Living with Toxicity: Smear Campaigns & Flying Monkeys

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Unless you have been living under a rock somewhere, chances are good that you know the name Robert Mueller. His most recent notoriety stems from his being named Special Counsel in the investigation of Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential election. Mueller carried a remarkable reputation coming into this appointment, having led the FBI for 12 years from 2001-2013 (longer than any other FBI director since J. Edgar Hoover) thanks to a special two year extension of his duties by then president Barack Obama. He was well known for his conservative Republican political views and for his objectivity in his investigative role with the bureau, and these qualities made him seem like the ideal person for current Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to appoint for this task. Texas' own John Cornyn said at the time, "Robert Mueller is perhaps the single-most qualified individual to lead such an investigation…and he’s certainly independent."

Fast forward a year, after scores of indictments, guilty pleas from persons situated deeply within Trump's campaign team and cabinet, and a deliberate but relentless approach by Mueller and his investigative team, and we begin to see that there is more than likely there there with regard to both collusion with an enemy state and obstruction of justice by our current Commander in Chief. Things do not look good for this GOP administration, no matter how you slice it. Meanwhile, if you were to survey many in the GOP, you would think that Mueller was a socialist trojan horse who hired a slew of haters specifically to make the president's life miserable. As discussed in the previous post, when facts begin to inconvenience toxic people they seem to follow a common playbook by engaging in DARVO (Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender). This works well in the age of social media where facts are no longer important and news can be characterized as fake when it doesn't fit with the message one wants to portray. Narcissists are obsessed with image management. This is one reason why social media is like crack cocaine for them. The president cannot help himself, which has been clear since the investigation began to zero in on persons quite close to him. His focus since the investigation began has been to discredit Mueller by attacking his reputation and that of his team.

As mentioned above, Mueller is a conservative Republican with a nearly impeccable record and reputation. The chances that he has "gone rogue" or has undergone an abrupt personality shift is highly unlikely. It is highly likely, however, that our president feels incredibly uncomfortable with the truth coming out. Smear campaigns are highly effective ways to avoid responsibility. In this political season he has engaged in smear campaigns against his political opponent during the run up to the election and has now turned his focus on Mueller and his team along with his former attorney Michael Cohen. As with all smear campaigns, he does this to distract the American public from inconvenient facts, to maintain his image, and to try to make Mueller look like someone with conflicts of interest and incapable of running a fair investigation.

Narcissists and other toxic persons are often quite cunning in their use of smear campaigns, and this president is no different. In addition to his own work to discredit and distract, he has solicited the help of others in his administration (see his revolving door of spokespeople and press secretaries) and in Congress to help him to carry out this smear campaign. In the emotional abuse literature, these people are humorously called Flying Monkeys, an homage to the winged primates sent forth by the Wicked Witch of the West from Wizard of Oz to do her bidding. In the political world, it's highly unlikely that flying monkeys don't know they are being used in this way (our president is infamous for demanding loyalty, for example), while others clearly join in the smear campaign for political reasons. Examples in this administration's use of flying monkeys would include Congressman Devin Nunes of California who has almost singlehandedly attempted to absolve the present administration of any wrongdoing while attempting to disrupt Mueller's investigation. The point is that the toxic person doesn't always have to do the dirty work him or herself. They find others who will help spread their message far and wide, all in an effort to distract, protect, and discredit/isolate.

At the interpersonal level, smear campaigns are often employed alongside projection and gaslighting as part of a toxic person's efforts to distract from or justify their own aberrant behavior, to maintain their perfect image, and to undermine the other person's reputation and isolate him or her from sources of social support they would otherwise utilize in response to the trauma of the inevitable devaluation and discard that awaits.

Jacob and Jennifer decided to enter into couples counseling after Jacob told Jennifer he was leaving her and never loved her despite their ten years of marriage. The couples counselor listened to each party describe the problems in the relationship and how they participated in the dysfunction. Jennifer offered up the different ways she may have contributed to the problems in their marriage, with Jacob nodding along in agreement about all of Jennifer's imperfections and maladaptive behaviors. When the counselor asked Jacob how he contributed to the problems, he feigned innocence and could only offer that he probably enabled Jennifer's toxic behaviors. At this point, the counselor was under the impression that Jennifer likely held the majority of the responsibility for the relationship's dissolution. She asked the couple, "How many people have you talked to about this?" Jennifer was so embarrassed that she had only recently found the courage to call for help. She quietly replied, "Maybe two or three people." Jacob responded, "I don't know, 25 people I guess." The counselor was alarmed at this development, but as they were at the end of the session, she had to wait until another time to try to make sense of what was happening with this couple. Meanwhile, Jennifer couldn't believe that Jacob had talked to that many people about this. She had just learned earlier that week that he had never loved her and was leaving her, but the thought that at least 25 people already knew about this didn't sit well with her.

The next day, she attempted to call a friend only to hear, "I don't know what's going on with you, but you better get your act together. I have already heard from Jacob about what you've been doing." Jennifer had no idea what her friend was referring to. It felt like she was in the middle of a bad dream. She called another friend for support and heard a variation of the same message she had just heard, "Jennifer, you know I love you, but I can't support what you've been doing. It's not fair to Jacob." At this point, Jennifer felt as if she was part of some elaborate set up. Surely, Ashton Kutcher was going to come around the corner any second to tell her she had been punk'd. Unfortunately, what she came to realize was that Jacob had actually contacted all of their mutual friends and even members of her own family to discredit her and eviscerate her support system. Jacob's plan had worked flawlessly. Before long, Jacob's friends began to do his work for him, calling their friends and sharing the same damning narrative they had heard from him.

Almost reflexively, Jennifer began to protectively retreat. The majority of her friends had unknowingly been party to her partner's persuasive blaming and uncritically accepted his story because he presented himself so convincingly as the victim to her "abusive" behaviors. She grieved the loss of these friendships but knew that attempting to defend herself would only play into Jacob's smear campaign. As she grieved with the two or three friends still around, Jacob posted photos and selfies on his social media account with cryptic messages that glossed over the disrepair of his marriage and flaunted his freedom. Jennifer quietly disappeared from her previous social circles, deactivated her social media accounts, and found herself in a sea of isolated grief, confusion, and disbelief.

Stories like this one are not uncommon for persons who have found themselves in the throes of the mind-bending experience of a narcissist's smear campaign. It is common for survivors of smear campaigns to want to defend their reputation, but by the time persons realize they have become targets, they've likely already endured multiple rounds of emotional waterboarding in the form of projections, lying, circular conversations, DARVO, gaslighting, triangulation, and often terrifying demonstrations of their partner's inability to empathize. This has the effect of exhausting the storehouse of energy needed to defend oneself. The good news is that Jennifer's exhaustion kept her from doing the very thing that one should never do if they find themselves caught in the cantankerous cross hairs of another's smear campaign: defend oneself.

Defending oneself in a smear campaign simply plays into the toxic person's narrative, for they have already anticipated how you might respond and have fed that information to their proxies so that if the other were to attempt to try to set the record straight it would only confirm what the toxic partner had already warned everyone about in the first place. So, not only has someone been smeared, but when they attempt to offer their experience they further solidify the storyline of the toxic partner. As one hopefully learns in this process, the only way to "win" is not to play.

When it comes to smear campaigns, it's important to recognize that most persons have no idea they have become unwitting co-conspirators in an effort to discredit and isolate another person. They are simply trying to help someone who has convinced them of their victim status. Survivors of smear campaigns are encouraged to keep their heads down and to not engage the crazy. While they are likely to lose many friends and perhaps even family members, the process of surviving a smear campaign has a way of refining one's social network with people who deserve their trust. At the end of the day, the best revenge is a life well lived. The narcissist has to live with him or herself, and that's likely punishment enough. 

At the political level, we would do well to stand in solidarity with the quiet persistence of Mueller and his team and to simply mute the TV. As Rachel Maddow has been telling her viewers since the beginning of this administration:

"Watch what they do, not what they say."