Lessons Learned from Year One of Trump

Lessons Learned from Year One of Trump January 21, 2018
Young activists at the Oakland Women's March, 2017
Young activists at the Oakland Women’s March, 2017

“[I]t is vain to wish for happiness this year, but essential to work to construct it.  Wish for nothing, but accomplish something.  Do not wait for a destiny built from start to finish by others, when that destiny is still in our hands.”  – Albert Camus, in the last editorial of Le Soir-Republicain, January 1, 1940

Like Camus on the eve of the Nazi Occupation, I see ominous clouds on the global and national horizon.  American troops are preparing for a nuclear war with North Korea.  Trump routinely engages in Stalinist attacks on our press, while his Republican bedfellows remain mostly mute.

Like Camus, I want to balance my feelings of pessimism with a commitment to action.  In that spirit, and on the anniversary of Trump’s inauguration, here are seven insights I’ve accumulated over the past year.

It’s Worse than I Thought It Would Be

I now recognize that I allowed my understanding of human nature to be overshadowed by naïve optimism.  Trump the candidate – who dragged political discourse to new lows with threats to lock up his opponent, who bragged about his penis size, who bullied his foes in debates and on Twitter, who urged Russia to commit espionage against Hillary – was not alchemically transmuted into someone presidential on January 20th, as if the White House were the legendary philosopher’s stone.

No, Trump is still Trump.  All signs from the Mueller investigation point to the reality that we have a traitor in the Oval Office.  His racism led to multiple attempts at a Muslim ban and the pronouncement that there were “many fine people” among the Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville.  His Twitter aggression continues, with paranoid rants against Obama and Hillary, and schoolyard taunts of a murderous dictator with nukes in North Korea.

His appointments to positions of power have been equally horrifying, ranging from incompetent (Ben Carson, Rick Perry) to malign (Jeff Sessions, Scott Pruitt, Betsy DeVos).  Overt white supremacists like Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller bent or continue to bend the president’s ear.  This latter point leads me to my next insight…

Americans Still Live in Denial over the Depths of Our Racism

When it takes a vile comment about shithole countries for the left of center New York Times to declare that Trump is a racist, you know that centrist and right-wing America still won’t acknowledge this.

Even Democrats don’t want to admit that Trump voters were substantially motivated by their bigotry and loathing of the other.  How many times do we still hear that Trump’s Electoral College victory was due to disgruntled white working class voters?  This continues even in the face of data showing that 65% of white Trump voters were above the national median for household income.  This fiction persists even when the strongest predictive factor for choosing Trump over Hillary was whether or not the voter believed Obama is a Muslim.

I know it’s unpleasant to admit that your relatives, neighbors, and coworkers who support Trump are unenlightened bigots, but denying it will get us nowhere helpful.  If we want to see better candidates prevail in this year’s mid-term elections, we must acknowledge the numerous studies showing that most troglodytes who voted Trump in 2016 still adore him.  To tip the scales in D.C. towards greater sanity, our energies are far better spent increasing voter rolls, rather than trying to reason with wearers of MAGA caps.

I Need to Listen More to the Voices of the Disenfranchised

To borrow from another existentialist, Jean-Paul Sartre posited that if something is not true in the eyes of the least favored, then it is not true, period.

Over the past two years, I have gained my deepest insights from reading and listening to public intellectuals and journalists of color.  Whereas my naïveté had to be shattered, writers like Carol Anderson, Wesley Lowery, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Chauncey DeVega rightly see the rise of Trumpism as an embodiment of the racial divide that never went away, and the white anger that escalated toxically during the Obama presidency, courtesy of Fox News, the Tea Party, birtherism, and the ascent of Breitbart.

And of course, women have led the way with their protests in 2017, starting with the Women’s March and continuing with the #MeToo movement.  It took the election of a self-described pussy grabber to bring 1% of our population to the streets in 2017, but the masses who gathered again this past weekend show that we aren’t going away.

A photo from the Women's March in New York City, 2017
A photo from the Women’s March in New York City, 2017

This Is a Time for Active Witness-Bearing and Relentless Truth-Telling

It seems that every day we are challenged by Trump and his lickspittles with more lies and obfuscation.  Kellyanne Conway, Sean Hannity, and Sarah Huckabee Sanders daily do their damnedest to inundate us with “alternative facts” (the Bowling Green massacre), false equivalencies (Hillary’s emails versus Trump’s treason), and what-aboutism (the rise in white hate crime versus the rare Nazi punch).

Hell, just this week we’ve had Republicans lying about Trump’s shithole comment and claiming that Democrats want to deprive children of their health care through the government shutdown.  Doctor Ronny Jackson committed medical malpractice and gross public deception in misrepresenting Trump’s physical and mental health.

In 1984, George Orwell wrote that “[t]he Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears.  It was their final, most essential command.”  We are manifestly living in Orwellian times, when Fox News and the White House want us to deny what we observe and hear daily, and accept only the truths of Trump.

Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, the eminent chronicler of Nazi doctors, describes our current condition as one of “malignant normality.”  For our own psychological wellbeing and for posterity’s sake, we must resist this utterly.

This Has Been a Year of New Connections

It is no exaggeration to say that the Women’s March 2017 was one of the most inspiring days of my life.  It was invigorating to realize that my wife, my children, and I are part of a mass movement that will not sit meekly on our hands and allow vile men to determine our future.  This has led to new connections locally, even in a red section of a deeply red state.

Professionally, it’s been a joy to connect with fellow mental health professionals who refuse to censor ourselves as our professional associations would have it.  Instead, we’ve been using our expertise to point out the imminent danger that Trump’s impulsivity, aggression, and sadism pose to the entire world.

I’m encouraged that colleagues like Dr. Bandy Lee and Dr. Prudence Gourgechon have been thrust upon the national stage to sound the alarm over Trump’s questionable mental fitness for the presidency.  On a personal level, it was gratifying to speak to a standing room only crowd in Chattanooga on this same subject earlier this month.

This Has Been a Year of Strained and Broken Ties

Having been born too late to remember the domestic strife of the 1960s, I have never seen our nation so polarized.  Witnessing the entire Republican Party become increasingly racist and plutocratic – frothily eager to slash Obamacare in a way that would kill tens of thousands, almost never challenging their deranged man-child in the Oval Office – logic has compelled me to conclude that anyone who is still Republican is either grossly ignorant or willfully malign.

On a personal level, this has led to disquieting yet inevitable conclusions about the decency, critical faculties, and moral courage of people I care about within my family and among my circle of friends and colleagues.  The resulting estrangement and alienation pains me daily.

As a psychiatrist, I’ve also felt betrayed by my professional organization, the American Psychiatric Association (APA), with its attempts to forbid its members from using their professional knowledge to speak out against Trump.  Ultimately, I felt it necessary to resign from the APA, as I wrote about here.

I Expect It Will Only Get Worse

Trump has shown a lifelong proclivity for sexual, verbal, and physical violence.  People with a history of aggression are more likely to re-engage in violence when under stress.  As Mueller’s investigation expands, as questions about Trump’s mental fitness for office grow in volume, and as (hopefully) the mid-term elections erode the Republican supermajority in all branches of government, Trump will only become more distressed and unstable.

Besides, as mentioned earlier, we’re already seeing indications that the U.S. military is preparing for war with North Korea.  I see no reason to doubt that Trump would initiate a war to distract the American populace, feel more powerful, and bolster his approval ratings.  And more than any president since Truman, Donald Trump has signaled a terrifying willingness to use nuclear weaponry.

I write none of this from a perverse pleasure in negativity.  But to quote Ta-Nehisi Coates in his essential book We Were Eight Years in Power:  “No one – not our fathers, not our police, not our gods – is coming to save us.”  If anyone will save us from Trump, his reality-impervious base, and his Republican enablers, it will be us and our actions in the coming years.  So, please, for the sake of yourself and for the sake of my children, take good care of yourself for the long struggle still ahead, and stay active, stay vigilant.


Image credits:

  • Photo #1 is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
  • Photo #2 is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.
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