Citizen Therapists Against Trumpism -- The Path Back to Power

When William (Bill) Doherty told me that he was organizing "Citizen Therapists Against Trumpism," I took notice.

Bill Doherty is great colleague in our "public work" movement, as well as a leading family therapist, former president of the National Council on Family Relations, winner of the prestigious "Award for Significant Contribution" from the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, and founder of the Citizen Professional Center at the University of Minnesota. The Center pioneers the idea of "citizen professionals" working with other citizens in mutually empowering ways, experts "on tap not on top," different than experts working on citizens or doing things to citizens. Their premise is that the most important source of power for addressing many problems facing families and communities is the untapped energy and talent of lay citizens.

Citizen Therapists Against Trumpism is a response to a profoundly dangerous anti-democratic tendency in the US, visible as well in other countries. Their manifesto is endorsed by many prominent therapists. It went public on June 23, at www.citizentherapists.com.

"As psychotherapists practicing in the United States we are alarmed by the rise of the ideology of Trumpism, which we see as a threat to the well-being of the people we care for and to American democracy itself," reads the statement. Making a distinction between the man, Donald Trump, and the anti-democratic ideology he represents ("whether or not the 'fascism' fully fits") Citizen Therapists Against Trumpism argues that "the American republic faces a clear and present danger when the candidate of a major political party embraces an anti-democratic ideology."

Trumpism, it continues, scapegoats groups such as immigrants and Muslims, degrades rivals, and fosters a "Cult of the Strong Man" which appeals to fear and anger, subordinates women, disdains rational argument, and asserts American dominance over other countries. Trumpism promises to solve our problems if people trust the Strong Man. "We cannot remain silent," they declare. The effort includes a variety of actions therapists can take. It also suggests actions by the general public and creates a website for therapists to strategize together.

Citizen Therapists Against Trumpism takes on added significance for its explicit connection between the work of therapists and democracy as a way of life. "Therapists have taken for granted how our work relies on a democratic tradition that gives people a sense of personal agency to create new narratives and take personal and collective responsibility for themselves, their families, and their communities... therapy only flourishes on democratic soil."

Here, the effort culminates democracy-building public work Doherty and his colleagues have been doing for more than two decades. It addresses the dynamics of popular disempowerment which feed reliance on a Strong Man.

In the early 1830s the French observer Alexis de Tocqueville contrasted what he saw in America with European nations where the citizenry relied great leaders, in Democracy in America. "In democratic peoples, associations must take the place of the powerful particular persons... In democratic countries the science of association is the mother science; the progress of all the others depends on the progress of that one."

In recent decades many settings, from schools, colleges, congregations to local businesses, unions and government agencies, have shifted from civic centers to service centers, providing things to people conceived as customers and clients. As a result people feel disempowered, their needs and desires manipulated by invisible and unseen forces. In highly influential works such as Discipline and Punishment, Michel Foucault named this pattern of coercive knowledge power, different than the power of the sovereignty, as a "force relation." He claimed that it is anonymous and unintentional, a faceless "disciplinary" power.

In fact, such power is enacted and wielded, not at all faceless. It is also masked by good intentions and claimed to be enacted for people's own benefit. The dynamic is brilliantly disclosed as "the technocratic paradigm" in Pope Francis' encyclical Laudato Si', as I have noted earlier in "The Pope's Unsettling Message" in Huffington Post.

Understanding the force employed by professionals, whatever their good intentions, who are trained as objective experts outside a common civic life, in turn makes the pattern and its mechanisms (including the credentialing and socializing institutions of higher education) subject to democratizing change. The citizen therapist movement thus begins to reverse the dynamic which creates professionals as "disciplinary," outside civic life.

It also makes plain the connection between democracy and therapy. "As therapists we have been entrusted by society with collective responsibility in the arena of mental, behavioral and relational heath," reads the statement. "When there is a public threat to our domain of responsibility we must speak out together not just to protest but to deepen our commitment to a just society and a democratic way of life...concerned with community well-being as much as personal well-being."

This connection points toward a new recognition of relational power as the aim of therapeutic practice, what the political theorist Hannah Arendt described in The Human Condition, "not force or strength ... [but a power that] springs up between men [and women] when they act together and vanishes the moment they disperse." Community organizers have read Arendt on relational power. They have considerably deepened knowledge about how relational power can be intentionally increased through the democratic practices taught in organizing that develop what can be called "civic agency."

If professionals in therapy - and other arenas - start helping to build civic agency, they will help to defeat Trumpism. They may also help to birth a democratic awakening.