Donald Trump grabbed a new lifeline. Speaking at a rally in Charlotte, North Carolina, on October 15, he raised a hand as if to take an oath and declared: “I am a victim!” The great business tycoon, the one and only man who could fix America and make the place great again (trust me, folks), was laying claim to martyrdom—and spinning another news cycle. “I am a victim,” he declared, “of one of the great political smear campaigns in the history of our country. They are coming after me to try and destroy what is considered by even them the greatest movement in the history of our country.”
“I am a victim.” That pathetic line echoed in my head, which is why I’m writing this. In my long life, I had seen a large white man stand up in a public arena and proclaim those words—the shrill, self-pitying complaint of the remorseless perpetrator—only once before. That was in a courtroom in Lower Manhattan in 1988. The man was Joel Steinberg, a New York lawyer who, over a 12-year period, had brainwashed and beaten into oblivion a woman named Hedda Nussbaum, once a successful young editor of children’s books. In the early years of their relationship, she had run away several times, seeking help, and every time a doctor or friend had called Steinberg to come and get her. At that point—time and again—Steinberg would administer “punishment,” breaking her bones and her spirit. She took on what police would later describe as “a zombie-like quality.”
Some years earlier, a teenage girl had hired Steinberg to arrange an adoptive home for her baby. Instead he kept the child, Lisa, until one evening when she was 6 years old and “stared” at him in a way he didn’t like. He responded by striking her repeatedly in the head. After which he went out to dinner with his cocaine dealer, leaving the child unconscious on the floor. Nussbaum, by then so traumatized, so absent from anything like life, thought vaguely of calling a doctor, but she was not allowed to use the phone in Steinberg’s absence. Instead, she sat on the floor and watched over the girl as she lay dying.
On trial for the child’s murder, Steinberg blamed everyone but himself. “I’m the victim here,” he whined in court. He swore that he had “never hit anyone,” not anyone, even though he was known to have assaulted a business associate and three other women before he settled into the single-minded, single-handed demolition of Hedda Nussbaum.
Judge Harold Rothwax observed that Steinberg was “a man of extraordinary narcissism and self-involvement” who had “an extreme need to control everyone in his ambit” while he lived a “life of self-gratification.” Yet Steinberg could not see in himself the man Judge Rothwax described. He thought people should feel sorry for him. He had been disbarred and had lost a child (not to mention his Greenwich Village apartment). He railed at those who had conspired to bring him down: the police, the neighbors, the judge, the prosecutor, the expert medical witnesses, his defense attorney, the jurors, the press, and Hedda Nussbaum. “I’m the victim here,” he claimed.