The 2016 Presidential Race: An Unexpected National Trauma

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According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a trauma is a "deeply distressing or disturbing experience." Individuals experience trauma--and so do communities and nations. We all respond to trauma and emotional pain differently. Sometimes we withdraw, sometimes we fight. If we are able to tolerate the pain and face our feelings and our fears, if we receive the support that we need, we can recover and we can heal.

Typically we think of "trauma" as an acute event, but repeated exposure to distressing or disturbing experiences can also result in trauma. For example, victims of psychological abuse, service members deployed to high-conflict zones, and relief workers in refugee camps may not experience a single traumatic event but over time are negatively affected--or "traumatized"--by the emotional environment they live or work in.

Our nation is going through a traumatic time. The presidential race has created an unhealthy and destructive climate. And while our country is bitterly divided, the trauma we are experiencing has little to do with politics or ideological positions. What we do over the next few months will determine the long-term consequences of this most challenging and painful experience.

As we contemplate where we go from here, it helps to remember that we have come together to heal as a nation before -- following other traumatic experiences. Typically, when an assault or attack comes from outside we respond with care and support for one another.

We all remember the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina and Super Storm Sandy--natural disasters that destroyed the homes and lives of so many families. Those of us not directly affected struggled to comprehend the magnitude of devastation even as we tried to find ways to assist those who suffered overwhelming loss.

We have also witnessed horrific acts of violence that shook our nation to its core--the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Pulse nightclub attack and, of course, 9/11. These senseless acts left us all feeling distressed, distraught, and frightened as we tried to make sense of the violence--as we tried to calm and reassure ourselves and those we love.

We came together after these traumatic events as one community--to grieve, to support one another, and to rebuild. We set aside political beliefs, religious affiliation, and ethnic background to reach out and help our neighbors. We are a generous and compassionate people, and by giving of ourselves to those in need, we help heal our communities and ourselves.

But there have also been national traumas that we brought upon ourselves. Traumas that left our nation--and our people--divided, depressed, and angry. We have, at times, had difficulty healing after deep divisions and unbearable disappointments. We need only look at current racial tensions in communities across the country to see the impact of our failure to heal from the trauma of slavery and segregation.

Much has been written about the current presidential race--how it is unlike anything we have ever seen. Much has been written about Donald Trump's caustic style and frequent--often brutal--personal attacks on anyone who challenges or confronts him. We watched as Mr. Trump banned journalists from events, threatened to sue newspapers, and suggested (if not actually encouraged) violence as an appropriate means of preventing Hillary Clinton from becoming president.

Mr. Trump's comments about veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress were shocking and disturbing to many. He also verbally attacked a Gold Star family, a former Miss Universe, and scores of other individuals and institutions. While each attack and each insult likely caused pain and suffering to the intended target, it also reinforced the notion to some that such behavior is acceptable and even admirable. These attacks contributed to an ongoing diet of assaultive rhetoric that is taking its toll on the American public.

Just when we thought that things couldn't get any more disturbing, we learned about a 2005 interview with Mr. Trump in which he made vulgar and misogynistic comments about women. Within days of the interview surfacing, women began coming forward accusing Mr. Trump of past inappropriate sexual behavior. These women described aggressive and unwanted advances dating back to the early 1980s.

And of course we were inundated with coverage of the taped interview as well as details associated with the flood of allegations accusing Mr. Trump of sexual improprieties. Coverage--on the internet, on television, and in print-- was graphic, disturbing and, for some, traumatic.

Many Americans were deeply troubled by the graphic headlines associated with the scandal. They were embarrassed to explain to their children--especially their daughters--that some men still treat women as sexual objects. Mr. Trump's dismissal of his remarks as nothing more than "locker room" talk was supposed to reassure us that no harm was done. Ask any woman who has ever been harassed, groped, assaulted, or abused: words are powerful, as they reflect attitudes and foreshadow behavior.

And then, in an apparent attempt to deflect attention from allegations of sexual misconduct, Mr. Trump inflicted further injury on the American people by claiming that the election is "rigged" calling into question our fundamental belief in the integrity of our democracy.

If you listen to conversations in offices, at soccer games, in grocery stores, and at dinner parties, it is clear that people are emotionally pained by what is playing out on the national stage. As aggressive and bitter as political contests sometimes become, we have never seen a candidate vying for our highest office behave in such an offensive and destructive manner. Some Americans are disgusted and others are frightened. Very few are comfortable, and no one is suggesting that this campaign season has been good for our country.

A stranger approached me recently while I was sitting in the lobby of a hotel in Washington, D.C., and shared his distress over current events. As he watched one of several flat screen TVs--all tuned to CNN for the latest coverage--he turned to me and politely asked if the situation seemed as surreal to me as it did to him. He was a republican who had always been proud of the values and principles of his party. He didn't understand how we got to this point, and he was worried about our ability to come together and heal as a nation. There are many people, on both sides of the aisle, worrying about the same thing.

I hope that in the months ahead we begin to talk openly and honestly about our sadness, our disappointment, our fear, and our anger. We have all been affected by a deeply distressing and disturbing experience. Perhaps we can find a way to listen to and support one another as we have done during other times of shared pain. Maybe we can once again set aside political differences and focus on our shared values of integrity and decency.

We have a chance to rise above the ugliness and address the circumstances that led to this national trauma. And while leadership will be required, these are choices that each of us will have the opportunity to make as our nation struggles to heal.