In the first hours, and two weeks, since the election of Donald Trump as the next president of the United States, the media, social media, and social fabric of our country appeared to implode. Or explode. Or both simultaneously. In an astronomically heightened state of fear, the United States of America is experiencing what might be the most effective act of terrorism it has undergone--and it was enacted (and continues to be enacted) by its own people.
(Note: this is an acknowledgement of the degree and function of fear occurring in our society, and in no way is intended to undermine intentional/pre-meditated acts of terrorism.)
The amount of fear, shock, and grief is palpable. The angry, defensive rhetoric on all sides is as insatiable as a wildfire--people cannot get enough of it. The violence is escalating. Cumulatively, people appear to be more afraid, and in more danger, than after 9/11. We are in a collective state of TrumpTrauma.
Terror, panic, and trauma go hand-in-hand.
Before jumping into the mechanics of TrumpTrauma and the psychology of fear and survival, I want to acknowledge that there were several pre-existing conditions that made the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election fertile ground for the finger-pointing, fear, and violence we are seeing today. I will briefly elaborate on five of those pre-existing conditions:
1) Our Long History of Violence
2) Cultural/Linguistic Dissonance
5) Preserving Positive Self-Image
Our long History of Violence
Let's start with a moment of historical reflection, recognizing that we, the people of the United States of America, have an intimate relationship with violence. From its inception, the USA was a country that heavily relied on slavery, subjugation, forced removal of indigenous people, child labor, mass killings, and armed conflict. That history reverberates in our epigenetics. It is encoded in our international relations, police training policies, and the prison-industrial complex. Our courtship of violence never ended. And we do not typically take the time to stop and ask questions about it.
Do you know what your personal relationship to violence is? Do you know what your ancestors' relationship to violence was? What kind of violence is justified (if any) in your culture, your religion/faith/spirituality/ethic, and your family? Do you recognize emotional violence, spiritual violence, psychological violence, sexual violence, and economic violence as valid forms of violence? Do you weigh physical violence on a different scale than the other forms of violence? Does your perception of violence change based on who is perpetrating the violence and who is receiving it? When are you more prone to look for a valid explanation for violence, and more prone to assume that the victim deserved it? When are you more likely to jump to forgive the perpetrator of the violence? When does forgiveness feel impossible?
Cultural and Linguistic Dissonance
The second pre-existing condition is the fact that humans regularly miscommunicate regarding values. I learned early in my counseling training that words carry cultural connotations and subjective denotations. Subsequently, when two people come into my office, they can be locked in a heated conflict about feeling disrespected. They both value "respect", but have not deconstructed the underlying meaning of the word, nor identified how different behaviors are intimately tied to their experience of respect. Both people want to receive respect, both perceive themselves as offering it, and both are deeply offended (and confused) by the conflict. And that's just when they already love each other!
Words that hold moral and ethical value are especially loaded. Honesty. Integrity. Trustworthy... In that vein, Trump supporters are known to have said, "Well, at least he is honest! Hillary is just another lying politician..." at the same time that Clinton supporters have stated, "Trump is such a liar! He flip-flops on everything! At least Hillary is consistent..." Instantaneously we are in a stand-still conflict over the value of honesty. The tension is high. People feel charged. Reactivity increases because when we are talking about values, we are talking about "right" behavior. (And who wants to be "wrong"?!) But we haven't unpacked what the word honesty means to each person, especially in the context of each candidate's actions and words. Perhaps we are all using the same word--honesty--and all have different definitions and schemas for its meaning. Perhaps we need to ask ourselves the same questions about our relationship to honesty and lying, as we asked about our relationship to violence.
Wondering how to overcome this roadblock? For now, hold on to the question, let it percolate, and take a few breaths.
This issue is a big deal. Because our values are so important to us, these conflicts pose a big psychological risk. Being identified as incongruent or as a hypocrite can feel devastating. Shame rises. And shame, like fear, is debilitating. Shame is a big part of why people did not like Hillary Clinton; they see her as smug and condescending, and that is humiliating. Shame is a big part of why people did not like Donald Trump; his words and plans for office express that certain people are "less than" others--to the point that suicide hotline calls have significantly spiked.
Another pre-existing condition for our current state is the way in which we have engaged with modern technology.
Step 1: Research is demonstrating that extended exposure to smart screens decreases the human capacity for empathy and reduces pro-social behavior (see article here; read Your Brain on Nature).
Step 2: Extended screen time causes cognitive fatigue, which is related to irritability, difficulty solving problems, and impulsivity (read Your Brain on Nature).
Step 3: Google and Facebook use every search, every "like", and every opened article to customize your search responses and NewsFeed to match your preferences and interests. This means that even if you have Facebook friends who have different perspectives than you do (and haven't deleted them in the heat of the Election), you are significantly less likely to see their posts show up on your NewsFeed and are less likely to be exposed to alternative views and experiences (note: news/media is also selective in what it presents). The internet has become an echo-chamber.
Step 4: On the internet, without the immediate repercussions of face-to-face interactions, we are able to receive the instant gratification of expressing our thoughts and opinions (however violent) with increased anonymity and decreased accountability.
Result: We are a society of more irritable, more fatigued people with reduced empathy who lack impactful information from the "other" side. We feel less personally accountability than any other time in history and quickly judge, condemn, berate, and hate people who oppose us.
As our technological echo-chamber ensures that we experience validation for our belief systems, we develop deeper distrust of the people who challenge our beliefs. For years I have known people who do not trust the media, do not trust police, and do not trust the system. That sentiment is exponentially amplified currently. People who have not expressed distrust of those things in the past, now willingly question them. When "violence at trump rallies" rolls in the news, it is countered with articles that democrats incited the violence. When "Trump mocks disabled reporter" swept the news, organizations pushed campaigns that the media lied about Trump mocking the reporter. After all, if you like a person, you don't want to believe that they say and do things contrary to your values. So you naturally start to question, "What is True?" "Is my perspective and judgement wrong, or am I being manipulated?"
Unfortunately, as distrust increases, so does paranoia. Conspiracy theories grow. Fear amplifies. We question who is trustworthy. And we become prone to shutting ourselves into tighter circles of "like-minded" folks.
Preserving positive Self-Image
When facing doubt and distrust, humans prefer to distrust something/someone external, rather than our own judgement or intelligence. Nobody wants to be judged or deemed as the "bad" guy or the "idiot". As people from opposing sides hurl insults of stupidity, ignorance, and racism/reverse racism (which is not actually a real thing), defenses rise. We don't even need Trump's Southern Border Wall--we have already erected a dozen walls in our hearts and minds. Since the election, I have witnessed multiple conversations with people in which they state, "I thought we were better than this."
Reality check folks: We're not.
We're not better than this. Exhibit A: "Day 1 in Trump's America". Exhibit B: story behind "Black Mob Beats White Man" (incident stemmed from traffic altercation, secondarily escalated to politics). Exhibit C: "Over 701 Incidents of Hateful Harassment".
And we are better.
We both are not better than this, and we are. Humans are complex beings that hold multitudes of contradictions. So take a breath with me, and consider the possibility that you and I have both participated in racist thoughts/behaviors (if you cannot think of an example for yourself, please email me) and that does not automatically mean either one of us has malicious intentions nor are inherently awful people. Racism in this context is not a value judgement or moral evaluation--it is about a factual, historical system of race-based discrimination that is rooted in political and economic policies from the birth of this nation. It is an ongoing system that inherently produces active and passive participation by all people. Skeptical and/or unaware of how this history plays out in modern policies and practices? Check out The New Jim Crow. Reflect on the way in which slavery is legally sanctioned as punishment (while remembering that Blacks and Latinos are incarcerated at significantly higher rates that whites).
That can be a hard pill to swallow. Unfortunately, in the process of trying to preserve a self-image congruent with our most uplifted values, we hesitate to believe that we do and think things contrary to our values. We are aloof to our own hypocrisy (see image to the right; and this article). This is clearly about more than Donald and Hillary. This is about me. And you. And the people we love.
We do not want to believe that the injustice, incongruency, and hostility run so deep. So we engage various psychological mechanisms to protect that self-image... And our Facebook echo-chambers, and our distrust, and our miscommunications, and our relationship with violence all support that process that self-protection.
But what are we really protecting ourselves from?
Want to know more about the role of protection, fear, and psychology in the aftermath of the 2016 Presidential Campaign and Election? Stay tuned for Part 2 of TrumpTrauma.
If you are still in a state of heightened reactivity and fearfulness, if you have been a victim of increased harassment and violence, if you're constantly scanning the environment for a threat, there are real reasons you feel that way. There are things that you can do to help regulate your nervous system, including counseling, and there are things you can do to love your nervous system, as is. While people may tell you to get "thicker skin," know that your resilience and healing does not depend on today alone. Everything you feel is okay.