As Donald Trump marches inexorably toward the Republican presidential nomination, many Americans appear to be seized by dread, the paralysis of disbelief and horror, as we watch our democratic process undermine itself. How could so many voters be supportive of a presidential candidate whose fascistic spew bears such a close resemblance to one the worst leaders of the cataclysmic 20th century? Can a racist, misogynist, xenophobic, homophobic demagogue really become our next president?
With the possibility to Trump getting the GOP nomination becoming more certain by the day, this fear is mounting into authentic anxiety for many of citizens. Not just the cigar-smoked backroom wall-pounding fear that rich GOP powerbrokers must be yanking their ascots out about, as their Frank Underwood–style plans for manipulating the electorate get foiled by their Frankenstein-like creation. This is a historic fear, a deep-seated sociocultural fear about traumas still barely lurking under our iPhone surfaces and gentrified gastropub neighborhoods. Something is slouching toward Bethlehem in America, and we hope it isn’t another civil war.
There is an eerie sense of false calm underscored by quiet horror—not unlike the final scene of the first Terminator movie—where a way of life we’ve taken for granted seems to be on the precipice as Sarah Connor drives away into storm clouds ahead. This is the kind of weight and dread many of us feel: that we are powerless to stop the inevitability of the Mobius strip of human nature. The key warning of the Holocaust, “Never forget” is actually being forgotten (or at least shrugged off) by some (Trump supporters), and most definitely not by others (the rest of us), as America feels the growing Blue state–Red state, old Civil War schism cleaving wider.
This larger anxiety can trickle down into our psyches on an individual, personal, even clinical level. Particularly for those of us directly targeted by Trump’s increasingly violent fascist rhetoric, our safety in the land of the free home the brave is no longer guaranteed. As one woman I spoke with, Leah Chatterjee, explains, “As the daughter of an immigrant, and being someone who is half Indian, I am experiencing huge amounts of anxiety, stress, and exacerbation of chronic illness symptoms due to the level of fear I have over this guy. It’s not just Trump. It’s his supporters and the hatred he is stirring up. I am scared for my father, who has very dark skin and is often mistaken for an Arab or Muslim. I’m scared for myself, and my foreign last name, that recently has earned me some dirty looks and rude comments.”
Another woman I spoke with, who asked to remain nameless, shared that she’s feeling chronic stress because “I see years of progress eroding in the blink of an eye. I’m stressed because Trump is abusive. If he were a kid in school he would be expelled. If he were a co-worker he would be written up or even sued for harassment. I feel like every time I read something else that he’s done, I feel battered and abused. I am so stressed I have advised my children to hold off on having children for a few years. I tell them that a man like Trump could easily convince Kim Jong-un to use that nuclear warhead. If Trump is going to make Muslims wear numbers, what would prevent him from keeping a list of names of those who oppose him?”
Some people have experienced intensifying irritability and anxiety from the constant onslaught of Trump-centered media coverage, which may prove to be worse for those who have already experienced the worst-case scenarios—previous traumas, particularly those similar to the new traumatic event, e.g., people escaping from other dictatorial regimes or cultural persecution. (Studies after 9/11 noted that people with a history of previous trauma showed more psychological distress and morbidity than others.)
One of the hallmark symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is repetition: the revisiting and reliving of past memories of danger—the nightmares, the flashbacks—of precisely the moment of violation or horror. This leads to a feeling of futility and helplessness, that one cannot escape even if one lived, that living is almost worse than dying because one has to bear witness over and over again. This chronic repetition and anxiety leads to damage, both mental and physical, of the brain’s “alert system”—the limbic system, actually physically changes in response to the traumatic event.
This anxiety isn’t just limited though to people with trauma, though. Anyone can develop a condition like generalized anxiety disorder, which is characterized by constantly ruminating over and worrying about events based in reality, like Trump’s rise to power—and which can potentially become detrimental to your quality of life if the worrying intensifies and becomes all-consuming. The neurobiology of “sympathetic hyperactivation” is common across all anxiety disorders with some variations; they all can lead to significant mental and physical consequences. Those changes in one’s “fear circuit” in turn signal a cascade of corresponding changes in one’s body, where one is stuck in “fight-or-flight” mode—what is called sympathetic hyperactivation.
The sympathetic nervous system is somewhat misnamed from a layperson’s perspective; it is activated during the vigilant state, when one’s heart rate and blood pressure rise, when one cannot fall asleep, when one’s pupils are dilated, when one’s stress hormones like cortisol are coursing through one’s system. In people with severe anxiety disorders, their mind-body sympathetic nervous system gets stuck in this “on” state. The normal stopgaps where higher blood levels of certain hormonal and neurochemicals turn these systems “off” isn’t working anymore. And the consequences of this chronic systemic hyperactivation are quite negative; the risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease and cancer and immune dysfunction all increase. (Also, if you happen to be experiencing these symptoms leading to loss of sleep, major distress, and trouble functioning at home or work, do not hesitate to seek professional help.)
So in a sense Trump can be traumatic, even literally harmful to the health of those he targets. Trump has given potent voice to—and incited the rage of—voters, predominantly white, who have suffered the impact of the deep economic shift in our country and feel like they’ve been left out and gone unheard. Globalization combined with extreme capitalism, educational and socioeconomic inequality and community breakdown has resulted in an economic crisis for huge swaths of Americans, even almost a decade after the 2008 recession that brought our president into office. That trend combined with the rise in visibility, both in actual population numbers and via social media and millennial activism and landmark judicial decisions, of marginalized groups, like minorities, immigrants, LGBTQ people, and women, have led the disenfranchised to conclude that correlation is causation when there isn’t one, that these “Mexicans” and “Muslims” and more are the culprits, that they’re robbing them of their jobs and their opportunities and their country and values.
In the meantime, the rest of us look on, our stress levels rising, as the election coverage triggers with images that conjure some of the darkest chapters of Western history: angry mobs beating and killing people for their skin color or religion or orientation, shouting and chanting with their fascist leader. Fears of war and death and a never-ending cycle of violence. These fears are a particular betrayal for those of us who trusted the American message of inclusiveness, people like Sara Movahedi, a Florida resident who immigrated from Iran at age 7. A former police officer, she is Muslim and a Republican and says that “it’s a combination of bewilderment, disgust, utter sadness, and a great deal of despair. It’s quite literally the most disheartening and desolate feeling, and I’ve lived through a violent revolution. I literally feel isolated on a mountaintop, waiting for someone to come help, but no one ever does. And I’m having to start accepting that no one will ever come, and life as I knew it here in this country is over, and under him, will never be the same again. Why did my father fight so hard and risk so much to bring us here? Why did my mother tirelessly push for our citizenship and teach us to be proud of our new American life? What right does this man have to now take that all away from me, and make me fear for my future in this country? Why is no one making him stop? Why do they keep clapping for him, and cheering for him? Who keeps voting for him? Immigrants who have devoted our lives in service to this country, who fought to be here and fought to call this place our home—I took a test and waited years to earn the right to say I’m an American. What did he do?”
So I am hoping that with the recent wall-to-wall campaign coverage, we are not re-traumatizing our populace, and I certainly hope we are not headed toward a worst-case scenario wave of even worse trauma, oppression, and tyranny ahead. But the anticipation is what worries us all; whether we can escape the “widening gyre” of Yeats’s “The Second Coming” written as World War I descended upon everyone. Can we save human nature and history from repeating itself?