Trump Trauma Editorial: What Can We Really Do About Trump? And What Is Trump Doing to Us?

Jul 17, 2017 by

There is Trump trauma and anti-Trump resistance. We need to focus on both. AlterNet is working on new initiatives to address the toll Trump is taking on our psyches and our souls, while highlighting the best of the resistance. READ MORE»
By Don Hazen, AlterNet

Many of us currently feel like we’re in an unfamiliar and disorienting situation. We’ve never imagined, much less experienced, anything remotely like the behavior and attitude of Donald Trump. In this new reality, we live in a state where our leader – the most powerful person in the world – lies consistently, is completely unreliable and cannot be trusted.

Initially, it seemed like Trump would be a bad, but short and unfinished, joke. He couldn’t possibly last. He would be dispensed with, either by his own self-destruction or his impeachment. But most of us have recognized by now that won’t likely happen. The most conservative Congress in the last 100 years wants to impose draconian changes on our society directly inspired by Ayn Rand. For now it appears the Republicans have decided that keeping Trump in place is the best strategy for achieving their goals. What’s more, even if Trump’s presidency ended today, Mike Pence could be even worse, as Al Franken notes. Trump’s incompetence and GOP infighting have prevented conservatives from wreaking large-scale devastation so far. But that could quickly change.

So what is to be done? We at AlterNet have concluded that a vibrant, effective political opposition requires that we grapple with what is needed, both strategically and emotionally, without illusion. It is important to make use of our anger and constantly push back. But we also need to be realistic about what works and has a decent chance of success. And at the same time, we must be aware of the toll Trump may be taking on our psyches and souls.

To that end, AlterNet is developing multiple new initiatives that we hope together will provide a source of needed information for the future. One effort, the Trump Trauma Project, is launching today. But more about that in a minute.

Part of the reality we face is that, under the radar of many Americans, the most conservative political operators have captured huge swaths of the country for the right-wing. Thanks to gerrymandering, widescale voter suppression, a conservative Supreme Court, and an attack style of governing that opposes everything remotely Democratic or liberal, conservatives have amassed immense power. It will be very difficult in the near future to slow down the right-wing juggernaut and win back Congress, let alone imagine anything close to a pendulum swinging back to more liberal and humane days.

In fact, that famous mythical political pendulum may not swing back this way at all. Martin Luther King famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Unfortunately, as Jeremy Sherman notes, “Maybe in the very long run, it’s bending, but the time bomb of human nature may not give us that long. At present, the arc bends toward authoritarianism. Our proud sense that it can’t happen here has proven wrong. Authoritarianism can happen anywhere people are part of the equation.”

That means we have to adapt to these strange, new circumstances. “The election of Donald Trump has forced the American people to learn new skills,” Chauncey DeVega notes. “They now must grapple with life under a plutocratic authoritarian who has little to no respect for democracy and the rule of law. Such a situation was not supposed to be possible in America; this political dystopia is real.”

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It’s true that getting involved, fighting back, organizing and working hard to throw out Trump and the worst of the right wing is essential for our lives and important for our emotional well-being.  But achieving those goals will be very difficult, so it’s important to consider our situation in both the short and long-term. We have to be hard-nosed about what can be won now, and realistic about what it will take. We also must be cognizant that joining groups and getting organized, while fantastic for some, is not always easy for others, especially those who are introverts or simply uneager about participating in groups. We all have to find our best way to resist.

Impact on Our Mental Health

There is a lot of evidence that Trump is having a deleterious impact on the mental health  of many of us — causing new trauma, exacerbating existing trauma, and for many, simply taking away the joy and optimism that was part of their daily lives.

Therapists report patients experiencing panic attacks, anxiety, insomnia, alcohol and drug abuse, and more. Trump has been a human trigger for many women, as well as men, who have suffered sexual abuse. There is enormous fear on the part of immigrants. The racism and xenophobia that drives Trump’s vision and the goals of the GOP has exacerbated fear and unease in communities of color. The tragic killings of African Americans by cops who are almost never punished is a consistent reality. Finally, there is huge anxiety felt by many millions who are justifiably afraid they will not have access to the health care they need, or the resources to age with dignity.

We have experienced political trauma before. When George Bush was handed the presidency by the Supreme Court, it felt like a coup for many. Then there was the hugely disastrous invasion of Iraq based upon false pretenses. But as one therapist explained to me, Trump is different. “Bush made people angry, but most of us didn’t think he was genuinely crazy. It’s hard for many not to worry that Trump is.”

That is part of what triggers trauma and makes life uncomfortably unpredictable. Trump’s attitude echoes difficulties from childhood, chaotic family lives, mean and arbitrary behaviors, and the aura of violence and contempt with which many are familiar.

We also need to be very aware that life under Trump for privileged, educated, middle and upper middle class people is different than it is for the many millions whose lives are a daily struggle.  It’s true that pain is pain. People of every class can suffer trauma. But for the most vulnerable, life will only get worse as the Trump administration plows forward, while the top 20 percent will not be materially affected.

Trump Trauma Project

Today is the official launch date of AlterNet’s Trump Trauma Project. The kickoff piece, written by project co-director Kali Holloway, focuses on what Trump trauma is, how it manifests, and some of the ways we can start combatting it.

Looking forward, we will be weaving together articles about effective organizing, critical media analysis, and the psychological effects of our ongoing political nightmare, as a way of better seeing — and seeing a way out of — the mess we’re in.

Furthermore, we are at work on a e-book, aimed to be ready in October, that will encompass some of  the best wisdom and advice about how to maintain our mental health in the time of Trump. The book will collect new works, and build upon many articles AlterNet has already published on staying sane, addressing trauma and being effective resisters of Trump. We have established a new vertical: Trump Trauma Project. Check out the articles already produced.

Trump Trauma Is Real and Affecting Many. We Need to Be Brave and Fight Back

There is no way to sugarcoat the fact that Trump has helped stoke some of the ugliest aspects imaginable. But there are voices of sanity and many helpful things we can do. READ MORE»
By Kali Holloway, AlterNet

The day after the 2016 presidential election, therapists around the country reported a surge in clients emotionally devastated by the shock and disgust of Donald Trump’s win. Several psychologists recounted meeting with patients who compared the jarring effect of the election to the psychological blow of 9/11.

Tracey Rubenstein, a Florida-based social worker, told JTA that in the months following Trump’s victory, “80 percent of her clients would cite the election and its aftermath as a new source of fear, sadness or anxiety in their lives.” Psychotherapist Enrico Gnaulati wrote that he was “inundated with clients using therapy time to process their shock, disbelief, dismay, and outrage.” This June, the New York Times spoke with psychologist Robert Duff, who said the political climate is “a topic of conversation and a source of anxiety in nearly every clinical case that I have worked with since the presidential election.” Four decades of practice didn’t prepare psychologist Sam Menahem for the outpouring of grief he saw following Trump’s triumph, which affected patients more extremely than any other election he recalled. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” Menahem told JTA, “never.”

In an attempt to succinctly describe the constellation of signs and symptoms patients have presented with, therapists have created an collection of unofficial diagnoses, including Trump traumatic stress disorder, Trump anxiety disorder, post-Trump election trauma, Trump trauma and post-Trump stress disorder (PTSD). This isn’t about self-pitying sore losers, but genuine physical and mental manifestations of fear and anxiety confirmed by clinicians. Symptoms vary from person to person, but can include insomnia, panic attacks, irritability, malaise, anti-social feelings and depression. The Trump 15 refers to weight gain resulting from excessive “eating and drinking undertaken to blunt the pain” of the election, and relatedly, some have reported numbing themselves with drugs and alcohol. Suicide hotlines, among them those that serve LGBTQ populations, reported a steep rise in calls far exceeding those in other elections.

“I have people who’ve told me they’re in mourning, that they’ve lost their libido,” Nancy Molitor, a Chicago psychologist, told Kaiser Health News. “I have people saying the anxiety is causing them to be so distracted that they’re blowing through stop signs or getting into fender benders.”’

Trump’s ugly rhetoric about racial and religious minorities compounded with the daily emotional consequences of marginalization and institutional racism has led to “race-based trauma,” a form of PTSD suffered by people of color, most acutely African Americans. The enduring national trauma of 9/11 and 15 years of war is exacerbated in black and brown communities by the collective trauma of local police violence, distressing images of black death on a viral loop and cops who literally get away with murder—a constant reminder of America’s devaluation of black life. The specter of the 2008 financial collapse hovers over all Americans, but black and Hispanic communities were hardest hit and still haven’t recovered. Unemployment among blue-collar workers of color is the highest in this country, pushing working nonwhites even closer to the edge of the economic cliff.

Trump also exploited trauma among his base. Though his mostly middle– and upper-middle-class supporters were more economically secure than other voters, they perceived themselves as underdogs after years of watching the issues that plague their communities go unaddressed. At a moment when they were desperately trying to make sense of why the American dream seems frustratingly out of reach, candidate Trump offered a bevy of scapegoats—immigrants, blacks, Muslims, ambitious women—as an answer. In towns where jobs have dried up, hopelessness and pessimism are tied to fatalistic behaviors such as alcoholism, opioid abuse and increased rates of suicide. A Nation post-election analysis found that Trump won big “in counties heavily burdened by opioid overdoses and other ‘deaths of despair.’” Trump “saw” the frustrations of people who feel increasingly invisible, “heard” their anger, and above all, exploited their pain and rage.

Trump’s tenure in the executive office has continued to worry millions of observers. The president behaves erratically and unpredictably, and the only reliable pattern in this White House has been scandal and chaos. The resulting breakneck speed of the news cycle has yielded Trump fatigue syndrome, which Vox describes as the “exhaustion you feel from trying to stay on top of the nonstop scandals and absurdities emanating from the Trump administration.” The president denies having uttered things that are easily discoverable with a Google search, taking gaslighting—a form of mental abuse that makes people doubt their reality—to levels previously unseen in an American political leader. At hours when most of us are sleeping, the president is awake and rage-tweeting insults at the media and any other imagined enemies.

“In addition to the normal chaos of being a human being, there is what almost feels like weaponized uncertainty thrown at us on a daily basis,” Kat Kinsman, the author of Hi, Anxiety told the New York Times. “It’s coming so quickly and messily, some of it straight from the president’s own fingers.”

Many are now trying to comprehend a U.S. that defies their understanding of what their country should be. Politicians have always lied or manipulated the truth, but Trump has taken even the worst kind of politics-as-usual to a new level. The inability to bridge that mental gap results in moral injury, which psychologist Noel Hunter describes as the “emotional distress” and “damage done to a person’s sense of justice in the world resulting from violations of fairness, the value of life, and ethics.” Essentially, moral injury occurs when we witness violations of the social contract as we understand it.

“It’s the first time that I’ve really questioned the values of Americans as a group,” one 25-year-old therapy patient told JTA. “I’ve never felt that the core fundamental values which I believe our country is built on were in jeopardy the way I did after this election.”

Another said that the election had “shattered my faith in the essential goodness of the world.”

“In psychotherapy you often discuss scary dreams, but with the implicit understanding that they’re just dreams,” Gary Shteyngart, an author and therapy patient, added. “What happens when the nightmares come true? It’s a whole different fifty minutes.”

Black Americans and other visible minorities have long had to deal with the longstanding gaslighting of a country that professes to lead the world in human rights, freedom and liberty, while denying those virtues to so many of its nonwhite citizens. For many minorities, the election confirmed their worst fears about America. As Jesse Washington notes at the Undefeated, “One sentiment rang loudest in many African-American hearts and minds: The election shows where we really stand. Now the truth is plain to see, many said—the truth about how an uncomfortable percentage of white people view the concerns and lives of their black fellow citizens.”

That did not make the Trump pill any easier to swallow. In fact, minorities reported higher levels of post-election stress than their white counterparts. The precipitous rise in hate crimes after the election, and the president’s silence about them, has only further contributed to an increasingly inhospitable environment for people of color. A Harvard study released in early June found that “minorities (69% of blacks, 57% of Asians, 56% of Hispanics) [are] more likely than non-Hispanic whites (42%) to report that the outcome of the 2016 presidential election was a significant source of stress.” Recent studies find Trump’s deportation escalation has caused many undocumented immigrants to avoid all contact with the police, even when their own safety is at risk. Another survey of groups dedicated to issues around domestic violence found significant percentages of immigrant abuse survivors are now afraid to contact police, or have dropped court cases against their abusers, due to fears of deportation.

Trauma is one reaction to Trump’s politics of fear, violence and confusion, but it’s not the only one. The response to Trump’s presidency won’t be universal, even among those who largely oppose his agenda. Not everyone is traumatized, though it’s critical to recognize and validate the experience of those who are. Denying the existence of trauma can be as damaging as the original traumatizing issue itself. Though trauma can trigger a sense of loneliness, it’s helpful to remember that millions of people are experiencing the similar feelings.

There’s no single way to deal with Trump trauma, but there are many different options that may work for different people. Talking to a therapist or counselor, and medications that treat anxiety and depression, can be extremely helpful, though the prohibitive cost of mental health care makes those choices inaccessible for some folks. Social media can be great for connecting to others, but it can also be the source of anxiety, so it’s good to occasionally unplug and log off. Exercise, good nutrition and spending time with pets or in nature can be big de-stressors. Nearly every single therapist recommends engaging in activities that offer a sense of control in a moment of chaos and counter feelings of hopelessness with feelings of agency. That can mean becoming politically active, creating art and connecting with likeminded people. Psychologist Jeremy Clyman, writing at Psychology Today, recommends “joining peaceful groups and organizations, dispassionate debates with others, and assertions of personal political power (e.g. vote, and blow up your congressman’s cell phone and email, etc.).” Do what works for you.

There’s no way to sugarcoat it: the Trump years won’t be easy, and this presidency has helped stoke some of the ugliest aspects of this country. But there are voices of sanity and vision who can help in this moment. Just remember they’re out there.

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