By Christina Raccuia
After Trump was elected, and even during his campaign, teachers noticed an uptick in bullying and distress in classrooms, as their students were, and continue to be, exposed to a president who regularly attacks his opponents in bombastic, even threatening terms. Trump’s crude boasts in 2005 about being able to kiss and grope women and “move on” a married woman “like a bitch” gave fuel to the charge that he might be normalizing aggressive and disparaging talk and behavior.
Trump’s appetite for scapegoating, intolerance, and blatant sexism is a threat to the well being of the people I care for as a therapist. In my practice, I have noticed how Trump’s combative and chaotic presidency has fueled feelings of anxiety, fear, shame, and helplessness, especially in women, gay people, minority groups, and nonwhite immigrants. They feel alienated and personally targeted by the president’s message.
While Trump’s presidency legitimizes, even celebrates, a set of personal behaviors that I, as a psychotherapist, work to reverse every day in my office, I find it harder to do my job well. This political climate fosters the tendency to blame “others” for our personal fears and insecurities, and then battle these “others,” instead of taking the healthier, more difficult path of self-awareness and self-responsibility. Trump also normalizes a kind of hyper-masculinity that is antithetical to the healthy relationships that psychotherapy helps people achieve.
Additionally, Trump’s use of social media for self-propagandizing appeals to fear and anger, again blaming people seen as “other,” humiliating opponents, fomenting distrust of the media and the political system, projecting an image of exaggerated masculinity, and ridiculing women while claiming to idealize them. For these reasons, I see Trump as a threat not just to the American people but also to the American democratic tradition, which I believe breeds the kind of openness that is essential to my work as a psychotherapist.
Women have been repeatedly targeted by Trump. With his crude comments, for instance, he revived body-shaming attacks against former Miss Universe Alicia Machado. Those comments have touched a nerve in many women, especially among those dealing with the post-traumatic effects of physical or sexual abuse by husbands, boyfriends, or fathers.
Trump’s suggestions that he could roll back civil rights gains for gay people—by appointing Supreme Court justices who would overturn same-sex marriage, for instance, and backing North Carolina’s controversial “bathroom bill” (House Bill 2)—are similarly triggering fears in some LGBTQ therapy patients. One of my lesbian clients was unnerved while traveling for work through what she described as “Trump-ish areas” of the South with her same-sex partner. To register in a hotel, they hid their relationship and pretended to be roommates. “Having to go back into the closet has come as a real shock to me,” she said.
I have also found that even my mostly white heterosexual male patients are experiencing anger and fear due to Trump’s campaign. Partly it’s that many of the men I treat grew up in dysfunctional families, with a violent or alcoholic parent, or one who was depressed or negligent. Trump’s aggressiveness is triggering their personal childhood traumas.
These days in my sessions, if the client doesn’t bring up Trump on his or her own, I like to ease into a conversation by first asking what the Trump presidency means to the patient. If the answer suggests acute anxiety, then I recommend action steps, like disengaging with non-stop TV coverage of the presidency and engaging instead with friends and the community. Additionally, patients who feel threatened by Trump can take action as citizens rather than feel helpless, for instance, by registering new voters. This is much healthier than turning to passive coping mechanisms, like having another glass (or bottle) of wine.
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