American society is very sick.
What public health experts have termed "the deaths of despair" have shortened the life spans of "working class" whites aged 45-54. Such a large decrease in lifespans for an entire demographic is relatively unique in the world. The American people – especially men – are experiencing very high levels of loneliness, disconnectedness and social atomization.
These problems are not separate or apart from Age of Trump.
In the most obvious example, more than 1 million people have died in America from the COVID pandemic – hundreds died just this week. The nation has not properly grieved such a massive loss. Part of that inability to properly grieve is a function of how the Trump regime and its agents have faced no serious criminal (or even civil) punishments for their role in what was a de facto act of democide.
Ultimately, however, Trumpism and other forms of fake populism are symptoms, not the cause of a deep societal rot that spans American society. When social deviance and other anti-social and anti-human behaviors are normalized entire cultures become pathological. This is one of the main lessons from the Age of Trump and in other countries where democracy and civil society have succumbed to authoritarianism, fascism, and other illiberal forces.
What would a healthy American society even look like? What would it require for America to confront its deep traumas and then find closure and healing?
In an effort to answer these questions I recently spoke with Dr. Seth D. Norrholm, a translational neuroscientist, psychologist, and one of the world's leading experts on PTSD and fear. He is currently a scientific director at the Neuroscience Center for Anxiety, Stress, and Trauma (NeuroCAST) in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences at Wayne State University School of Medicine. Dr. Norrholm explores how America is in the midst of a collective type of pathological and other unhealthy behavior that the country's leaders as well as everyday Americans are afraid to confront. The fact that Americans are overprescribed mood-altering drugs and are addicted to social media and other technology contributes to this denial and disengagement with reality. Of note: Americans are 4.4 percent of the world's population but consume more than 80 percent of the opioids.
"What we have now are elected officials who aim to do real, significant harm to those they view as the enemy."
Ultimately, Dr. Norrholm is deeply concerned that today's Republican Party (and by implication the larger "conservative" movement and white right) has become a vessel for pathological behavior where "personality disordered" individuals like Donald Trump, Marjorie Taylor Greene, George Santos, and others are elevated and given great power on a national and international stage.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
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How are you feeling given the state of this country and world?
We are in a precarious situation and many Americans either don't see it or don't want to see it. The fact is we have a major political party in this country that is hell-bent on breaking democracy – for largely selfish and nihilistic reasons. This major political party has a huge influence on almost half of the population (according to polls and the results of the 2020 Presidential and 2022 mid-term elections). This influence is bolstered and magnified by the right-wing news media and social media platforms. And let's be honest here, a loud voice has been given to people who, according to many widely held societal, moral, legal, psychological and faith-based criteria, are the worst humanity has to offer. They worship guns. They devalue the life of children. The support corporate greed and resist oversight despite deadly effects on the populace. They contort and misinterpret and mis-apply Christian thought and values. They lie with impunity. They define patriotism as fidelity to one man and his disciples – and it ain't Jesus or George Washington. Social pressures and outright deception and corruption have muted any accountability efforts. These long-lasting ripple effects of the Trump era have created an open space for the delusional and dysfunctional to grab the wheel of our government and the people held hostage. Just look at the election process for Kevin McCarthy to Speaker of the House. One renegade group of MAGAites hijacked the U.S. Congress for days.
What are you doing to maintain your own balance, emotionally, psychologically and the like given the tides we are being buffeted by?
We are now, perhaps more than ever, forced to think of our lives on micro- and macro-scales. The micro-scales are your immediate family, your housing and job situation, your hobbies, likes and dislikes, and social network of friends and acquaintances. The macro-level is your position as an American, as a global citizen, and as a steward of this world for the next generations. There was a time not too long ago where you could clearly separate your micro- and macro-worlds. There was a time when politics was brought up in social or work situations and you could appropriately say, "I don't follow politics." This was in large part due to the fact that for most Americans, they could operate in a micro-world and not spend time following C-SPAN or any other political platforms and do just fine. What we are facing now is a socio-political-cultural environment in which the political (macro-world) is making decisions, enacting legislature and promoting platforms that can effect direct harm to us and our loved ones. We have elected officials who are concocting fake personas out of whole cloth, who are (and were) opposing restrictions like closings and mask wearing meant to stop the spread of a deadly virus, and rather than wearing ribbons of support for the victims of gun violence are wearing depictions of deadly assault rifles – all while claiming to be "pro-life."
To answer your question, my advice is to build up your micro-world, build relationships, celebrate the little things, spend time with your parents, siblings and kids. Take time for self-care, relaxation, and hobbies. Exercise regularly and eat right. All of these micro-scale activities will help you gain resistance against the socio-political-cultural world that you can no longer blissfully ignore. I run several times a week, meditate, call friends and family often – all in the service of girding myself for the long haul.
"It is this lack of accountability coupled with the removal of the "conscience" of the GOP that has ushered in an era where it is not just lying that has been accepted but pathological lying and personality-disordered individuals who would be unfit for many jobs in the American workforce."
American society is one of spectacle and distraction. There are dream merchants in advertising, politics, technology, and across American life who are dedicated to selling fantasies and manipulating the public. How has that impacted the collective mental health of the American people and their ability to deal with personal and collective problems?
Let's be clear here. There have always been lies and deception in American politics and government. It has occurred often in a "wink and nod" fashion where a political candidate says something to get elected but then acts differently once in office. But there was a long-standing, underlying assumption. That assumption being the politician might act in a way that I disagreed with and that might have had consequences for me or not (e.g., higher taxes, higher prices, longer processing times) but ultimately believed in democracy and didn't want to actually hurt me/us. What we have now are elected officials who have torched that underlying understanding and aim to do real, significant, often malicious harm to those they now view as the enemy.
One inflection point in recent history that we can point to is the death of John McCain. That was one of the true points where Republican decency and its moral compass were shattered. So the spectacle has become more real and the collective anxiety felt in America is due to REAL threats (to Social Security, to alternative lifestyles, to women's rights, to civil rights, to school safety, and to protection from being shot in public).
George Santos and Donald Trump are more than fabulists. They appear to be pathological liars and malignant narcissists. But the more important fact is that such behavior is embraced by American society on so many levels. In fact, I would argue that they are able to get away with such behavior and profit from it encouraging that pathology and legitimizing it among the public at large. It is not a coincidence that both Santos and Trump are Republicans.
Related to my point above, the destruction of the moral compass and avarice and cowardice in the Republican party has ushered in a new wave of candidates and politicians. What were once damning qualities or behaviors are now either swept aside or embraced.
"The amplification and distortion of the public self has pushed many people further away from self-reflection."
George Santos likely has a disordered personality characterized by pathological lying and lack of respect for others. He was just sworn into the U.S. House of Representatives. There was a time when Howard Dean's candidacy for President was derailed because he once yelled too loud into a microphone at a campaign event. Jim Jordan covered up a university sexual assault scandal. Marjorie Taylor Greene cheered the 1/6 Insurrection. 147 Republicans voted to overturn the 2020 Presidential election. None were sanctioned, punished, or removed.
It is this lack of accountability coupled with the removal of the "conscience" of the GOP that has ushered in an era where it is not just lying that has been accepted but pathological lying and personality-disordered individuals who would be unfit for many jobs in the American workforce.
In terms of Santos, Trump, and the other Republican leaders, Fox News etc they are truly a pathocracy. What does it mean for a country and society to have some of its most prominent leaders model such unhealthy behavior? Likewise, what of the influence of Biden and others who are trying to model responsible leadership?
The problem with our elected officials and their wide platforms of influence (through television, social media, and official actions) modeling unhealthy behavior is that we as a society have long given news anchors and media figures and elected officials such as Congressmen and women positions of authority. It made a real impact if Dan Rather said there was a crisis in America. It matters when governmental figures make public statements. In many ways, these media and governmental influences stitch together the fabric of our society. The question that laid dormant for years was "What happens if these influential figures had ill-intent, a lack of remorse, or self-serving biases?" The "authority" figures are now redefining patriotism, loyalty, health priorities, international relations, and so much more. A key example of this is the Republican lionization of Kyle Rittenhouse. Yes, in legal terms, he was acquitted of shooting and killing two unarmed fellow Americans. You can debate his intentions, his self-defense claims, and his outcomes after this but the facts of the case are clear: He entered a situation where he did not live, brought an assault rifle, and engaged and killed people. No gun, no killing. The right has embraced Rittenhouse, invited him as a guest at their "conventions," put him on Fox News and the like. There are numerus pictures of him mugging with Republican officials both current and recently elected out of office. In other words, they have provided a justification for killing while hiding under a fake umbrella of Second Amendment rights. Another deadly example is the refusal of "leaders" such as the former President and Florida governor Ron DeSantis who actively worked against vaccinations, against masks, against closures despite the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic has taken the lives of over 1.1 million Americans as of this week.
The image that comes to mind with Biden and his administration is consistent with the use of the word "tides" in your question. Biden is at the wheel of a cutter ship in the midst of a horrific storm. Waves, in the form of Republican obstructionism and corruption, MAGA loyal members of Congress and their threats of impeachment, and a large sector of his constituents calling him criminal and treasonous, that keep striking the hull with the potential to permanently damage the ship. Biden holding that wheel right now is indicative of where we are as a country. If he manages to sail us through the worst, then there is a chance to right the ship aka return some sense of normalcy.
Does the average American want to be honest with themselves? What would that look like in practice? Moreover, what about a type of critical self-reflection and personal inventory on an individual and societal level? That would require that we look at the ugliness in the mirror. To do such a thing is terrifying for a culture and a people who are addicted to social media, the stupidity of the human zoo that is TikTok, obsessed with being "micro celebrities" on Twitter or Instagram, and the like.
This is a great point. Psychologists have long known that we tend to have a public self and a private self. Before the age of social media, the coverage, influence, and impact of the public self was relatively limited. You could write an op-ed to the local newspaper, call into a radio show, or contact your member of Congress through a snail mail letter. Social media has pushed the public self beyond what was once envisioned. Tweets, Instas, Snaps, and Facebook posts can be "blown up" and go viral within seconds and minutes.
People who were once "on the fringe" have a louder voice and farther reach. Force multipliers like Fox News and other media outlets amplify messages that (1) never got very far and (2) were pretty easily dismissed. So, to answer your question, the amplification and distortion of the public self has pushed many people further away from self-reflection.
Those experience machines are a way of filling up one's deep personal emptiness with dopamine hits from being "seen" and "acknowledged" by their so-called friends online. What of meaningful interpersonal human relationships? Loneliness and social atomization are a public health problem and a precondition and fuel for fascism and other anti-human politics.
Technological advances, 24/7 at-the-fingertips access, and social media have greatly increased the size of the echo chambers within which the far right and extremists reside (and you could argue the far left as well). Through confirmation bias, an attentive audience, and a broad platform, people have a greater sense of seeing and being seen – even if it is in a fantasy world where elections are rigged, viruses are hoaxes, and immigrant invasion threatens our lives and property.
You are absolutely right that we know as neuroscientists that "likes", "follows", "retweets", and other social media affirmations and validations increase dopamine like a rewarding drug, food, or sexual experience might. This fuels and reinforces the extreme behaviors and bolsters allegiance to false gods, golden calves, and their message.
What would a healthy American society look like?
A healthy American society starts with accountability. It means pursuing the case against the former President and his acolytes for the only insurrection on American soil at the heart of our democracy. It means Fani Willis in Georgia fully pursuing the criminal case against the former President (and other loyalists) for actively interfering in an election. It means banishing the former President and his loyalists from serving in elected office. The best analogy in this case is cancer. The stage was set for the development of cancer (i.e., the Trump presidency) by a number of pre-existing conditions in our politics (like the Freedom caucus, for example). The tumor emerged and grew steadily between 2017-2021 as guardrails fell, customs and traditions were shattered (like the inner sanctum that is the Oval Office being invaded by Russians with ill-intent), American lives were devalued, Supreme Court Justice requirements and qualifications were tossed, and laws were treated as optional (see Hatch Act and Emoluments clause of the Constitution). In November of 2020, the tumor was scheduled for surgery and then excised on January 20, 2021. However, enough cancerous cells remained in the body to germinate and set the stage for a return of the larger tumor. Regaining healthy society depends on excising the cancer permanently and then building up the body's resistance to a return to a diseased state. Not pulling punches, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Matt Gaetz, Kevin McCarthy, Ron DeSantis, Ted Cruz, Paul Gosar, Lauren Boebert, Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Jesse Watters, and too many others to name are acting like cancer cells, poised to kill our beloved patient.