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 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.”