A Psychologist’s Take on Repairing Our Mental Health in a Post-Trump World

Photo by DODJI DJIBOM on Unsplash

On January 20, 2021, Joe Biden will be sworn in as the 46th President of the United States. Despite winning the popular vote easily, Biden is now charged with leading a country that has never in modern history been as politically divided as it is today. Upwards of 70 million citizens cast ballots for Donald Trump — almost 48% of total voters — and their support for his administration’s policies and influence will not fade anytime soon. In fact, the growth and amplification of existing tensions among Americans is all too real, a potential clash we need to deal with imminently for the good of our nation and ourselves.

To understand the polarization in which we find ourselves and work towards mutual understanding and repair, we need to examine the origins of our cultural split, a vital step in the healing process.

The split occurring among Americans right now is the sequela of a serious mental defense mechanism known in psychoanalytic circles as “projective identification” — and which I call, simply, “blame-shifting.”

Donald Trump is a blame shifter. For decades, he has positioned himself as being up against the world, with the world usually characterized as “out to get” him. The winddown of the election vote counting has been no different, with Trump saying from the White House in the early hours after the polls, “It’s a corrupt system,” and tweeting the next day, “[Democrats] are trying to STEAL the Election.” (This appeared among a string of tweets that were removed and/or flagged as potentially misleading by Twitter).

Since he never accepts responsibility for his mistakes nor does he apologize for his behavior, Donald Trump appears to think he is always right. When others disagree with what he says, he summarily dismisses what they have said and, in most cases, the person who has said what displeases him. Since he is always right, that makes the other person or group of people wrong. He is good; they are bad.

This current stance, while especially extreme and divisive, follows decades of familiar posturing by Trump, all of which sets the stage for polarization and has dramatically pitted Americans against each other.

To uncover how Trump arrived here is important. Knowing his need to be seen as “right,” and “winning,” and the “best” is one thing — but knowing why he must be all these things is another. By now, we have learned a fair amount about both Trump’s attitudes and behaviors, past and present, and the background that set the stage for his present demeanor. Much that we know underscores his inability to accept any of his own perceived flaws or weaknesses, and his tendency to reject those intolerable traits by projecting them — or shifting blame — onto others.

Take for example his dislike for immigrants, which he has expressed publicly in personal comments as well as through multiple years’ worth of executive-ordered policy and legislation. The roots of his scorn may lie in his own upbringing or, more specifically, in the backstory concerning his mother, Mary Anne MacLeod. While Donald Trump has revealed little about his mother’s history, mostly leaving journalists to piece together the details of her early life on their own, her story provides an interesting prism through which to view his behavior. Coming to the U.S. from Scotland in 1930 at the age of eighteen to work as a housemaid, Mary Ann Macleod was herself one of the poor immigrants who Trump so outwardly disdains.

In order to rid himself of his background as the son of a very poor women who emigrated to the U.S. to serve as a domestic worker, it is possible that he has to project this aspect of his background onto the immigrant children who have throughout his term have been systematically separated from their parents, and held in cages in inhumane conditions. By calling the parents of these children “thugs,” “rapists,” and saying “please don’t be too nice” to them, Trump widens the distance between how he might view himself as the vulnerable child of a parent wanting a better life for herself, and how he sees the traumatized toddlers crying themselves to sleep under foil blankets on cement floors. Notably, the President’s niece, Mary Trump, told Jane Mayer in the New Yorker that in recent months he has seemed like “a terrified little boy” as he contemplates losing the presidential election.

Regardless of the long route to our present divisions, and despite them being amplified by the executive-in-chief whose words and actions set up this scenario, we have arrived at the same critical juncture, more urgently in need of rebuilding our relationships than ever.

One way we can start to move in a more positive direction is through what political scientist and psychoanalytic theorist C. Fred Alford termed the “four Rs.” In his work on the political and psychological legacy of World War II and the Holocaust, he outlines the mental shifts necessary for individual and societal repair following an intense period of conflict: “Remembrance of those who suffered; Reparation for their loss; Reformation of reason; and Reconciliation with nature.” For Alford, the commitment to look forward and devise new ways to think and act — while keeping the past in mind — are what make change possible. And only when we acknowledge the humanity of people “on the other side” — whether we are the “winners” or not — will we all escape the ongoing loss of being a country so markedly divided.

This repair is known as “mentalizing” — an important technique for taking others’ views seriously with the aim to calm grievances and pave the way for progress that is the key to changing the blame game we, as a nation, are in right now. We have become pros when it comes to talking at each other instead of collaborating with each other. Calm, respectful, and informed debate feels like a relic from the past — but this needn’t be the case. Yes, it can be difficult talking to people who adhere to extreme beliefs, but we can retrain ourselves to engage in thoughtful exchanges of ideas. We need to explore how to engage in active listening in an atmosphere of respect.

These concepts have never been more important as we begin to heal the wounds that have occurred as a result of Donald Trump’s divisiveness, and that have in turn hurt so many people — especially Black Americans and other people of color, people who identify as part of the LGBTQ community, as well as immigrants from most countries. It is vital to shine a bright light on the seriousness of the “divide and conquer” mindset that has threatened to rip our democracy apart. The actual outcome of the 2020 Presidential Election is only incidental to planning our next critical steps together as a country; Trump and his supporters are not going to disappear, and he will likely not be the last of his blame-shifting ilk on the American political landscape. But I am hopeful that now we will know how to soften divisions as they threaten to ossify irreversibly.

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Karyne Messina

Karyne Messina

I'm a psychologist and psychoanalyst focusing on helping people heal from toxic relationships