Authors: Joshua L. Miller, Hannah Karpman, and Crystal M. Hayes
The last week the Trump White House engaged in a flurry of initiatives designed to remind specific categories of people that their lives are subject to regulation by the current administration. First came the news that federal immigration enforcement agencies were being encouraged to strictly, violently, and widely enforce immigration policy. Then came the reports that the Trump administration rescinded guidelines to school districts that made explicit the application of Title IX provisions to students who identify as transgender or gender non conforming. Finally, we heard in Trump’s address to Congress explicit echoes of White Nationalism, which were largely downplayed by the press because the white supremacist, misogynistic and xenophobic rhetoric was delivered, this time, with Presidential cadence. While the message remained unchanged, dangerously, Trump seemed to, overnight, become more effective at delivering it. Collectively, these policies and the continued rhetoric serve two purposes: 1.) To divide our citizenry into “in” and “out” groups in order to elicit the support of the “in” group 2.) To highly police the lives of historically marginalized populations. Yet there is an additional indirect impact that is less oft mentioned: They create a stressful environment for the individuals and families they target. This type of environment has a well-documented and researched connection to toxic stress that results in significant health and mental health disparities, even statistically significant differences in mortality rates. In short, the stress that Trump’s policies and rhetoric creates literally kills people. As social work practitioners, we are already observing the presence of this type of toxic stress and helping our clients manage its impact. As a diverse team that values partnership, diverse ideas, collaboration, caring and healing, we will examine Trump’s behavior, the divisive way that he communicates, his splitting of the world into people who he loves and those who he pities and despises, his emotional volatility and his extraordinary sensitivity to criticism and vindictiveness towards those who dare to disapprove of his actions. We will also look at why his supporters still support him while others are distressed and unsure about their future in this country.
The election, Donald Trump’s campaign promises, his unpredictable chaotic policy initiatives and his angry rhetoric create almost constant stress for many people. Mental health professionals observe the result of this stress in themselves and their clients in the form of anxiety, depression, sleep disturbances, and other psychosocial problems. Administration related anxiety is so pervasive that a colleague recently tongue in cheek suggested adding “anxiety associated with election/regime change” to the DSM so that she could more accurately bill for her services. Most of these people experiencing these symptoms were members of the plurality of voters who voted against Trump. The writers of this blog belong in this group as well. We initially came together and started this blog out of deep concern for living in a world under a Trump Presidency, but we were in pain and hurting too. Our partnership grew out of our shared fears, values, and ideological commitments to live in a just and equitable world where diverse voices, identities, and experiences are respected and embraced. The three of us are very different. We’re Black, white, middle-aged, younger, straight and queer. Two of us identify as cis gender women and one as a cis gender male. Some of us grew up with socioeconomic privilege, and others did not. We are currently all social workers and academics in different stages of our careers with varying degrees of power and privilege in those institutions. We found that our differences and our shared experiences and values were an asset as we worked together to heal, cope, and resist what we believe to be a dangerous and difficult political moment. We didn’t know exactly where our partnership would take us, but it’s been a remarkably powerful and healing journey to bring our voices together under one blog in a world that seeks to keep us divided. In essence, it helps us cope.
We are aware that Trump’s supporters have not been voicing the angst that we have experienced; to the contrary polling data suggests that 48% of Trump supporters continue to believe that protestors were paid to show up and were insincere, and 94% of his base support his Muslim ban, some polls show his overall approval rating as high as 54%. Some media outlets echo these sentiments, focusing on the ways in which President Trump is being victimized by liberals and the Democratic party.
Every day media coverage highlights the ways in which President Trump, and his advisors are violating the constitution, ignoring ethics laws, undermining institutions, offending allies and furthering an extreme right-wing agenda. Most people seek to trust their leaders and view them as role models; a president has a great deal of power and if they cannot be trusted to treat people fairly, respectfully, and with compassion, then the world feels insecure and unpredictable. These feelings are exacerbated when leadership is inconsistent and particularly when that leadership is not held accountable for clearly illegal activites (e.g. communicating with a foreign government and lying about it under oath). Fear may be especially prevalent in individuals with an already vulnerable position, or for those whose community has experienced historical trauma. President Trump has exhibited none of the traits or qualities that reassure people and instead, through his actions multiple times each day, frightens and intimidates people.
Behaviorally Trump enacts authority, certainty, confidence and righteousness. He tells people what to do. He directs the federal government to follow his orders, such as his “temporary” ban on immigration of people from seven predominantly Muslim countries. At the same time, his actions are often unpredictable. He sees this unpredictability as a virtue and a testament to his decisive leadership in the moment. It is difficult enough when a partner, friend or co-worker is unpredictable but when a President is erratic, it not only sends shudders through the body politic but literally through the bodies of the people who constitute the public. Trump’s behavior also regularly exhibits aggression (bullying and threatening people who disagree with him), disdain (sneering, attacking, criticizing, mocking), and a profound lack of compassion and empathy for anyone who does not express fealty and devotion to him. As three very different human beings who share our experiences with one another, we know that we walk in a world where Trump’s behaviors have different consequences for different people. It can and is having an impact on people’s health. For this reason, our criticism of Trump isn’t merely rooted in our political differences with him, it’s also rooted in our commitment as clinical social workers to public health, and particularly mental health.
Trump’s behavior exhibits profound sensitivity to criticism and insensitivity to the feelings of others – there is no slight too small or person insignificant enough where he will not tweet how people are “losers, sad, nasty, so-called, fake” – the list goes on. These critiques are often levied at people who were previously politically untouchable across the systems of checks and balances, for instance, federal judges. Crossing him is unforgiveable and he appears to want judges, journalists, actors, other politicians, and ordinary citizens to fear him and refrain from any disagreement or criticism. He becomes obsessed with perceived slights, sending multiple tweets that become angrier as he keeps writing. Many people watching the second debate with Hillary Clinton were struck by how he stalked her on the stage and verbally threatened her – the kind of behavior that promotes violence against women.
Theoretical models can help us understand or guess at the underlying dynamics present in those with some of these disorders. One such dynamic is a discourse of denigration and the creation of other. Everyone has parts of themselves that they do not particularly like and for some people these aspects of self are so painful and shameful that they cannot even be consciously acknowledged. This can lead to disowning such unwanted parts of oneself and “projection,” whereby these unwanted aspects of self are attributed to other people. For example a person who lies repeatedly but is unable to acknowledge that to himself, might project lying on to others and accuse them of manufacturing “false news.” In extreme forms, projection (and projective identification) can justify harming other people for their perceived misbehaviors and the risk they seemingly pose to the person doing the projecting.
This kind of behavior goes beyond individuals and can be adapted by groups, particularly when the group’s leaders foster this type of thinking. For example, those sharing a group identity (e.g. white, Christian) can project their own fears and violent impulses on to others (e.g. people of color, Muslims, immigrants). This allows the in-group doing the projecting to feel great about themselves and to depreciate members of the “out-group”, the group that they are projecting their disowned parts of self on to. It also creates an external threat from the perceived “other,” the screen with the projections, which can be used to legitimize social exclusion. In its extreme forms, this dynamic has contributed to genocide, ethnic cleansing, enslavement, and social targeting and isolation: “we attack them because they are a threat to us.” Leaders at the helm of such group processes tend to feel adored and trusted by those who feel as if they are part of their “in-group,” and feared and despised by those who the leader has constructed as the “out-group.”
So what can people do when dealing with leaders who behave like bullies, repeatedly demonstrate a lack of compassion and empathy for others, lie and dissemble, and create bogeymen, an “other,” who is all bad and who leaves the leader and their supporters feeling really good about themselves? What can be done when the group dynamic veers towards authoritarianism, legitimates discrimination, normalizes racism and religious oppression and may even be a harbinger of fascism? How can we counteract the tendency of such leaders to bring out the worst in people rather than what is good and decent in people? How can we avoid the devastation wrought by such leaders, who foster group conflict and leave economic, social, and political divisions and an emotional wasteland in their wake?
At the most basic level, we cannot allow Trump, Bannon, Conway, and many others to set the standard of how we behave towards one another. This includes our personal and professional relationships with one another as well as how we respond to the authoritarian threat facing the nation. Social trust is essential to the functioning of a democratic society. Compassion and empathy are critical to respectful relationships and mutual understanding and tolerance. While we should be unyielding in our resistance, we should avoid the trap of treating those who promote an agenda of mistrust and dismissal as they treat us. If we fail to stand up for our values and behaviors through our actions and how we treat people, then we have allowed the authoritarian regime to set the standards of how we behave towards one another. As W.H. Auden said in a poem written as the clouds of fascism darkened Europe in 1939, “we must love one another or die.”
Second, we cannot be bystanders, particularly if we are not directly targeted and seen as “other” by Trump and his followers. Whenever an authoritarian leader has risen, he has been enabled by thousands, millions of bystanders who could have stopped him. It is with particular distress that we watch mainstream Republican leaders embracing Trump, or Christians condoning his actions – because by not acting against him, they are making allowances for his way of treating others, which is a threat to not only the United States but to the world: We are not observing the rise of a tyrant in a small country, but in the world’s economically, militarily, and culturally most powerful country. No one who cares about democracy, peace, justice, kindness, and respect can sit on the sidelines. Our efforts need to go beyond criticizing Trump – that is the easy part – but to all those who enable and condone his behavior. Trump’s behavior must be seen as not only destructive to civic unity but as being politically radioactive for those who do not denounce it. Ongoing, daily, unrelenting peaceful activism at all levels and all forms is called for.
Third, with the behaviors we described, what is called for is setting limits. Limits with a President include confronting lies, insults, and shirking responsibility by blaming others with facts. Limits include filing lawsuits against authoritarian, unconstitutional behaviors. Limits can be enacted through peaceful demonstrations. And setting limits also means confronting dystopian and harmful policies while emotionally disengaging from psychological and emotional mistreatment; he will not change but we can change how we react to him.
The majority of people in this country do not like, trust, or respect Donald Trump. As clinical social workers we feel badly for the internal suffering that he well may experience, but we feel much more distressed and alarmed by the harm that he is inflicting on others through his position as President. We cannot allow a person like this to define what it means to be a person, how we behave towards and treat one another, and who we are as a nation. His behavior is the antithesis of love, compassion, justice and hope, which are values and feelings held by most people living in the U.S., including most of his supporters. He cannot help for what he lacks, but he can be held accountable for what he does and we can give voice to and enact our values. He has already done and will continue to do a lot of damage to people and the norms of basic human decency but in the end, we believe that if we appeal to our best selves and persevere, like the many despots who preceded him, he will be consigned to history’s swamp of failed tyrants.