Modern psychologists have tended to focus only on the personal dimensions of dreaming, which makes good sense in a therapeutic context. But as historians and anthropologists have shown, many people in cultures all around the world have looked to their dreams not only for personal meaning but also for guidance and consolation when their community is facing a time of collective crisis.
Quite a few Americans today are feeling an acute sense of collective crisis in relation to the 2016 Presidential election, and their dreams are spontaneously responding with strangely insightful visions of the campaign and the candidates. These dreams are rooted in the personal lives of the dreamers, of course, but they also speak directly to bigger fears, desires, and hopes shared by other people in their community.
I have been gathering dream reports about US Presidential elections since 1992, and the dreams from this year's campaign are unusually turbulent and negative in their emotional tone. Indeed, I have recently heard concerns from psychotherapists about their clients experiencing a surge of nightmarish dreaming in response to angry public debates over accusations of sexual assault.
Fortunately, I have also found several dreams of a more hopeful nature that reveal illuminating possibilities for growth beyond the alarming negativity of the present political situation.
The following is a selection of 13 dream reports with especially thought-provoking reflections on the 2016 campaign.
1 A Figure Wrapped in a Dark Sheet
This dream came in late September to a 55-year-old woman from California who described herself as politically progressive. It reflected in unsparing terms her waking political fears of Donald Trump, and it merged those fears with existential concerns about death. It also included a theme of sexual menace and aggression that has occurred in many dreams during this year's campaign.
In my dream, I was in bed at home at night feeling comfortable. Then, in the dream, I was woken from my sleep by a figure wrapped in a dark sheet who came into my room. I thought it was my sister. The figure got into bed with me, to my left. I couldn't get back to sleep, because I felt very distracted by this person. I got annoyed and told the person to move to the other side - my right side. The figure moved, but then got too close to me. I realized how disgusting it smelled. It then got on top of me and tried to kiss me. I realized it wasn't my sister, but a dark shadowy male figure. I couldn't make out his face. I tried to scream in the dream, but words wouldn't come out of my mouth. I was paralyzed with fear. I was able to say, "Get away from me." I woke actually moaning in real life, "Get away from me" over and over. And as soon as I woke, feeling panicked, I knew the entity had been a combination of Trump and the figure of Death.
[Dreamer's comments: "The dream was triggered by the first Presidential debate, which I had watched live, and by reading news about Trump. I feel disgusted by him and afraid he will be elected President. He triggers fears of Hitler - I lost extended family during the Holocaust (they were murdered by Nazis), so that's probably why I associate Trump with Death. I fear if Trump is elected, he will become a fascist dictator. The dream also shows how his true self and motives are hidden. He's a dark, shadowy figure. He enters to my left, and then moves to my right, symbolizing how he used to be a Democrat and is now a Republican. Even though he's on the "right" side, he smells bad. The dream made me realize how much I want to get away from Trump, and fear something terrible will happen if he gets too "close" to me by getting elected, and yet I feel I can't escape. The dream also represents my feelings that Trump doesn't treat women respectfully. I thought of this while watching him debate Clinton, and while watching the Clinton ad with Alicia Machado (the former Miss Universe who said Trump called her "Miss Piggy"). The dream shows how he enters my space in way that makes me feel uncomfortable and violated. I'm not sure why I thought he was my sister at first!"]
2 We Are Not a Free Country At All
This is another dream in which political anxieties become magnified to extreme degrees of horror and cataclysm. It came in mid-May from a 24-year old woman from Hawaii who described herself as a Libertarian. The dream directly reflected her waking thoughts and feelings about the election, and used apocalyptic imagery to dramatize her concerns about Hillary Clinton. I'm struck by her comment about the clarity of thought and understanding she experienced in the dream.
My husband is in the military and I'm with him. We're in/on top of a tank in the evening. I try to convince him to break the rules with me and do something fun. He refuses. His comrade is staring at me and eavesdropping. I pretend not to notice. There's a little girl on the street that I like and we give her fireworks, which she loves. She also has a parade of large black cats (almost as big as panthers). I'm watching a video about a woman having to wait in line to vote and she starts belly dancing to the rhythm of the politician's lies. She's very good. The politicians try to convince us they don't make that much money. A riot breaks out against Hillary Clinton becoming president. It's really large and it's clear that most of the population is against her. But the police come in and break it up, driving through with giant tanks that are so tall I can't see past the wheels, they reach up into the sky as far as the eye can see. They are gray and very oppressive. Everybody is really upset. I go to my grandma's living room trying to tell my family about it. I get really emotional and can't open my eyes because I'm crying. I tell everyone who will listen that we are not a free country at all. We're being controlled and sedated through the mass media and militant power of the state. It really upsets me because I'm able to see clearly in my mind how our country could be better (more clearly than I've been able to conceptualize it in waking life): a place where everyone is working together. How can we say that we live in a free country if we can't even stand in the street to advocate for change that the collective society desires? Someone posts how angry they are about it on Facebook.
[Dreamer's comments: "I do not support Hillary Clinton for president. This dream didn't impact my view, it only reinforced or reflected my original views. I do not trust the government and I think it's highly corrupt. To me, the dream expresses my belief that the voting system is already rigged in Hillary's favor and the tanks represent how the powerlessness and oppression of the citizens."]
3 Teaching Trump the Tango
Not all dreams are so bleak or hopeless. Even in anxious circumstances, dreams often find a way of revealing oddly amusing aspects of waking life. Such dreams have the effect of lightening the oppressive heaviness of political tension and partisan conflict. This dream came in early April from a woman in her 30's from Massachusetts, and she was able to recognize in the dream itself the humorous metaphor about Donald Trump's candidacy.
I dream that I am at some sort of business function in a large room with a dance floor. I see former co-workers. In walks Donald Trump. He grabs a microphone and asks if I would come to the dance floor to teach him the Argentine Tango. He is off-beat and awkward, tripping me up with tangled footwork. I suggest that we try a simple four-count box step. Nope. He can't do that either. I stop the dance. "I can't teach you to lead!" I leave the dance floor.
[Dreamer's comments: "This dream woke me up laughing because even within the dream I understood the metaphor. I rarely throw my opinions about politics, but the message seems pretty clear: Donald Trump Can't Lead. Let that be my 2016 presidential prediction."]
I have not yet gathered any dreams with comedic criticism of Clinton, but several along these lines about Trump. This one came in mid-April to a 51-year old man from Illinois who described himself as liberal.
In my dream my wife and I are traveling in Germany and stop at a McDonald's. I try to order in German, with very poor results. The woman behind the counter rolls her eyes at me and then responds in English, French and Italian, obviously trying to show me how multicultural she and other Europeans are as compared to boorish Americans. Trying to get back at her, I ask her in broken Pig Latin if she understands me. To my dismay she responds in fluent Pig Latin. Desperate to retaliate in some way and wipe off the smug look on her face I look her squarely in the eye and defiantly state, "Adolf Hitler!" She is momentarily stunned, but then the smug look quickly returns and she fires back, "Donald Trump!" All I can say back to her is "Ah, touché." At this point I woke up, literally laughing out loud, which has never happened to me before.
[Dreamer's comments: "No idea what it means other than my firm belief that Donald Trump's media exposure reaffirms the Western World's perception that Americans are loud and obnoxious."]
5 In a Life Boat With Trump
The dreams that most interest me go beyond the person's current political views to consider new perspectives, alternative ideas, and unexpected approaches. Such dreams often focus on a specific politician, helping the dreamer gain a more complex and nuanced view of that candidate. Several dreams like this revolved around people's intensely conflicted feelings about Donald Trump. This one came in mid-April from a 49-year old woman from New York.
Somehow there was a natural disaster (flood) and in trying to save ourselves, I ended up in a life boat/row boat with Trump and his son. We travelled to safety and ended up at a hotel or apartment building and he went off to do his political thing and I tried to figure out where I was going to end up. He was nice in the dream, sort of comforting, not leader like, but in control of himself. I seemed to be calm too even though there was severe issue. there were other people in the boat with us. The waters were not raging or anything, but I do remember being near the home that I grew up in.
[Dreamer's comments: "I was adamant against Trump since the onset of the primaries, but as of the last few days when Giuliani came out supporting him, I started to think about why everyone likes him and what that should mean to me. I was voting for Kasich, and now I am not so sure what to do. If I had to categorize myself I would say all the way left on social issues, very right on fiscal. I am an activist so I believe in truth and human rights. You don't have a category for that on your list!"]
6 I Felt Close to Him
The following dream came in late September, soon after the first Presidential debate, from a 62-year-old woman from Oklahoma who described herself as liberal. The dream did not persuade her to vote for Trump, but it did call into question the simplistic severity of her waking views of him.
I dreamt that I was at a dinner party and Trump was there. It was pleasant. After a while I got up to go sit away from the table and Trump came over and sat next to me. I asked him a question about how he felt or thought and he answered it deeply. We talked for a while. I felt close to him; it was a genuine and intimate conversation. It turned into a bed and we fell asleep. I woke once and he had thrown his leg over me. I went back to sleep. I awoke and he was sleeping sprawled on top of me. This didn't feel sexy, just close. He got up and was still in his clothes from the night before. He was saying that he would set up a house for me.
[Dreamer's comments: "I'm an independent, self-sufficient professor, so this dream is weird as to the role I was cast; let alone Trump. I fell asleep laughing at funny tweets about Trump's performance at the debate. I guess I have to remember that he has feelings too even if he's narcissistic."]
7 Universal Health Care
Similar kinds of dreams have involved people trying to make better sense of Hillary Clinton as a person and candidate. This one came in late February from a 69-year old woman from Maryland who described herself as politically moderate.
We were at a public event taking place out doors with many people. Hillary was sitting next to me and we were talking together as if we were good friends who had known each other a long time. I asked her about her plans for universal health care once she is in office. However, we were interrupted and I did not get an answer. The dream is strange because I am not a Democrat.
[Dreamer's comments: "I have no idea why I would have dreamed about Hillary Clinton, other than I am considering voting for her because I am not fond of my party's proposed candidates."]
8 She Smells Like My Grandmother
This dream came in early August to a 30-year old man from Ohio, who described himself as moderate. The dream highlighted the greatest question he had about Clinton in trying to decide whether or not to vote for her.
The dream started with Hillary Clinton, myself and an unknown male eating at a beachside restaurant. We were discussing the effect the media is having on the election. The unknown male is agreeing with Clinton by nodding his head and sometimes making agreeable statements. Clinton points out to me that Fox news is unfairly swinging the favor to Trump. I politely tell her that she has a similar relationship with CNN. Her and the unknown male smile smugly and don't deny it. Suddenly, Mrs. Clinton and I are sitting alone on lawn chairs on the beach. We are facing each other. She holds me to her chest and I can smell her perfume. She is wearing that white jacket she wears sometimes. It smells like my grandmother. Then she sees my t-shirt. I am wearing a graphic tee with the airport code HNL for Honolulu. She exclaims, "I love Honolulu. They have such great lattes." I tell her about a latte I had while I was in Honolulu. It felt like we shared a good moment. Then she tells me to vote for her and the dream ends.
[Dreamer's comments: "I believe I'm facing a dilemma in whether I should vote for Hillary. I don't know whether I trust her or not. This may have brought on this bizarre dream."]
9 The Interview
Donald Trump has directed tremendous ire at specific reporters and the media in general, and his threats have cast a shadow of uncertainty over the future of professional journalism. It should not be surprising that people who work as journalists have been unsettled at many levels by the campaign. I have spoken with several reporters about their election-related dreams, and two of them graciously granted permission to share their dreams in anonymous form. The first comes from a young woman who works in print media in New York.
In my dream, I'm writing a news article about sports and, for complicated reasons, I have to interview Donald Trump for it. Trump's office is located in a rural area, similar to where I grew up. I make my way to the office but realize I'm not wearing shoes, so I borrow a pair from someone on the street. I wait for a while in a reception area--a very modest, wood-paneled room...no gold in sight--and grow annoyed that he's making me wait. Finally, I'm shown into his office and ask him my questions. It turns out he's super nice! Humble, soft-spoken, not at all arrogant. I'm very confused by his unexpected likability and have a bit of an identity crisis. Then I wake up!
10 A New Business
The Clinton-Trump contest is impacting the dreams not only of Americans, but of people all over the world. They realize that, for better or for worse, the results of the U.S. election will have tangible consequences for their countries, too. This dream comes from a man who works in public radio in Sweden. He woke up quite amused by the dream, and unsure if Trump's new venture was utterly mad or incredibly brilliant.
So, in my dream I've moved to New York for a new job. It turns out that I'm going to work for Donald Trump's new company, a kind of escort agency that instead of providing girls for sex are providing intelligent girls for a conversation. They've hired all the smartest women in New York. It's unclear in my dream exactly what I'm going to do for the company but I'm standing in a room together with Donald Trump and he's explaining to me what a great business idea this is. And he tells me their slogan: "We don't take care of your dick, we take care of your brain".
11 A Nice Wealthy Man
Even though I have been studying this topic for a long time, I still come across dreams that totally surprise and amaze me with the creative ways they weave together personal and political meanings. The following came in early August from a 53-year old woman from Florida who described herself as politically progressive. I would never have guessed her interpretation of the dream would go in the direction it did.
I was the passenger in a big car with Trump driving, maybe an old Lincoln. A lady was in the back seat not sure who. We were comfortably talking. As we traveled, I felt a sexual desire for Trump that surprised me. I don't like Trump. But in the dream he was a nice guy. He parked the car in an underground garage. I asked him if he needed protection and he said no. He sat on a curb in the garage and a few passersby recognized him and started talking with him. He was smiling and very regular. I was quite stunned at how likable he was.
[Dreamer's comments: "I am recently widowed and thinking of what type of partner I may be attracted to someday. Yesterday I met a very nice wealthy man and intuitively knew I could attract such a person. Dreaming about Trump affirmed my comfort with being with a nice wealthy man, someone I could be comfortable with, who wasn't an asshole even though he was successful."]
12 A Family Friend
One of the most self-reflective reports I've gathered so far came in the middle of July from a 59-year old woman from New York who describes herself as liberal. Her dream revolved around the central challenge for a healthy democracy: Can people disagree politically yet still respect each other as humans?
If I remember correctly, I fell asleep yesterday afternoon watching the CNN previews to the Republican National Convention. I dreamed that Donald Trump had been a family friend for years and was about to marry into my family. We were walking together in the streets of another city--maybe Washington, DC--Trump, some of his entourage, me, and some of my family, and it was the eve or first day of the RNC. I felt that I knew Trump and even loved him as a family friend, but still there was no way that I could vote for him. I didn't know if I'd told him this yet. We started to turn down into an alley full of colorful protest signs and campaign signs, and I could see a huge group of protesters coming from the other side of the alley. The alley wasn't dark or too enclosed. I wasn't frightened, but apprehensive of how the group and Trump would greet each other. Trump and the others in our group slowly backed away and started walking down the main street to avoid the protesters--wisely, I thought--but I lingered, reading the signs posted on the fence. The signs were on poster board, white, hot pink, and other colors, and there may have been a more formal printed sign with a list of rules. Also, some barrier was erected, like a piece of wrought-iron fencing or a rope, that would slow down the protesters. I got to thinking, "He's already married, so whom could he be marrying? My Aunt Edith? Maybe one of my cousins or one of my distant cousins."
[Dreamer's comments: "I'm a multiracial African-American, and I've been very anti-Trump on Facebook and in letters printed in the New York newspapers. He was definitely not marrying me. My Aunt Edith is 90 and Trump is 70, and my aunt had a mild stroke the day before this dream, and we were with her in the hospital. I was watching CNN's coverage of the RNC when I feel asleep and had this dream. It meant that I don't hate Trump himself and that I accept him as a fellow human being and fellow American, and maybe even as a fellow Christian, but I hate what he stands for and can't ever condone it. I live with my sister Belinda. She's anti-Trump, too, but she's authoritarian and I'm anti-authoritarian. This dream could symbolize that I want or need to confront her on issues, even though I love her. I can be quite angry and resentful of her, and she of me. Maybe the dream may cause me to feel more humanely toward Trump even as I vehemently oppose him."]
13 A Heavy Storm
There are still a couple of weeks left in the campaign, with the possibility of a lengthy post-election controversy over the results. (Lots of dreams came in the month following the disputed 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore.) So I expect I'll have many more dreams to study and discuss in the future. For now, the final dream to share is actually a series of three short dreams from a woman in her fifties from California, occurring between July and October. These brief, haunting images evoke the dark psychological atmosphere of the campaign and the anxious uncertainty of what lies ahead.
I dream I am reading a newspaper or magazine and I see an article about the election. I try to read it but suddenly it starts raining. It's a heavy storm, a torrent of rain coming down. The print of the article runs. I'm feeling frustrated because I don't understand what's going on. 2. I dream I am in the backyard cleaning up dog poop. There is more poop than there should be. I am using newspaper not just plastic bags to clean up. Then I realize that the poop contains information that will come out after the election. I don't know what to do with it. 3. I dream I am in a ditch or ravine. It is like a long gash in the globe, deep and dark with steep walls. I don't know how I will get out. I am trying on clothes. There is a pile of men's suit jackets. I am trying to decide which jacket to put on to protect me from Trump.
Notes: The dream reports came from the following sources: websites I administer devoted to dreams of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton; an online survey administered by YouGov involving @2,000 American adults; and personal inquiries and contacts. I try to cast a wide net, but my range of contacts tends to be politically left-leaning, so I don't claim these results represent a perfect demographic portrait of the whole country. More discussion of the methodology involved in this line of research can be found in American Dreamers (Beacon Press, 2008) and the 2012 article "Dream Recall and Political Ideology: Results of a Demographic Survey" (Dreaming 22(1):1-9). More information about historical and cross-cultural research can be found in Dreaming in the World's Religions (NYU Press, 2008).