Surviving Trump Season

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Image by Ani Obermeier @aniinny, used with permission.

This election season is like no other before it. As a social worker, therapist, citizen, and a person who cares about the world, I am deeply affected by Donald Trump’s megalomaniacal “platform” of ignorance and hate. William Doherty, a prominent therapist in Minnesota, has a word for this toxic mixture, “Trumpism”. He believes it is such a threat to our public health that he has created a manifesto for therapists. Doherty writes “When there is a public threat to our domain of responsibility we must speak out together, not just to protest but to deepen our commitment to a just society and a democratic way of life.”

Every day I sit across the couch from clients who are triggered by past sexual assault traumas that are perpetuated by Donald Trump’s embodiment of rape culture and misogyny. Other clients are anxious about their relationships with their friends and family who may be voting for Trump. I belong to several therapist boards and Facebook groups, and many therapists are sharing similar stories and experiences. Click here and here to read about similar cases of election anxiety from my therapist simpaticos Justin Lioi and Robert Cox.

Tools to help you manage feelings and have brave conversations

I believe that having the courage to have difficult conversations helps bridge divides and makes the world smaller. I also think it can soften our hearts and make situations feel less frightening. Regardless of where we stand or how passionate we feel, there is value in a good challenge.

Think Beyond Your Small Self

Clinton’s running mate Tim Kaine said it best when he suggested some Trump voters are motivated by “dark emotions”captured in this previous blog post.  Leaders like Trump, and others like Hitler before him, propagate fear and tap into our collective anxieties, appealing to humankind’s basest instincts. Through his view, we see our country through a lens of doom and gloom. There is no positive message of hope, and no pragmatic policy platform on any issue. We are to believe we are being denied our due that is being stolen from us. The Chinese are taking our jobs! We need to build a wall to keep out the Mexicans! Muslims are terrorists whose religion is a threat to our liberty! Always the “other” is threatening our heritage, jobs, and way of life.

Trump’s rhetoric resonates with many people apparently if you tune into the polls. He is an embodiment of something dark and insidious in our society. His tools are hate speech, bullying, and the disparagement of women, immigrants, and people with disabilities. Do we as parents and teachers want to endorse bullying as acceptable in our classrooms and communities? The hate gets deeply entrenched in our collective psyche.

Trump may represent a vision of collective darkness, but it doesn’t have to occupy our hearts and minds or drive our actions. Buddhists call the selfish “me before you” sentiment “The Small Self”.  From the perspective of “The Small Self,” we are primarily concerned with our own survival, fueled by fear, greed, and selfishness. This part of us is also vulnerable and weak. Regardless of whom you support in this election, it helps to do the work to understand who you are by looking at yourself from the perspective of another person. Looking within strengthens the forces that help unite us like empathy, compassion, and generosity. It creates an abundance mindset. If you walk around intentionally thinking in terms of “abundance,” you will feel the difference in your heart and evolve the tools to cope with the shadow of “The Small Self.”

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When our actions are driven by scarcity and fear, we create a barrier. People want and need to belong, and will seek ways to feel like they are a part of something. If it’s not with you and your open arms, there are groups that accept and seek out people that feel estranged.  Alienated people are susceptible to recruitment by gangs, or even ISIS, which actively targets disaffected young people in the US and abroad.

Be informed

The people we surround ourselves with usually reflect our own character and values. Even so, you are likely to have people close to you who are voting for Trump.  These are people who you may respect, and who have been influential in your life.

To navigate election time and the upcoming holidays with friends and family members, it may help to tune into what the conservative media is saying to try to understand different perspectives. This involves facing our own discomfort and bias, and possibly having some tough conversations.  Scroll through certain hashtags on Twitter and pay attention when Trump supporters are being interviewed in the media. Empathy is important; try to understand your friend or family member’s frame of mind so you can engage with them and share your perspective.

Engage in Dialogue with Strategy and an Open Mind

It’s healthy to expose yourself to valid points of view on the other side. When it comes to your Anti-Hillary or Pro-Trump friend, think about the mutual-respect you have for one another. During the second televised debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, an undecided voter asked the candidates “What do you respect about each other?” This led to each of them making kind statements about each other that actually seemed genuine. Hillary admired the poise and loyalty of Donald’s children. Trump respected Hillary’s tenacity and grit. They smiled and then they shook hands, something that hadn’t happened at the start of the debate. The mood lightened and I felt less anxious than I had at end of the first debate.

When engaging in conversations with Trump supporters, try to keep an open mind. Practice seeing the opposing view, it will help you manage your emotional health. Exploring issues from different perspectives and defending your positions is intellectually stimulating. Challenge yourself to step outside of your comfort zone and take the time to articulate the reasoning behind your viewpoint. For more tips on conversational strategy, see this HBR article.

“Walk around” The Issues

Try to keep your emotions in check and  “walk around” the issues, as described in this HBR article on Lincoln’s leadership as he passed the 13th amendment.  Walking around an issue means to examine all sides and angles of a situation. It also involves truly seeing, and having empathy for the other viewpoints. This method may help you gain a better understanding of their positions, as well as strengthen your own arguments, and in some cases, your asks. Take deep breaths and remind yourself why you love or care about this person and search to find the redeemable points in their perspectives.

STOP Before You Act

I have participated in numerous conversations with people who I just want to “un-friend”, and I’m sure everyone can relate to this. Before you do anything rash though, it is wise to STOP (Stop, Take a breath, Observe your emotions and Plan) before you act and consider the following:   

  • What value does she/he add to your life Is there a social risk too great to bear that will negatively impact you in some other way?  If so, just “un-follow” or “Mute” them.
  • Is it is someone you admire, respect, or like? Don’t be afraid to engage in a conversation or to take it offline.  
  • When engaged in dialogues on social media, be gentle, use emoticons, and show the person you understand their point of view. Written language can seem harsher than was intended in the absence of non-verbal cues. The vulnerability and empathy of face-to-face conversations just isn’t part of the equation.

Find Common Ground

When we seek for common ground, we sometimes find that we are more similar than we are different. I often talk about the cognitive bias of black and white thinking. Usually, a situation is not as dire as it appears, and people are never “all bad” or “all good.”  Most of us fall somewhere in the middle. Everyone has some opinions and values that you share in common, as well as differences.

Think in Color 

 A friend, wearing a baseball cap that pokes fun of Trump's campaign propaganda. 

A friend, wearing a baseball cap that pokes fun of Trump's campaign propaganda. 

Black and white thinking is very common when it comes to politics and social issues. We can be affirming of the lives of police officers and respect the danger and risk they face every day without needing to embrace movements like #PolicelivesMatter or #Alllivesmatter. Of course police lives matters, and so do all lives, but these movements are designed to trample important crusades like Black Lives Matter, cheating us of a balanced look at injustice. If we explore this issue from all sides, we see will see the many different pathways to the same outcome, without needing to dismiss or debunk another viewpoint.

Do something

Action is more affirming than distraction and denial. Taking action can help us feel powerful; we are doing something. Taking action might mean having a brave conversation and taking a position. It could be telling your story, as I’ve seen many friends courageously do to stand against rape culture as a apart of the #ITSNOTOK campaign. It can also mean volunteering for voter registration initiatives, taking part in advocacy campaigns, and letting your policy makers know where you stand. Last but not least, Vote!

Self-care

It’s important to be informed citizen and stand up for what you believe, but it’s infinitely harder when you are neglecting yourself in the process. Managing your emotions means trying not to take things personally and striving to gain some objectivity. You can also change the topic when you find yourself getting too heated. Turn the conversation to what are your plans for New Years? Or, How about them Steelers? When tuning into the political news at night before bed, make sure to leave some time to unwind or watch Netflix. My current favorite is HBO’s High Maintenance; watch it with a Trump supporter and see what they think!

For more on coping with the trauma of current events and the media, check out the post I wrote last year, Trauma on Auto-play, How To Turn It Off. 


Kerrie Thompson, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in private practice, in NYC's Financial District. To get in touch, contact herhere