By Dr. David J. Leonard
On 11/9, I was traveling and away from my family. After falling asleep, with hopes that the election night coverage was a nightmare, one that I had feared for days, I woke the following day to confront the truth that is America. The election of that man was yet another reminder of the endemic racism and sexism that is as American as beer, apple pie, and faux patriotism.
The election of a person whose rhetoric and proposed policies was a combination of Richard Nixon, Bull Connor, and Mad Men was yet another reminder that White Nationalism misogyny, homophobia, ableism, and ideologies of bigotry pay and play in America. He checked the ultimate job description box: whiteness from the other. These facts left me reeling. The prospects of 4-years of retrograde and regressive policies that will take America back to a pre Roe/ADA/Title IX/14th amendment culture whereupon civil rights laws will be weakened, the glass ceiling will harden, the air will become more toxic, and violence will strengthen, sent me spiraling.
An emboldened culture of harassment, bullying, and violence, empowered by a bigot-in-chief (as of February there has been over 1300 hate crimes since the election) produced a level of rage, depression, and sadness. On the flight home, in multiple airports, I found myself tearing up over and over again.
When not crying, I felt heightened levels of rage. The sight of red hats triggered anger. As I walked through airports and into future days, the sight of strangers, white strangers, increasingly led me to wonder: ‘did you vote for that guy? Angry, depressed, and sad, I found myself lost not simply because he would be president; not simply because his cabinet would be a basket of incompetents, deplorables, and dinosaurs. Instead these emotional challenges were the result of what his election represents, the uncomfortable truths in his Electoral College victory, and the real fears of what his presidency (#NotMyPresident) would do to my friends and loved ones.
Trump supporters have, not surprisingly, dismissed this anger and the fear, telling us to toughen up.
During a post-election installment of Morning Joe, former Trump cheerleader turned apprehensive critic (this transformation encapsulates the first 100 days), Joe Scarborough questioned why people of color were fearful of a Trump presidency because the court exists as a safeguard.
“You have a situation where it’s the boy who cried wolf, and everybody keeps talking about him being a neo-Nazi, and then what happens is, what do you call him next after you’ve called him a neo-Nazi when perhaps somebody in the administration does suggest something that runs afoul of the Constitution?” noted Scarborough.
“There’s a reason why dictators have not been able to do in our country over the past 240 years what they’ve been able to do in other countries,” Scarborough added. “That’s because James Madison put together a Constitution along with Alexander Hamilton that created a system of checks and balances.”
Never mind his arrogance and his historic ignorance about the white supremacist history of the U.S. Supreme Court (Dred Scott; Plessy; Ozawa; Thind; Hirabayashi; Bakke, to name a few), his refusal to hear the anguish and fear of so many communities speaks an overall lack of empathy for 11/9 trauma. He’s not alone.
“Before we start calling the reaction a protest let's get something straight. A protest is a peaceful objection to a grievance. A bunch of sore losers occupying a space is called a tantrum and that's exactly what we're seeing around the nation after Trump's historic and earned victory, notes Tomi Lahren, then a commentator with The Blaze.
“These ‘protesters" are typical snowflake millennials. They feel slighted because they didn't want Trump to win and it's not fair! They wanted Hillary so it just should've happened. The entitlement mentality on steroids mixed with the new version of social justice. A version where anything the left does is just and everything else is intolerant.”
These comments and so many others like them are not surprising given how we talk about mental health. They reflect a lack of understanding of mental illness; they embody a culture that so often sees depression as a weakness, as something they need to get over.
Yet, such comments also reflect the privileges of whiteness, maleness, and so much more. They embody a cultural refusal to empathize with those in pain. They speak to a societal resistance to understanding the physical and mental harm caused by racism; the emotional toll resulting from racism, sexism, Islamophobia and homophobia are readily dismissed as irrational or signs of over sensitivity. Neither willing nor able to understand outside their own privileged positionality, these sorts of responses fail to consider the lived consequences of this election.
Yet, even within more sympathetic spaces, where facts are welcome, much of the discussion since the election has tended to equalize the stress, depression, anxiety, and fear that has resulted from 11/9.
So much of discourse that has talked about mental health has tended to universalize the stress, grief, the pain, and the anguish; so much of the discussion that has addressed mental trauma has focused on everyone who voted against him, who organized, marched, and mobilized against his election. While not trying to discount the pain and discord of anyone, it is crucial not to generalize and erase the very ways that race, gender, class, religion, immigration status, disability, and nationality shapes this trauma. Donald Trump’s “victory,” with its netting 25% of eligible voters, was not simply an election result that will propel him into the White House (when he’s not at Trump Tower, Mara a Lago) but was a victory against marginalized and disempowered communities. It was a victory for policies and a culture that already dehumanizes and discriminates with promises of an even worse future. It is no wonder that calls to suicide hotlines are up significantly.
In “The New PTSD: Post-Trump Stress Disorder,” Jeff Gillenkirk rightly highlights the pain, stress, and anguish resulting from the election.
Let’s call this PTSD post-Trump stress disorder, triggered by the election, to the most powerful office in the world, of a man who’s espoused wholesale exclusion of Muslim immigrants, deporting millions of undocumented immigrants, repealing Roe v. Wade, abolishing the Environmental Protection Agency, and encouraging Japan, South Korea and Saudi Arabia to develop nuclear weapons, among other polarizing proposals.
Yet, the anxiety, fear about and potential consequences of more stop and frisk, racist immigration policy, the obliteration of Roe v. Wade, or heightened mass deportations is felt in separate and unequal ways. According to a Southern Poverty Law Center report, “More than two-thirds of the teachers reported that students—mainly immigrants, children of immigrants and Muslims—have expressed concerns or fears about what might happen to them or their families after the election.” And this was before 11/9.
A Trump presidency means something different to me, a white cis-gender able-bodied Jewish male professor than it does to those directly imperiled by his rhetoric and policies. Yes, I am angry and sad but that sadness, anger, and fear emanates from a very different place than many others. And for me to say that I am struggling or his 100-day old moldy presidency has sent me into a depression doesn’t produce the same kind of stigmas and demonization as with OTHER communities. And should I need help, I can seek it with relative ease. In America mental health treatment is far more accessible to whites than African Americans and Latinos.
This surely will worsen with the Repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
This inequality will surely worsen with the adoption of Trump NonCare.
And, because racism makes people of color sick, the Trump era will be where treatment, where challenging stigmas, where access, where a community of compassion will be essential.
As Veronica Womack writes, “The societal pressures to be stoic, yet hyper-vigilant towards both overt and subtle racial threats can be a psychologically daunting task. Research indicates that the daily experience of racism in America is associated with low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety. Experiences of racism have even been associated with physiological reactivity, i.e. high blood pressure, a predictor of heart disease. This finding implicates perceived racial discrimination, a psychosocial factor, as a determinant of this leading cause of death among African Americans, alongside more commonly recognized behavioral factors (i.e. poor diet, lack of exercise).
In the face the Trump administration’s assault on justice, humanity, the environment, and marginalized communities, people are struggling with mental health. And we must respond. Part of our response to his reign of terror and incompetence must continue to be peaceful in the streets. Resistance must also come through creating a community of care, one that not only addresses Trump-related stress, PTSD, anxiety, and depression but so in a way that recognizes the inequities and varied experiences among us. Only then will be we be able to get healthy on our pathway toward making America great again.