America is still deeply traumatized — and the midterms didn't fix that

Many voters turned against Trump — and that's good. But beneath that momentary relief, the data is sobering

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published December 1, 2022 6:00AM (EST)

A poster of President Donald Trump is displayed along a street on October 29, 2020 in Winterset, Iowa. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
A poster of President Donald Trump is displayed along a street on October 29, 2020 in Winterset, Iowa. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

The American people are traumatized by the Age of Trump and what it unleashed. The damage is at once physical, emotional, psychological, intellectual, financial, spiritual and political, and is nowhere near being healed or repaired.

This trauma comes with a literal body count, and that outcome is not a negative externality, a "defect" or an accident. Trumpism, like other forms of fascism and authoritarianism, is lethal by design.

The pain and suffering caused by the Age of Trump and its forces were amplified by preexisting societal traumas, such as extreme wealth and income inequality, white supremacy, sexism, a culture of violence and systemic injustice.

In a recent interview on Democracy Now!, bestselling author and physician Gabor Maté said this about America's collective unwellness:

[I]n our society, psychological woundedness is very prevalent, and it's rather an illusion to believe some people are traumatized and others are not. I think there's a spectrum of trauma that crosses all layers and all segments of society. Naturally, it falls heavier on certain sections — on people of color, people with genders that are not fully accepted by society, people of economic inequality who suffer more from inequality — but the traumatization is pretty general in our culture. …  [T]he first thing that has to happen is a recognition that how we're living or some aspect of our lives is not working for us, and that there's a cause for it, which we can actually uncover by some compassionate inquiry.

And very often there needs to be a wake-up call. Now, COVID could have been a wake-up call for this culture, but I don't think it will have worked that way. It should have, but it didn't, because of the nature of this society. ... The resistance to social transformation in this culture is so deep that the COVID lessons, I don't think, have been learned, nor will be applied.

If we "look upon these manifestations as individual pathology," that yields no explanation, Maté continues. But to "see them as the outcomes of a toxic culture" may provide more useful insight. Public health experts have shown how loneliness, anxiety, suicide and other forms of self-harm, diminished self-esteem, unhealthy relationships, drug and alcohol abuse, the "deaths of despair" and other indicators of a society in existential crisis increased in America during Donald Trump's presidency.

There are countervailing forces, to be sure. Joe Biden has tried to exert a calming influence over the American people and to serve as an anchor and model for responsible leadership. Furthermore, a large proportion of the American people stood up against the Republican Party's anti-democracy "red tide" during the recent midterm elections. Nonetheless, most of the public and its leaders and opinion-makers, especially the mainstream media, remain in deep denial about the reality of the fascist threat to American democracy and civil society.

Many Americans, in fact, seem collectively stuck in the depression and bargaining stages of grief. There has been no closure, let alone any proper reckoning for the trauma and loss suffered during the Age of Trump. The result could be described as collective maladaptive compensatory behavior.

Because fascism is a form of corrupt, unrestrained power — a fundamental assault on the collective and individual emotions of a society as a means to break its collective will and enforce a destructive revolutionary project — therapeutic language is especially useful both in diagnosing the crisis and finding a way to solve it. 

Understood through that framework, the midterm elections and the immense relief being experienced by many Americans about how democracy "triumphed" and Trump and the Republicans have been "beaten back," are revealed as dangerous acts of premature celebration. To use a powerful metaphor, the American people are like "dry drunks," a therapeutic term used for alcoholics who have stopped drinking without addressing the underlying causes of their disease and addiction. If we believe our democracy is almost fully healed because of what happened in November, we are making the same crucial mistake.

In a recent series of posts on Twitter, activist and author Don Winslow has shared what he calls "tragic and upsetting facts":

1. We lost the House.

2. More Republicans voted than Democrats.


Tragic and upsetting facts but facts….

A lot of "toxic positivity" on here. It's a real thing, and really, really annoying and nonsensical….

The reason I'm posting facts about the 2022 mid-terms - which I realize are difficult to see - is so that my fellow Democrats can make some important structural changes NOW so that we don't repeat this in 2024.

In the latest installment of his invaluable New York Times column, Thomas Edsall focuses on empirical data showing that, as Winslow says, Republicans actually received more votes than Democrats did in the midterms. (This phenomenon is known as "wasted votes" in which one party runs up huge margins in safe seats.) Edsall also observes that the Democratic Party's electoral coalition "revealed dangerous cracks" in the midterms, and may be vulnerable to exploitation and attack by its opponents:

Turnout fell in a number of key Democratic cities. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the city's "vote count dropped 33 percent from 2020, more than any other county and the statewide average of 22 percent. It's not just a 2020 comparison: This year saw a stark divergence between Philly turnout and the rest of the state compared to every federal election since at least 2000."

The Chicago Board of Election Commissioners reported that turnout of registered voters in 2022 was 46.1 percent, down from 60.67 percent in the previous 2018 midterm.

According to the Board of Elections in Ohio's Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, turnout fell from 54.5 percent in 2018 to 46.1 percent in 2022.

The Gotham Gazette reported that from 2018 to 2022, turnout fell from 41 to 33 percent in New York City.

The drop in turnout was disturbing to Democratic strategists, but so too was the change in sentiment of many of the voters who did show up, as support for the party's nominees continued to erode among Black, Hispanic and Asian American voters.

Edsall reports that "Republican House candidates got 3.5 million more votes nationwide than Democrats did, 53.9 million, or 51.7 percent of the two-party vote to the Democrats' 50.4 million, or 48.3 percent." That's a startling six-point swing in the Republicans' favor from 2020, and they would indeed have enjoyed a "red wave" election if voters had not by and large "turned against the specific candidates endorsed by Donald Trump — candidates who in competitive races backed Trump's claim that the 2020 election was stolen."

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

At the Daily Beast, David Rothkopf also sounded the alarm about the continued threat from the Republicans' fascist campaign to end American democracy. "Voters helped beat back creeping authoritarianism," he notes, and that's "worth celebrating." But Democrats lost the House and only barely held the Senate. All the likely contenders for the GOP's 2024 presidential nomination, Trump of course included, "are drawn like moths to the authoritarian flame. Their goal is to incinerate checks on presidential power and to suppress the will of all those who may oppose them":

When the euphoria of stopping the "red wave" fades, we'll have to accept the fact that the 2022 midterms, in the end, affirmed that we remain a deeply divided country….

Yes, many prominent election deniers lost their races, but a disquieting number of them won at both the national and local levels. And the GOP supermajority on the Supreme Court isn't going anywhere — which means more fundamental rights are threatened, and partisans will have friends in high places should they want to distort election results in the future…

At the Atlantic, leading "never-Trumper" Tom Nichols also cautioned against premature celebration:

Events of the past few weeks in Russia, Brazil, and America show the global right in disarray. But these are not signs of defeat, as liberals might hope; they are the disorderly attempt by antidemocratic forces to stage a recovery.… [W]e should not lose sight of the fact that some of the worst people in national and global politics are reorganizing and retrenching. They will be back.

In an essay for the Guardian, Simon Tisdall rejects the "received wisdom on the left that the Republicans will self-destruct in a scrap for the party nomination," and that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis may finally break Trump's hold on the party:

And yet, and yet … bandwagon-loads of wishful thinking cloud these calculations. Trump retains the support, mostly, of his famed "base" — the Maga core. He continues to attract torrents of individual cash donations. The politics of grievance have deep roots. DeSantis has not said he will run.

And he is dusting off his election playbook, which confounded conventional wisdom in 2016. He will again cast himself as the underdog, the outsider, the only candidate who calls out corrupt Washington elites. Trump, after all, is an expert on corruption….

Could America really fall for this vaudeville charlatan all over again? Polls suggest most voters want neither Trump nor Joe Biden in 2024. Yet if there is a rematch, who can say what will happen.

One of the most powerful recent warnings about the enduring nature of fascism and its deep systemic and culture roots in America came from distinguished sociologist and activist Frances Fox Piven, in an interview with the Guardian:

"I don't think this fight over elemental democracy is over, by any means," [Piven] said. "The United States was well on the road to becoming a fascist country — and it still can become a fascist country." ...

While many observers have breathed a sigh of relief over the rout of extreme election deniers endorsed by Trump, and his seemingly deflated campaign launch, Piven has a more somber analysis.

All the main elements are now in place, she said, for America to take a turn to the dark side. "There is the crazy mob, Maga; an elite that is oblivious to what is required for political stability; and a grab-it-and-run mentality that is very strong, very dangerous. I was very frightened about what would happen in the election, and it could still happen."

That Piven is cautioning against a false sense of security in the wake of the midterms would not surprise her many students and admirers. ... She has raised red flags over the vulnerabilities of the country's democracy, the inequalities baked into its electoral and judicial systems, and how poor Americans, especially those of colour, are forced to resort to defiance and disruption to get their voices heard. Now, with the Republicans having taken the House of Representatives, she foresees ugly times ahead.

"There's going to be a lot of vengeance politics, a lot of efforts to get back at Joe Biden, idiot stuff. And that will rile up a lot of people. The Maga mob is not a majority of the American population by any stretch of the imagination, but the fascist mob don't have to be the majority to set in motion the kinds of policies that crush democracy."

The American people are at a perilous moment in their halting efforts to heal and recover from Trumpism and the evils it has empowered and unleashed. The Supreme Court will soon decide if state legislatures have the power to reject the results of democratic elections. In essence, if the court decides in favor of the "independent state legislature" doctrine, the U.S. will be at extreme risk of becoming a fake "managed democracy" in the mold of Vladimir Putin's Russia or Viktor Orbán's Hungary.

If Trump successfully returns to power in 2025, he will be eager to silence or imprison journalists and other "enemies" of the MAGA movement. A second Trump term could mean the end of American democracy. Trumpists and other neofascists continue to engage in acts of thuggery, violence and terrorism against liberals, progressives, Black and brown people, Jewish people, Muslims, LGBTQ people and others deemed to be "un-American." Many experts have warned that the country remains on a path to a low-intensity civil war or other sustained right-wing violence.

Depending on how they respond to these challenges, the American people could then find themselves relapsed, collapsed fully backwards into the Age of Trump and neofascism – or perhaps something even far worse.

Americans still have the power to heal the traumas of the last seven years and move forward into a stronger and healthier and more enduring democracy. But only if they are willing to face these "tragic and upsetting facts" without flinching. 

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

MORE FROM Chauncey DeVega

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Authoritarianism Commentary Democracy Democrats Donald Trump Elections Fascism Republicans