we can be certain about how public figures respond to them.
The nature of the response is the key that unlocks the mystery of who the responder really is.
Louise F. Fitzgerald is a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Jennifer J. Freyd is a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon.