His presidency was devastating to many of us. And his loss has driven many of his supporters into violent rage.
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In the days since the 2020 election a lot of people called my SiriusXM radio program to express their relief over Donald Trump’s loss of the presidency, and Joe Biden’s win. Of course, it wasn’t a clean date or cut off, since Trump was continuing to try to overturn the election results through the Big Lie of massive voter fraud, and causing increasingly more stress.
Nonetheless, as the reality came closer, more people called, and many of these listeners said the program had been a way they connected with others across the country, finding community and literally staying sane. I was struck by one, Steven in California, which you can listen to here, who called and opened up on the day of Biden’s inauguration about having “hurt myself”— referring to a suicide attempt — after the 2016 election, a time when he’d recently graduated college.
Steven said he’d been dealing with other issues that affected his mental health, but the Trump presidency (and in particular, Trump’s heinous Muslim ban, which affected Steven’s girlfriend’s family) was a trigger that pushed him into an even darker place. He sought professional help, and over time thankfully got well. I was so glad to hear from him and to know connecting with others via my program had helped and that he got himself to a better place.
We know there are so many more for whom that did not happen. During the four years of Trump’s presidency I had thought about prominent individuals in the news who were reported to have taken their own lives, which happens all too often in America — writers, artists, political activists, entertainers and others — and often wondered if Trump and one or several of his abhorrent actions, from the Muslim ban and child separation to environmental degradation and misogynistic attacks, had been a trigger. It was a horribly depressing, ugly time in America and it badly affected millions.
Surely we know entire groups were terribly affected in a much more brutal way than others, including immigrants, LGBTQ people, Black Americans, Latinos, women and others who saw threats to themselves and their families’ lives and rights. And millions of Americans of every background experienced the terrible day-to-day stress created by an unpredictable authoritarian president — a stress that continued well after the election.
Addressing Trump’s effect on Americans’ mental health, Anna North at Vox fleshed out some of the data and analysis from mental health professionals:
Some of those feelings have also been reflected in nationwide surveys, with a significant increase in stress about the country’s future and political climate after the 2016 election. And in 2020, 68 percent of Americans said the election was a significant source of stress in their lives, up from 52 percent in 2016…
…While Trump was able to energize a core of supporters with his mix of bravado, defiance, and racism, for many others, his presidency was, quite simply, scary. In the American Psychological Association’s 2016 “Stress in America” survey, 63 percent of Americans said the future of the country was a “significant source of stress,” and 56 percent said they were stressed out by the current political climate. In the 2018 version of the survey, those numbers went up to 69 percent and 62 percent, respectively.
Clinical psychologist Jennifer Panning even coined the term “Trump anxiety disorder” to describe the stress many people were feeling in the weeks and months following the 2016 election. “People tended to experience things like ruminations, like worries of what’s going to be next” as they awaited each new tweet or action by the president, Panning told Vox.
Certainly I felt all of this myself — the horrible dread, the sleepless nights, the worry about rights being taken from so many (including myself as a gay man), the brutality and the violence, the fear that the planet might quite literally erupt. All of it was overwhelming. I’ve said it many time: hosting my radio program was cathartic for me. Being able to vent, but also being able to connect and having to (mostly) hold it together for other people who were listening helped me immensely.
And I heard from so many people who were terribly affected and struggling. So many are still feeling the aftereffects as there’s something similar to post-traumatic stress occurring.
“If you have any intact reality testing, you're going to be horrified and highly anxious, if not afraid for your life,” psychiatrist and Yale University professor Bandy X. Lee, whom I’ve interviewed on my program, told the San Francisco Chronicle in December. “This presidency itself had brought stress levels and anxiety levels to record levels, even before all the chaos. People are going to be suffering greatly and traumatized after this presidency.”
And for so many people, their lives and their families’ lives — I think about immigrant children put in cages, or transgender people’s lives destroyed after being ejected from the military — were caused such trauma that even policy changes and a new president can’t reverse the immense mental harm that was caused, which will linger for the rest of their lives.
Lee, who edited the book, “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 37 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President,” also discussed the effects on the mental health of Trump supporters, brought into this delusional world of lies and demented cults and now dealing with a loss they can’t fathom — and which drove some of them to violent actions, such as the storming of the Capitol.
Lee’s comments came before January 6th. Her observations help explain why some would be led to violence, and why we may be just seeing the beginning:
We know how some of them reject facts and reality, even currently. We know how painful it is for some of them to face reality. A fair percentage will experience the trauma after this presidency. If there were another President Trump to appear, they would be vulnerable to attaching to him, as to avoid facing reality. A lot of them will be simply clinging to the delusions. They cannot face letting go of their wishful thinking and their image of a savior or rescuer would be shattered. The more harmed they are, the more difficult it becomes to accept even the possibility that he could be harming them. There's a psychological collusion that's happening. His followers in particular were primed for someone with similar developmental defects to come around and entice them. There's a kind of narcissistic symbiosis that happens between him and his followers.
So, clearly, we’re going to face much more with regard to how Trump’s supporters deal with what has happened — and refuse to face reality.
And for the rest of us, we’re still dealing with the fallout of the Trump presidency even as we celebrate him gone from office.
I’m sure many of you have experienced and are still experiencing a lot of very mixed and powerful emotions, and I, and I’m sure others, would certainly like to hear from you in the comments, as I think there needs to be a lot of discussion about this topic. Trump is gone — and that’s a great thing — but the effects of his presidency on political life and culture, and Americans’ mental health, has been profound.