Trump is making lots of us feel crazy. But if you grew up in a messed up family, with a crazy person anywhere near the helm, Trump’s daily lunacy is particularly disturbing.
My friends and I have been falling apart left and right the last couple years. I don’t mean just when talking about the madness of our current political situation. In an overall way, we have not been okay. We have been in conflict with our partners, struggling with issues with our families of origins, having minimal patience with our kids, and suffering from routine existential angst.
My friends and I lean towards the more psychologically healthy of any given group. Tons of us are therapists, and probably all of us have been in therapy. We talk about and honor our feelings regularly. We normally function at significantly high levels, successfully earning graduate degrees, supervising staffs and programs, running agencies and households. But now a days, a day doesn’t go by when one of us isn’t falling apart, sobbing or raging, in full blown panics or deep depressive despondencies. I blame Trump.
Not the way Republicans blame Obama for clearly unrelated issues, but because I believe his presidency has created an atmosphere of insanity that is a re-enactment for some of us.
Being in a situation where someone or something is clearly insane and yet everyone around them chooses or is required to behave as if the world is in it’s normal orbit, is crazy-making. It was common at my childhood dinner table, as my alcoholic mother held court in front of a dissociated, eye-avoidant audience of terrified family members. I have felt it at social services agencies as the administration rolled out new absurdly grandiose expectations for performances to an over-worked, underpaid staff. During one of my terms on my synagogue board, it would also overtake me as we unknowing operated as an advisory board rather than one with decision-making power whose votes determined policy, but which didn’t stop of from earnestly engaging issues we actually had no power to effect.
I work with lots of clients who have lived this life story. In their childhood family something very disturbing or perverse was happening. It was either forbidden as a family discussion, or discussed as reasonable, sensical, leaving the child bewildered. They knew there was madness in their midst. They were told the madness was in their own mind. As adults it might be easy enough to decipher who is crazy, but children rely on the adults around them to make meaning of their worlds, their thoughts, and their feelings. In a family where something emotionally confusing is happening, the young mind can be made insane by the emperor who clearly has no clothes.
The news cycle since Trump’s campaign and subsequent election has been non-stop triggering/activating. This past week’s insanity included watching Trump respond to questions about busing and western-style liberalism, realizing he literally did not know either reference, and yet was allowed to comment on them, pretending to have opinions, act “presidential” and speak definitively. He literally thought the conversation about busing was “it is certainly a primary method of getting people to schools”. He referenced “what’s happening in Los Angeles, where it’s so sad to look, and what’s happening in San Francisco” in response to Putin’s comments about western-style liberalism. And then someone just asked the next question. As if something absolutely insane had not just happened. As if the President of the United States did 1) not know common terms in our political lexicon, 2) pretend that he did know the terms, 3) provide responses that were completely non-sensical and evidence that he did not know what the topic of the question he had been asked and then answered.
While writing this post I have had to stop repeatedly to calm myself down. My heart-rate rises, my chest gets tight, I start to feel panicked, as if either I have gone crazy, or worse yet, I am one of only a handful of sane people in an asylum with the nefarious and criminally insane.
Again, it is not the first time I have been in totally perverse situations where someone is behaving in a ways contrary to the basic minimal expectations of sanity and civility. In my own family we were silenced because to challenge the perversity of the situation was to incur my mother’s vile bitterness. More commonly many of us have been in staff meetings where those with power are allowed to have their delusions go unchallenged least we be fired for stating the obvious.
There are certain coping mechanisms we use to survive situations where a powerful other is crazy. Dissociation was always my family’s favorite; that kind of vague zoning out that makes it hard to retain memory, or count time, but which dulls the senses enough to get through a meal. Workers are notorious for post-meeting or post-work discharges, vomiting out the horrors of the day, asking each other repeatedly “can you believe what s/he said/did”?
But if you didn’t grow up with some crazy, you can bitch and rant and successfully cathect many situations. Surely no sane person can be anything like okay with our current political situation. Certainly there are many folks up in arms about Trump’s words, actions, policies. But certain childhoods predispose us to becoming profoundly unhinged in Trump’s mad mad world.
During past republican presidencies, and even my own elected democrat presidents, I have often found myself in complete and utter disbelief. But the disbelief was that I shared such different values and believes than others. Sometimes an elected official would say or do something so bizarre/insane/unacceptable that I, and many others, would find ourselves filled with shock. Examples were W Bush declaring “Mission Accomplished” when no such mission was accomplished. Clinton saying “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”, as if the veracity with which he said it would make it true. Or when Obama assassinated Bin Laden and in our national vengeance satisfaction we pretended that was an acceptable way for our government to function.
But in each other those instances, those statements and actions became hotly debated topics, that got unpacked and re-branded over and over until we accepted the differences in our values and beliefs and in the spin politics puts on all conversations. In fact “mission accomplished” became used in common lexicon to mean you fucked up. That acknowledgment helps us all maintain a sense of sanity.
Now however, there is a constant barrage of absurd actions and statements and bizarreness coming out of the president’s mouth that there is simply no time to process a single one of them. The man thought busing meant the use of buses to get children to school. He literally did not understand what the brouhaha of the Biden/Harris debate was about. And yet felt completely comfortable issuing non-sensical statements about it as if he understood the topic. I can’t imagine how that reporter organized their mind enough to ask a follow-up question. What would an appropriate follow-up question be? “Mr. President, can you share what you think the term “busing” refers too”?
Countless psychotherapists and theorists have attempted to offer analysis of him. The problem is, no matter how disturbed of a client population we have worked with us, I dont know anyone who has meet anyone as disturbed as Trump. The unique combination of his low IQ, grandiose self-importance, love for authoritarian power, appearance of novel accomplishment and excellence, matched with the power offered to him by fear and hate-filled Americans, and the greed of Republicans eager enough to gain control of the government to turn a blind eye to the atrocity of his madness.
One of the most traumatic elements of having a crazy person in our midst is when it is not definitely named as crazy. If you lived through one of these lives, please hear me say, and repeat after me. Trump is crazy. And stupid. He is uninformed, uneducated, sadistic, self absorbed, grandiose, and petty. You are not crazy. I am not crazy. The fact that we feel insane is because we are not crazy.
I can’t reassure you that it is all going to be okay. I have been shocked at how ill prepared our system or elected officials have been at managing this situation. My understanding about the electoral college was that it was a stop gap to prevent and mis-lead populous from electing an incompetent madman. But then in their eagerness to be in power, republicans were willing to sell their souls to the devil. Surely impeachment was supposed to offer a way to intervene when a president was found to be complicit in illegal or unconstitutional activities. But this too assumed a senate and congress populated by people of conscious, who care more about their country, and democracy and the constitution, than their own political agendas. And then the Supreme Court, which has a long history of nominees more devoted to the constitution than the topic of the day, but no more.
What I can say, what I do believe, is that the arc leans towards justice. That as dark of a time in American history we are in, it has been darker, in the US, and through out the world. If we take the long view, in our own country and across the world, the world is a better pace. Fewer countries are run by dictators even as Trump covets that power. Fewer children are forced into daily labor. Black and brown people throughout the world have more access to basic human rights and positions of power to change the world. Globally, women have significantly more power in their homes, and over their bodies and in their communities than any decade before. Even animals are increasingly considered sentient beings who deserve legal protection from harm.
I appreciate some of this is of little solace, but I also think the long view helps expand the container for our fears and angst. I think it helps us maintain our resolve to hanging in the fight. On a good day, it helps me not lose my shit on my kid, or my family. I hope the combination of some validation and the long view might help you get through this time as well.
Smith is an analytically oriented psychotherapist with 25 years in practice. She is additionally the Founder/Director of Full Living: A Psychotherapy Practice, which specializes in matching clients with seasoned clinicians in the Greater Philadelphia Area.
If you are interested in therapy and live in Philadelphia or the Greater Philadelphia Area, please let Full Living: A Psychotherapy Practice match you with a skilled, experienced psychotherapist based on your needs and issues as well as your and own therapists' personalities and styles. All of our therapists are available for telehealth conferencing by phone or video in response to our current need for social distancing.
For other posts on a similar topic, follow the links below:
Surviving Trump’s America as it Turns Towards Hate: Chop Wood, Carry Water, and Laugh with Friends
Eye Rolls, Shrugs and Why Trump is So Provocative
What “Make America Great Again, aka MAGA, Really Means