A Psychologist’s Thoughts on Trumpism

The “Trump Effect” or “Trumpism”?

I’m a writer of fiction and a psychologist, and I’m observing the current political campaign in the United States with a mix of horror and fascination. I’m not the only one. A few days ago, Gail Sheehy gail-sheehy in Politico magazine published an article about the concerns that thousands of mental health professionals feel about the effect of so-called “Trumpism” on the emotional and mental well-being of the American people. What we usually read in the media are terms such as “the Trump Effect,” focusing narrowly on Donald Trump’s personality, behavior, and rhetoric. Sheehy writes more broadly, focusing on the underlying attitudes and cultural movements that comprise the motivations and attitudes of the larger cultural phenomenon, which some have named “Trumpism.”

I don’t usually write about politics in this blog, but Sheehy’s article spoke to me, since I too, like the people she reports on, find myself feeling more and more demoralized, dispirited, and frightened about the future of our country as it responds to Donald Trump and the cultural currents he represents and exploits–but did not invent.

Demoralized, dispirited, frightened? Really? Why?

Before I dig into that deeper question, I’d encourage you to read Sheehy’s article for the research it presents. That research was done by Dr. William Doherty, a highly respected professor of marriage and family therapy from Minnesota who has done much to promote a more civil and decent society. Based on that work, Doherty wrote a “Manifesto of Citizen Therapists,” in which you can read the argument signed by more than 3000 mental health professionals concerned about “Trumpism,” which Doherty defines descriptively in the “Manifesto” as follows:

Trumpism is an ideology, not an individual, and it may well endure and grow after the Presidential election even if Donald Trump is defeated. (Variants can be seen all over Europe.)

Trumpism is a set of ideas about public life and a set of public practices characterized by:

  • Scapegoating and banishing groups of people who are seen as threats, including immigrants and religious minorities.

  • Degrading, ridiculing, and demeaning rivals and critics.

  • Fostering a cult of the Strong Man who:

    • Appeals to fear and anger

    • Promises to solve our problems if we just trust in him

    • Reinvents history and has little concern for truth

    • Never apologizes or admits mistakes of consequence

    • Sees no need for rational persuasion

    • Subordinates women while claiming to idealize them

    • Disdains public institutions like the courts when they are not subservient

    • Champions national power over international law and respect for other nations

    • Incites and excuses public violence by supporters

The “Manifesto” considers what the mental health professionals see as the causes of Trumpism, as well as its consequences, and they discuss its psychological impact on people exposed to it.

What Doherty’s Research Suggests . . .

Here are a few points brought up in Sheehy’s article about Doherty’s research:

  • Out of more than 1000 respondents to Doherty’s survey, “43 percent of the respondents—not limited to people in therapy—reported experiencing emotional distress related to Trump and his campaign.” In addition, 28% reflected emotional distress about Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and over 90% said their distress is worse than in any previous election. (I’m not writing about Clinton’s campaign because the causes and roots of the distress felt by her opponents is of an entirely different kind that that caused by Trumpism.)
  • A number of the therapists who signed the Manifesto (full disclosure: I have signed it) report an uptick in symptoms of anxiety, depression, or other psychological distress after a significant Trump-related event, such as the recent Presidential Debates.
  • They also report that many of their clients who suffered traumata (abuse, emotional, physical, and/or sexual) in childhood at the hands of a dogmatic, “strong-man” father, find those experiences revived and their impact intensified by Trump’s rhetoric and behavior, especially toward women and marginalized groups (such as immigrants and Muslims).
  • One therapist, a Marine vet, felt compelled to provide a way for his clients to bring their reactions to the campaign into the consulting room. He says, “I wrote a letter about the prevalence of hate speech in the campaign, about terrorism and mass shootings, and left it in my waiting room. I closed by saying, ‘If these things are troubling you, I want to invite you to bring it into your therapy session.’”

Anecdotally, in more than ten conversations with friends during the past week, I have heard repeated stories of disgust, anxiety, anger, and apprehension about the direction of the country triggered by coverage of Trump and his surrogates. Many of my friends have said they cannot bear to watch media coverage any more, because the latest insult or depredation by Trump or his Trumpists is so painful to observe. Some mild-mannered and gentle friends admit that they find themselves feeling unaccustomed anger with Trump because of his behavior toward women, Muslims, and marginalized groups in general.

But more importantly, they–and I–are even more uncomfortable because it has become plain that the gains we thought we had made against racism, hatred of others, and women’s rights are nowhere near as substantial as we thought. Our liberal democracy is much more fragile and threatened than we had dreamed. I myself feel discouraged and deeply worried, as I said before. It’s time I say why.

Why I Feel Distress about Trumpism

I spent forty years providing psychotherapy for people who were abused by people who lived out a worldview that fits the definition of Trumpism. They grew up being afraid—of a parent or parents who abused them, of bullies who attacked them, of shaming by others who found them “different,” of exclusion and rejection. For some, their fear led them to be angry; for most, to being depressed and self-hating. Perhaps most insidious of all, many of my clients feared the “Oh, suck it up” kind of rejection and social abuse so commonly heard from Trumpists who consider any criticism to be invalid and a sign of the critics’ weakness.

No doubt, my saying these things might inflame some; I expect to be accused of emotional weakness and hyper-sensitivity, because I don’t believe that the solution to fear is to turn around and instill more fear in others or to exploit the fear by ginning up hate.

Yes, I am emotionally sensitive. I do care when innocent people are abused–hell, I care when non-innocent people are abused. I think Trumpist bullying, no matter who carries it out, is a stain on our character, and I mean that word stain. But more to the point of my own fears, I am afraid that Trumpism—which will outlast Trump whether he wins or loses the election—is an active cancer on our civic body.

  • Hating Muslims is one step away from hating Jews—and we see in the white nationalist endorsers of Trump exactly that broad-brush anti-Semitism. And I reject anti-Semitism, whatever its form.
  • Promising total violence as a tool of foreign policy—refusing to decline the option of nuclear war, for instance, or promising to “bomb the shit out of them”—isn’t simply a stupid and thoughtless rejection of any standard of international decency and cooperation: It’s immorality writ large.
  • Delighting in the mistreatment of women, sexualizing encounters with them, sizing them up like cattle at auction, claiming to “cherish women” while privately boasting of “moving on her like a b***h,” are signs of a degraded consciousness, but one that women have been battling since the beginning of written history. And before, no doubt. Is this our American version of masculinity? God help us.
  • Rejecting immigrants is not even a short step away from racism—it is fruit of the same tree.


I do not want an America where perhaps 35% or 40% of our citizens subscribe to Trumpism, operating out of fear and trembling from behind the façade of the Strong Man. But that’s what we face, at this moment in our history.

So, I think it’s time for people like me to say Stop.

What’s the Alternative?

A simple return to rational discussion of issues would go far. I’d suggest replacing fear with curiosity. Would it be so hard, instead of railing in anger and fear, to ask questions like:

  • What are the immigrants actually like? How do they live their everyday lives? Do they contribute to our society, and how? Where do we find our common humanity?
  • What do the majority of Muslims believe about civil society? What do the majority of Muslims in our country believe and how do they actually behave? Where do we find our common sense of God and the spiritual?
  • What do women think and feel when they hear sexist and lewd comments about their sisters–or about themselves? What do they actually want for the society they live in? What common ground do feminists and non-feminist women stand on together? What do men need to feel safe and equal with women? What do men need to feel safe in letting their defenses down? What do women need to be safe in pointing to men’s misunderstandings and assumptions about them?
  • What are the impulses toward good, decent, civil behavior that citizens feel when they detect injustice–no matter their political affiliation? What are those ideals for the country that are so often referred to without being spelled out? Are punishment, revenge, violence all we have to choose from? (Personally, I doubt it.)

Who do we believe we are, as a nation and a people? I suggest that we have always held a different vision of ourselves, unlike the neo-fascism of the European type and Trumpism, our American version. I cherish, to borrow one of Donald Trump’s favorite words, Abraham Lincoln’s famous “angels of our better nature.” Where do we find them?

Emma Lazarus’s sonnet, inscribed on the Stature of Liberty, reminds us, Americans, of what those angels are. We usually just quote the final stanza, but please read the entire poem, and remember who we once proudly thought of ourselves.


The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.


“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The “Mother of Exiles.” A lovely phrase. Trumpism, to quote its most watched spokesman, “has no idea.”

A Politics of Hate, or a Politics of Service?

A trip down the Danube

Blue Danube Budpest

Earlier this month, I traveled with my wife and friends through central Europe–Prague, Vienna, Bratislava, and Budapest, among other cities–cruising the not-so-blue Danube river. In each of those cities, we encountered people young and old who passionately remember and condemn the occupations and oppressions of the Hapsburgs, the Nazis, and the Communists. Equally passionately, they love their countries and cherish the new political freedom they have enjoyed since 1989.

Many of the people we talked with, and especially the younger folks, lamented the growing anti-immigrant sentiments currently polluting political talk and writing in Europe—and the U.S. One twenty-eight year old woman said, “They want us to oppress other people just because they are not our people. But we remember how the Communists oppressed our parents.” One of her friends, a young man in his thirties, shook his head. “Not just that. They want to make us into Nazis. That’s not what our Velvet Revolution stands for.”

Here in the United States, separated from our own revolution by 330 years, I wonder if we exhibit that kind of maturity, that yearning to hang on to fragile freedoms that, if they are denied to others, are denied to us all.


Vaclav Havel’s politics of internal peace

V. Havel

Vaclav Havel, beloved last president of Czechoslovakia and first president of the Czech Republic, said this:

Without free, self-respecting, and autonomous citizens there can be no free and independent nations. Without internal peace, that is, peace among citizens and between the citizens and the state, there can be no guarantee of external peace (emphasis added).

What are we, citizens, to make of Havel’s idea? We’re encouraged by one presidential nominee and many lower-office holders to fear our neighbors and to distrust and despise the state. It has been so long since Americans were at peace with their fellow citizens and with their state, I can hardly conceive of it. Perhaps we can probe Havel’s words, test them for their sense and value. Take that second sentence: What does it mean?

Without internal peace, that is, peace among citizens and between the citizens and the state, there can be no guarantee of external peace.

Is Havel saying that as long as we feud among ourselves, we can’t assure that the outside world will be peaceful? Or perhaps more boldly: Our inner division, our rancor toward one another, our fear of the state—are they perhaps contributing causes to the external threats and hatreds that face us abroad? Could he be saying that?

At the very moment when he was being arrested, soon to be executed by the state, it is said that Jesus told the young disciple who tried to defend him, “Put away your sword. Those who live by the sword will die by the sword” (Matt. 26:52). To choose violence as our first response to external threats is to invite violence in return, as we have seen in the Middle East every day since 2003. If Americans choose to hate one another, to metaphorically draw swords against our neighbors, can we rationally complain when external swords of hatred are aimed at us?


Resisting evil

There is a saying of which American “patriots” are quite fond:

The tree of liberty is watered by the blood of patriots.

The quotation is loose, and almost inaccurate because it is out of context. The actual quote appears in a letter from Thomas Jefferson:

The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it’s natural manure.

But here’s the context: Jefferson was writing to Madison about citizens who are (Jefferson thought, inevitably) misinformed about their government. He thinks that, misperceiving the truth and misunderstanding the real, such ignorant citizens will become angry and desire to rebel. And if they do not take up arms—even though they are wrong—Jefferson thinks it is a symptom of “lethargy,” which in his mind threatens the vitality of a nation. Thus, rebellions—in which the blood of patriots and tyrants refreshes the tree of liberty—should occur from time to time, despite being misguided! Needless to say, this was not one of Jefferson’s most inspired opinions, nor was it enshrined in the new Constitution of 1789.

Protester w: Sign

In any case, this truncated and out-of-context quote is trotted out at right-wing rallies to exhort the faithful to keep their guns ready, their eyes vigilant, and their anger—with their government—hot. Now, there’s no doubt that evil must be resisted, and sometimes, at last resort, with force. But who, may I ask, is resisting the evil words being spouted in his campaign rallies by the would-be tyrant who hates Muslims and immigrants and pretends to love gays and Hispanics? Who is resisting him before it is too late?

I hear real resistance coming from those who speak up, pitting honest words against Trump’s cynicism, people—and nominees—who yearn for a politics of service, not of hate. Havel says:

Genuine politics—even politics worthy of the name—the only politics I am willing to devote myself to—is simply a matter of serving those around us: serving the community and serving those who will come after us. Its deepest roots are moral because it is a responsibility expressed through action, to and for the whole.

“Genuine politics . . . is simply a matter of serving those around us.” I can believe in that. Or rather, hope for it someday.

On Political Words

In her November 5, 2015 review of two stage adaptations of Aeschylus’s Oresteia, Ingrid Rowland remarks on a fascinating bit of history. She writes, “On the day of Martin Luther King’s assassination, Robert Kennedy found the right words to break the news of his death to a poor, largely black audience in Indianapolis by harking back to ‘my favorite poet…Aeschylus.’”


She then quotes the words of the Greek poet that Kennedy used to console his audience:

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
comes wisdom
through the awful grace of God.

Rowland notes that “Kennedy’s words diverge slightly but tellingly from Edith Hamilton’s translation, his evident source (her third line reads ‘and in our own despite’).”

Reflecting on that, she thinks that the word-change suggests that Kennedy had long lived with those words, using them as he grappled with the sufferings and tragedies striking the Kennedy family.RFK We all know how a beloved poem or song, memorized long ago, and lovingly repeated to ourselves over the intervening years, can undergo small changes as we internalize them, making the lines our own.

But Rowland goes on to make another point. She says that it’s “unexpected, too, that a political figure would feel free to address an audience of ordinary people in the lofty language of Greek poetry rather than talking down to them with mock folksiness.” And Kennedy was in a heated presidential campaign contest with Eugene McCarthy at that moment, the campaign in which he too would soon be assassinated.

I’m fully aware that Winston Churchill reminded us that “comparisons are odious” (or as Dogberry in Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing says, “comparisons are odorous”), but let me take the chance and give a couple of examples of another kind of political speech.

Shakespeare's "Dogberry"
Shakespeare’s “Dogberry”

I’ll start with the woes of the health care system in the United States, which are many and serious, not least of which is the dire plight of the uninsured. There is much to be fixed in the Affordable Care Act, and honest people can disagree with its provisions. A fruitful and welcome dialog could take place between the candidates and the parties about the important issues with reforming health care. Instead, Dr. Ben Carson, speaking on the stump, offers us this:

And [Obamacare] is in a way, it is slavery in a way, because it is making all of us subservient to the government, and it was never about health care. It was about control.

Obamacare is “slavery in a way.” Slavery. A law that attempts to help some of the poorest and sickest members of our society is likened to slavery. What an offensive comparison, both to the Affordable Care Act and to the millions of slaves and their descendants (which include Dr. Carson) who endured that national ignominy. Does Dr. Carson realize whom he is insulting?

Unlike the depth and compassion in Kennedy’s speech—remember, he was quoting Aeschylus to a largely Black audience on the night Martin Luther King was assassinated—other candidates use attacks on minority people to advance their campaigns, especially people whose lives are perhaps the most precarious in our nation: the undocumented immigrants. Take this from Donald Trump on July 5, 2015:

What can be simpler or more accurately stated? The Mexican Government is forcing their most unwanted people into the United States. They are, in many cases, criminals, drug dealers, rapists, etc.

Instead of speaking to immigrants from his heart (which is where Trump says his speeches come straight from), he vilifies 11 million people for a round of right-wing applause. It is as if Kennedy had, instead of quoting Aeschylus, told his Black audience not that their suffering and grief may transform to wisdom, but that Dr. King’s death proved the futility of their struggle for political, civil, and economic rights.

Perhaps I am being unfair to contrast today’s political speech with that of Robert Kennedy. But really, the level of rhetorical nonsense coming from the right has overflowed the bounds of comedy and is becoming a national tragedy, an embarrassment. Perhaps we need an Aeschylus to give voice to that.

Here’s a line that the Greek might use to do so:

It is an easy thing for one

whose foot is on the outside of calamity

to give advice and to rebuke the sufferer.

– Aeschylus, Prometheus Unbound

Political Rhetoric in an Era of Division: Republicans Donald Trump and Abraham Lincoln.

Political Rhetoric is a Literary Form


In this blog, I reflect on many things gathered under the rubrics of “Psyche, Story, Spirit” – the wide range of psychological, literary, and spiritual issues that concern me. To me, the rhetoric of the emerging presidential campaign, especially on the Republican side, presents quite a story, its field littered with psychological intrigue – and maybe pathological intrigue. From my conversations with people, many Americans feel disspirited when we hear or read the debate. Since my chief interest in this blog is about writing, a form of rhetoric, I’ve been reflecting on what the campaign is doing to the language of our public conversation. This in turn brings me to two exemplars of political rhetoric in eras of deep division: Donald Trump and Abraham Lincoln.


Trump                                           Lincoln

The Contexts Facing Donald Trump and Abraham Lincoln

First, let’s consider the fact that Mr. Trump’s and Mr. Lincoln’s approaches to political speech emerged in two politically very similar epochs. The first was the period 1846 -1865. 1846 was the year Dred Scott first sued for his freedom, and 1865 was the year of Lincoln’s second inaugural address. At that point, the bloodied nation was concluding the Civil War. Even more consequentially, the soon-to-be-reunited states needed to reconcile after three generations’ conflict over states’ rights and slavery. In March 1865, although the Confederacy was losing the war and the issue of slavery was settled, the Reconstruction loomed contentious. People both honest and cynical, on both sides of the issues, fully and loudly voiced opinions about the role of government, states’ rights, and the status of the newly freed African Americans. There was great tension in the air.

Ours, the second period, I somewhat arbitrarily date from 1980, when the “Reagan revolution” began, through the present. Now, we can observe its second generation, the Tea Party TeaPubicanParty and it’s heroes Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Scott Walker, and the rest, promoting the politically divisive and racially controversial attitudes reminiscent of the pre- and post-Civil War era. I say the dating is arbitrary because although the Reagan revolution, bent on overturning the New Deal, achieved power in 1980, it had been brewing since the 1930s. Even in 1980, however, the debate was a conversation about ideas, not persons; it was sometimes calm, occasionally contentious, but usually civil. Reagan, for all his rhetoric (“guv’ment is the problem”), grew the government, and he collaborated with his opponents, led by Tip O’Neill, Democrat Speaker of the House.

Key Rhetorical Approaches from the Two Eras: Mr. Trump’s and Mr. Lincoln’s Speeches

Mr. Trump’s Political Rhetoric

Against this background, it is instructive to look at key rhetorical approaches from these two eras. For that comparison, I offer the rhetorical styles of Donald Trump and Abraham Lincoln on the salient issues of their day. Let’s consider first a quote from Donald Trump’s website, concerning Latino immigrants to the United States:

In recent weeks, the headlines have been covered with cases of criminals who crossed our border illegally only to go on to commit horrific crimes against Americans. Most recently, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, with a long arrest record, is charged with breaking into a 64 year-old women’s home, crushing her skull and eye sockets with a hammer, raping her, and murdering her. The Police Chief in Santa Maria says the “blood trail” leads straight to Washington.

(Note: If you follow the link to the phrase “blood trail” in Mr. Trump’s statement reveals quite a different, and more complicated, story than his statement implies. I don’t have space here to go into the rhetorical sloppiness – or dishonesty – of his implication, but I will suggest that his use of the police chief’s opinions adds no rigor, but does cheapen, his arguments.)

Or consider this, from Mr. Trump’s stump speech against the Iran nuclear agreement:

“We are led by very, very stupid people.”

On his website, Mr. Trump continues, “It was amateur hour for those charged with striking this deal with Iran, demonstrating to the world, yet again, the total incompetence of our president and politicians.”

You’ll notice in all these quotes, which I think fairly represent the overall rhetorical tactics of Mr. Trump’s campaign, the approach is to attack the persons, not to discuss the issues. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the terms of the Iran nuclear agreement, the issue for discussion is the terms, not the intellectual adequacy of the diplomats from the six major Western powers. The old-fashioned word for this is the ad hominem argument – if you cannot win debate on the issues, attack the character of your opponent.

The other Republicans offer nothing else than rehashes of Mr. Trump’s talking points, Repub.Debate which raises an interesting side question about his rhetoric: Did Mr. Trump create the talking points himself, or did he borrow someone else’s? Is he as independent as he likes to claim? Moreover, aside from personal attacks, do the Republican candidates have any ideas to offer?

In short, Mr. Trump’s (or his colleagues’) rhetoric seems designed to promote anger, division, and contempt for those who disagree with him – a tactic borrowed by Tea Partiers from many strains of radical politics before them. On other issues such as immigration and women’s health, his talking points, and those of the other candidates on the right, follow the same plan.

Mr. Lincoln’s Political Rhetoric

In contrast, let’s turn to the speech of a politician who suffered personally for opposing the very sentiments espoused by the proto-Tea Partiers of the 1850s and 1860s, a politician who exactly one month after his speech would be assassinated for it, the ultimate ad hominem argument. Abraham Lincoln, who had every reason to feel profound anger with his opponents in both the Confederacy and in his own Congress, refused to speak harshly about them in his Second Inaugural Address. Instead, he sought the common ground.

Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes his aid against the other. … The prayers of both could not be answered—that of neither has been answered fully. …

Then Lincoln ended his address thus:

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.

“With malice toward none; with charity for all . . .”: No ad hominem appeals, no calling forth the baser emotions of anger and hatred, and indeed, a firm rejection of them as a national ideal.

Would that the Republican politicians of 2015, 150 years after their party’s first great hero, could adopt his rhetorical style. That is, would that they could accept the burden of healing our divided nation, bringing mutually wounded opponents to the table of reconciliation. Our political psyche, our national story, and our community spirit would be profoundly changed, and richly nourished.

But if they cannot manage this, can you and I?