Analysis: For people who’ve experienced emotional abuse, the behavior felt too close to home.

Viewers used many words to describe Tuesday night’s debate, but one stands out: “traumatizing.”

On social media, survivors of domestic violence, racial violence and emotional abuse called the bullying, the anger, the condescension on display Tuesday “triggering” and “painful.”

“It was pretty universally experienced as traumatizing,” said Sherry Hamby, a University of the South psychology professor and founding editor of the American Psychological Association journal Psychology of Violence. “I know several people who couldn’t even get through the whole thing.”

I don’t think a nation’s response to watching a presidential debate is supposed to be collective trauma, but here we are.

— Jodi😒😷 (@Hirshleft) September 30, 2020

The debate was chaotic, contemptuous and broke conventions of civility. During Tuesday’s encounter, the two men questioned one another’s intelligence, Trump interrupted Biden 71 times, according to an analysis from the Washington Post, and Biden frequently derided the president’s comments and called him a “clown.” At one point Biden asked Trump, “Will you shut up, man?”

Moderator Christopher Wallace often tried to intervene, but was rarely effective and kept raising his voice.

Trump also refused to condemn white supremacy and militia groups.

This debate was neither entertaining nor enraging. I was wrong. It was painful. And triggering. #Debates2020

— Ibram X. Kendi (@DrIbram) September 30, 2020

Viewers and mental health experts likened the spectacle to a dysfunctional family or an abusive relationship. Emotional abuse is a way to control another person often by criticizing or shaming them. It can also include name-calling or acting superior.

Embarassment can also be a tactic. Some disability advocates on Twitter wondered if Trump’s tactic of constantly interrupting Biden was a way to get him to stutter. 

Couldn’t sleep. As a disability advocate on behalf of my son, the outright abuse we all witnessed on that debate stage was triggering. Trump repeatedly interrupted, spoke over & yelled at a man with a known speech impediment.
And #ChrisWallace did

— 💅🏽Oh For Crissakes… 🛹✨🥁 (@lisareynaloe) September 30, 2020

Trump also attempted to embarass Biden by bringing up his son Hunter’s history of substance abuse. Biden responded by saying he was “proud of my son” for confronting addiction.

Preparing for the next debate

On Wednesday, the organization that oversees the presidential debates says it will be adding “additional tools” to prevent a repeat of Tuesday’s confrontation. 

Hamby says that with Trump especially, it’s clear that containment is the only option. She said for the safety of viewers, it would be helpful to institute physical or technological parameters. If each candidate is going to have two minutes uninterrupted to respond to a question, don’t rely on the candidates to abide by that rule, cut the mic to ensure they can’t break it.

For those who were emotionally triggered during the first debate, Hamby said it may be helpful to avoid watching the debate in real-time. Instead, people can watch clips or read analysis the next day. 

“That would be a classic psychological approach to try to create some kind of space or distance between you and the dysfunctional behavior that you’re trying to deal with,” she said.

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