A PTSD expert explains the collective trauma of Trumpism
Neuroscientist Seth Norrholm explains how the GOP became the party of Marjorie Taylor Greene and George Santos -- and the psychological toll MAGA has had on the rest of us.
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Amid the recent discussion about the House Homeland Security Committee’s Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and her demented demand for a “national divorce” — a clarion call for a civil war, secession or complete dissolution of the United States —once again the question was thrown into stark relief: What the hell has Trumpism done to the Republican Party?
How has a party allowed for people like Greene to come to the forefront and be given enormous power, and how has it now completely absorbed someone like George Santos, a fantasist who appears to be deranged, disconnected from reality entirely?
And what is Trumpism continuing to do to the rest of us? What are the psychological effects of the the mental battering we’ve experienced?
To discuss all of this, I turned to Dr. Seth Norrholm, Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences at Wayne State University School of Medicine. He’s a translational neuroscientist and psychologist, and one of the world's leading experts on PTSD and fear.
PTSD in fact was very much a focal point of the conversation I had with him on my SiriusXM program last week. In addition to discussing what is fueling a new wave of Trumpists, we discussed the collective trauma that millions of us have experienced, and continue to experience.
What will heal us? The simple answer — yet something that’s been elusive — is justice.
“Accountability,” he said. “Without some kind of sweeping accountability to remove what I've called the cancer that is in our political system, there's not going to be any meaningful healthy change.”
Listen in to the discussion. Below is a transcript, edited slightly for clarity.
Michelangelo Signorile: So I wanted to talk a little bit first about -- and it's something I don't think a lot of people have discussed -- what the entire country has experienced collectively, and how it has affected people emotionally and mentally. With regard to Donald Trump's administration and certainly the kind of brutality that he emboldened —the fear he created for a lot of people. A lot of people still feel that. They don't want us to even play clips of him speaking [on this program]. And also, of course, there are the people who emulate him as well.
Dr. Seth Norrholm: If you look at the last seven years now, the way it was before, you could really look at your life in terms of two views.
One, I call a micro scale, which you think about as your family situation, your housing situation, your job, the things that you have a lot of control over. And there's also the macro scale, which is your role as a citizen of the United States, the citizen of the world, your role in terms of your stewardship of the earth and its environment for the next generation. So there was a time pre-Trumpism where you could really focus on your micro scale and then maybe if you were interested in politics, if you wanted to affect change, if you wanted to dive into that storm, you could, but you could live pretty much in your micro scale.
And maybe there would be issues like taxation or prices rising and things like that that might affect you, but you could, as a citizen, remain in your micro scale and not engage with politics and just let it be. And if somebody said, “Let's talk about the upcoming election,” you could appropriately say, “I don't want to talk about politics or I don't follow politics.” And that was pretty well accepted and appropriate.
But what happened with the ushering in of the Trump age is suddenly what was happening on the macro scale in terms of our government and elected officials and their policies and their beliefs and their actions was suddenly having a strong influence on our micro scale. So we could no longer separate those two parts of our life where they were making decisions that were detrimental to our health, that were potentially deadly in terms of consequences.
One of the first examples I point out is the response to Hurricane Maria in 2017, in which the Trump administration slow-walked the response and in many ways was racist in their response because they viewed Puerto Rican Americans as being somehow different and inferior in much the way you would if you thought like a racist. And what happened then was 3000 Americans lost their lives.
And that was really a precursor to what we saw with the pandemic, where, again, this self-serving malicious form of government was anti-mask, anti-vaccine, anti-closing. You know the famous words, “We’re going to open up again by Easter of 2020,” where policies were actually potentially deadly to Americans. And so you suddenly just couldn't ignore what was happening politically because there was such a potential for it to be dangerous to you.
MS: And you talk about this as a collective PTSD, post traumatic stress disorder, that many people in the country have experienced. And I'm curious: Is that something everyone experienced, whether they are those who fear and despise Trump, or those who are in his cult?
SN: So let's first define PTSD. It is an illness related to your experience of a traumatic event in your life and then it has consequences that affect you mentally and and behaviorally.
And it's usually, you know, the prime example is a combat veteran who was traumatized while they were deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. They come back to the states. And even though they're in a safe environment, they still act as though they're in the war zone. And so there are elements of the collective psychology that are similar to PTSD.
But I just want to be clear that relative to your question, not everybody viewed Trumpism as a traumatic event. But there were certainly hundreds, if not thousands of people with real PTSD related to Trumpism. For example, if you were in Puerto Rico during Hurricane Maria, or if you were on the front lines in March and April of 2020 and you saw all these traumatic deaths because of the the start of the COVID pandemic.
MS: Or what he did to people at the border and separating families and putting kids in cages.
SN: Right. Right. So it's a collective PTSD or traumatization in the sense that there was suddenly this danger we all had to be aware of. And whether that was domestic terrorism through people who were, you know, Trump loyalists or MAGA-ites who carried out — you know, the gentleman who blew up a city block in Nashville.
And in situations like that, the loyalists follow this dangerous path. So suddenly there was this new fear and threat in America, which is “What is going to happen to my life and my livelihood based on what I'm seeing?” And it was really almost on a daily basis for that four year term.
One of the things that you see with PTSD is what we call hyper-vigilance, where you're constantly on guard and on alert for something threatening. That is very much the situation that many of us found ourselves in during that presidency because we just didn't know what the next thing was going to be.
And in fact, we had leadership that was opposing all the positions that would potentially keep us safe, like pulling out of the Paris Accord, like, you know, international relations, courting Putin, courting Kim Jong Un, so actually seeking out danger.
It was completely justified and appropriate for people to have this newfound sense of fear because we had never seen this before from our leadership. Sure, we had presidents you may not have agreed with. There was the example of Nixon where there was corruption — but never on this scale and never on such a consistent basis.
MS: Right. And even still with, of course, Trump losing the election, Joe Biden winning, we had the insurrection. We have the Big Lie. We have these people like Marjorie Taylor Greene and others in power. That fear and that PTSD is still there. For many people it hasn't gone away.
SN: Yeah. The analogy I like to use a lot is Trump was an abusive president, meaning he did not care about the well-being of Americans unless they were loyalists or said nice things about him, to use his words. And so, you know, there was a situation where you're at risk and there are potential dangers surrounding you. And what you see now is these parrots and these mouthpieces who are imitating Trump because they saw that that approach could be successful.
And so if you think about Trump as being the abuser and the American people as being the abused spouse or partner, what's happened now is there's been no accountability.
The analogy I like to use is the abused spouse who sees the police outside their house and they're walking up to the door and the abused spouse opens the door and the police say, “You know, we have no evidence,” or, “You know, it's your word against his. There's nothing we can do.”
And so the abused partner or spouse watches the police walk away and just has this fear and dejection because their abuse is being completely ignored and there's been no accountability. So that's what we've been seeing in the wake of January 6th, as there's been no accountability for upper level leadership, including the president and his cabinet and and his advisors.
There's been no accountability at that level. And so what you've seen is there were 147 Republicans who voted to overturn the election of Joe Biden, and many of them are sitting members of Congress. They're getting in front of microphones and they're basically telling the abused populace, “Oh, we're going to keep abusing you, and there's nothing you can do about it.”
MS: And that's so important. And something I hadn't thought about. How the lack of justice, seeing any justice, any indictments, anybody going to jail, how that has traumatically affected people, how that has had a mental and emotional effect on them.
Very important. And I'm glad you brought that up. And you talk about the Republican Party now, and you just were alluding to it as becoming this place where people with pathological behavior can thrive. So we had Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar, and others who were incredibly extreme and erratic and promoting white supremacist and QAnon ugly lies. And that's bad enough.
But then we get George Santos, who is completely and totally fabricating his background. Now, we also have another freshman member in Florida, Anna Paulina Luna, who also seems to be in the same vein — changed her name, changed her biography, used to be an Obama supporter. I mean, everything that comes out about George Santos, like we don't even know who he is. You're putting that in an even newer category the Republican Party is accepting. And you talk about him as having a personality disorder.
SN: Yes. So I look at the genesis of individuals like George Santos in terms of what we saw unfold over the past seven years. Certainly if you were paying attention to the campaign in 2016, you saw who Trump was.
You saw him insult John McCain as a war veteran. You saw him mocking a disabled reporter. You saw the the Access Hollywood tape come out. So you were given all kinds of information as to how unqualified this person was. And I would even go further to say we recognize as mental health experts how dangerous he was. And what you saw was he ultimately got elected.
And for the most part, the mainstream media did not call him out on these things. Sure, there was, you know, MSNBC. And what people would call the left media would address these things. But it was never publicly called out and clearly wasn't disqualifying.
So what that did was, it created a level of permissiveness in terms of candidates, in terms of what they could get away with. And in a large sense, what was being rewarded now was this malicious, ill intent and self-serving bias and deception that we equate with people who have personality disorders like antisocial personality, which is by definition doing things that are against the interest of other people and in some cases taking pleasure in it.
And before the age of Trump, if you are talking to friends or family and said, “I think I'm going to run for Congress, but I'm going to lie about who I am back in, let's say, in the 90s and early 2000s,” that you would think that that family member or that adviser would say, “You can't do that. They're going to vet you. You're going to be caught in the lie.”
But what we saw over the years of Trump was, you know, if you watch Seinfeld, you remember George Costanza. His stance was, if you believe it, it's not a lie. And what we saw with Trump was, if you tell it enough, it's not a lie.
So there was this permissiveness of lying. You get to the point where people that I have classified as personality disordered, meaning they have no moral compass, they have no thought about consequences. They lie with impunity. You know, it was inevitable that you would have somebody who can completely create a caricature of themselves and get elected because they would use the Trumpism approach, which was just keep lying about it and push back. And if there's any accountability, you know, you can do your best to evade it. And sometimes you can evade it for years.
MS: Right. And it's interesting, you mentioned people around them who might say, hey, don't do this and how it kind of becomes a collective thing, perhaps. I mean, we don't know that so much with George Santos, but I mentioned the other congressperson, Anna Paulina Luna. In her story, her mother seems to be part of this, too. Her mother vouches for her story. But the rest of her family, everybody else says, no, none of that is true. So it's it's sort of like someone else is in on the lie and the promoting of this permissive behavior.
SN: Right. And you can imagine a situation where when Santos was putting this idea together, he had people to look at as models and potentially reach out to in Marjorie Taylor Greene or others who are openly free with deception and lying and basically rewarding him and encouraging him by saying, “Yeah, you can do that. And in fact, we value your votes [in Congress]. So we'll take you.” And you need to look no further than the election of Kevin McCarthy as Speaker of the House to see how a small group of deceptive loyalists can hijack Congress for days.
MS: Absolutely. And it’s so important to talk about what this means from the perspective of a neuroscientist and a psychologist about what has happened to the Republican Party and what has happened to all of us and the entire country in terms of what we're experiencing. I really appreciated talking about this and getting into this angle of it. I think it's very important.
SN: I appreciate having the time to speak about. If I can make one closing comment: I often get asked, you know, what's the future of America look like or how do we get quote unquote, healthy again?
And I think what we were talking about a few minutes ago with accountability, you know, that needs to be the fixed —- you need to have the insurrectionists face consequences. You know, banishment from Congress. You need to have Trump face consequences for his role in the insurrection. So without some kind of sweeping accountability to remove what I've called the cancer that is in our political system, there's not going to be any meaningful healthy change.
MS: Perfect way to end it. What do we all need to do? And yes, it's about justice and and hoping that we see that happen — in Georgia, or in the Justice Department, somewhere soon.