Trump wasn't just an abnormal figure — psychiatrists say his rhetoric caused real trauma

Several psychiatrists spoke with Salon about the very real trauma Trump's presidency caused

By Matthew Rozsa
Published July 8, 2021 5:30PM (EDT)
Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Donald Trump was an unprecedented president in many ways. He was the first president to lack any previous political or military experience, one of only five presidents to win an election without the popular vote (and the first to also later get impeached) and the only president to reject an election loss outright in order to promote a Nazi-esque Big Lie.

For millions of Americans, the end of Trump's presidency came as a relief — but for some, the break from normalcy has lasted far longer than they anticipated. Several psychiatrists who spoke with Salon used the word "trauma" to describe the lingering impact the last four years have had on many Americans, particularly those from marginalized communities most at risk from Trump's rhetoric.

Dr. David Reiss, a psychiatrist who contributed to the book "The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President," told Salon that although many of Trump's policies could be characterized as traumatizing, there were two areas which "crossed partisan boundaries."

First, he pointed to Trump's intentionally divisive rhetoric (policy-wise he was not that different from other recent Republican presidents) and noted that it has traumatized his supporters as well as his opponents.

"This is different from 'normal' pre-Trump politics wherein using anger strategically is not uncommon, but is typically not a personal attack and at least on the surface, it is couched in 'mature' language and focused on policies or specific behaviors regarding policies rather than being personal attacks," Reiss wrote via email. "Trump seems always willing to attack anyone who disagrees with him, or whom he does not see as sufficiently supportive of him. His attacks in very direct, personal, immature ways (name-calling/childish nicknames; stating overtly that opponents are horrible people, etc.), as well as Trump's using occasions that are typically at least superficially non-partisan (holidays, tragedies, etc.) to almost always include an attack on some person or persons, is far outside of what is normal."

These actions traumatize supporters by triggering their anger in emotionally damaging ways, and, more importantly, make his opponents targets for very real-life abuse from Trump's supporters, Reiss said. His political opponents, meanwhile, have to endure an unusual amount of verbal abuse — even for contemporary politics.

Dr. Gail Saltz, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the NY Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine, also noted Trump's extreme and cruel rhetoric as abnormal in American politics.


 

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"President Trump used deprecating, extreme, cruel language to discuss anyone or groups he did not agree with," Saltz told Salon via email. "He often included an indictment of the person or group with verbally aggressive language, even suggesting at times for others who agreed with him to rise up and 'defeat' any who would oppose him. He ridiculed and shamed others around him and constantly threatened others with being treated aggressively should they fail to support him."

Even worse, Trump's actions "gave permission to many people to treat other people and groups the same way. As a result, it had a ripple effect, where targeted groups (due to immigration status, race, religion, sexuality, gender, socioeconomic status, etc.) were being treated badly through being shamed, threatened with violence, and threatened with loss (money, inclusion, a home to live in, shunning from their society, etc.)."

When Trump wasn't abusing people with his juvenile insults, he was altering their sense of reality to meet his own political purposes. This occurred most infamously, of course, with his refusal to accept the science behind COVID-19 or the objective reality that he lost the 2020 election.

"Similarly, although with somewhat different content, Trump's constant 'redefining of reality' to meet his needs of the moment, often with minimal connection with objective reality or in direct contradiction of facts, and not infrequently even internally inconsistent (Just last week: From 'No one knows more about taxes than me' to 'No one really knows about taxes') is traumatizing," Reiss said. "Again, agree or disagree, these statements are at best discombobulating, if not overtly traumatizing (i.e., 'gaslighting'). Even if a person supports Trump, the constant fluctuations of his definition of reality is disorganizing and anxiety-provoking — and then ties into triggering anger at others who do not support whichever point of view you adopt."

Saltz had a similar observation, explaining that "when a leader makes statements that deny reality, enforce that only news they agree with is real news and all else is fake news can further the trauma for those people who are living with the difficult consequences of their reality. So to be in terrible struggle and then have the leader, the person in charge, say it is not your reality can only add to trauma."

She compared Trump to other world leaders who have traumatized people — including Iraq's Saddam Hussein, Cuba's Fidel Castro, the Soviet Union's Joseph Stalin and Spain's Francisco Franco — arguing that "the very essence of trauma is believing that your life or future life has been put at real risk, that you experience living through an utterly frightening and dangerous time that is not typical for the human experience of feeling safe and having some security."

She added, "This type of fearful loss of the ability to say 'I am okay, I will be okay' can generate ongoing psychological symptoms of anxiety, depression, intrusive frightening thoughts, flashback reoccurrences of terrible moments, trouble concentrating, sleep disruption and avoidance of anything that reminds you of the traumatic time."

Olivia James, a London-based therapist who specializes in trauma, recalled that roughly one-third of her practice reported unanticipated physical responses when Trump began smearing then-candidate Joe Biden on the campaign trail. 

"Several people reported they found themselves breathing deeply from their bellies," James wrote to Salon. "Their shoulders dropped. And they didn't even realize they were holding four years of tension in their shoulders or diaphragm. Four others spontaneously started to weep. They found they were grieving the past four years."

James elaborated on how Trump is so effective at hurting people.

"Trump is widely regarded as a malignant narcissist; twisting the truth, gaslighting and bullying," James explained. "Trump uses DARVO - a blame-shifting strategy used by abusers including narcissists: 1. Deny 2. Attack 3. Reverse Victim & Offender. He used it against 20 women who accused him of sexual assault. He's also used it to claim the Democrats were trying to steal the election he won by a landslide."

James later added, "The fact that so many Republicans backed him even after he showed what he was capable of will also add to the trauma and anxiety. There's also the real fear that he may come back, so the hyper-vigilance will continue."

Yet she said people should not feel embarrassed or believe they are powerless at Trump's hands.

"If you feel traumatised by Trump, this means your empathy and moral compass are still functioning," James said. "Find your tribe so you don't feel so isolated and powerless. We've got to hold onto our hope and our shared humanity. Focus on what you can do, individually and collectively. Even micro actions will help you feel like you have agency."


Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer for Salon. He holds an MA in History from Rutgers University-Newark and is ABD in his PhD program in History at Lehigh University. His work has appeared in Mic, Quartz and MSNBC.

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Donald Trump Mental Health Politics Psychiatry Ptsd Reporting Trauma