Political Anxiety Disorder

0308trumpnazisaluteYou haven’t heard much from me these past few months. I’ve found it hard to write. While my life continues apace, and I doubt that I look different to casual observers, I’ve found it difficult to get anything done. Some days I spend more time than anyone should on the internet, checking the up-to-the-second status of the race for the U.S. Presidency on sites like Real Clear Politics and FiveThirtyEight.com. I know the results of just about every Presidential election poll, often minutes after the results are released. Clinton trails Trump by only 3% for Alaska’s three electoral votes? Great! But what’s happening in Arizona?

I wish I were joking, but I’m not. This isn’t fun for me. The politics of 2016 has me profoundly unhappy and anxious, and I’m not alone feeling this way. Political Anxiety Disorder is a thing, even if it doesn’t always go by that name. Sometimes I see it called “Election Stress Disorder.” This malady is not listed in DSM, at least not yet. But its effects are real. One author calls it “the national nervous breakdown that is the 2016 election.” “We’re hearing a higher level of concern and dismay than I’ve probably heard in any election cycle, in 25 years of clinical work,” says one therapist. Therapists describe the fear many of their patients feel at the prospect of the election of Clinton, or Trump (usually, Trump), including nightmares, insomnia, digestive problems, and headaches. Couples report increasing tension. According to a study from the American Psychological Association, political discussions at work this election season have resulted in at least 1 in 10 working Americans feeling tense or stressed out (17 percent), having more difficulty getting work done (10 percent), and being less productive (13 percent).

And as the experts have noted, our political anxiety is not limited to worrying about what the opposing candidate will do to us if elected. A big part of Political Anxiety Disorder is the concern we feel, trying to figure out what in the blazes is going through the minds of the voters on the other side of the political divide. As one author describes it, it’s as if Republicans “inhabit a reality” that barely intersects with that of Democrats. In my life, this is close to literally true. I have been a Clinton supporter from the very beginning, and now that nearly all of my Bernie Sanders-supporting friends are behind Clinton, my Facebook page is about 99% pro-Clinton. The only time I encounter Trump supporters on Facebook is when one of my friends comments on a pro-Trump post, and the comment shows up on my feed. I read the anti-Clinton and anti-Obama vitriol on these posts, and I wonder who in hell are these posters? But I also wonder: is this what my Facebook feed looks like to Trump supporters? Like the raving of a lunatic?

I know a number of Republicans. I live these days in a part of the U.S. that’s almost equally divided between Democrats and Republicans. And I find that I am politely avoiding the Republicans. Our Thursday afternoon wine-tasting club has silently divided between Democratic and Republican tables. My cul-de-sac neighbors get together on Presidential debate nights for pizza, but we don’t invite the neighbor who’s a Republican. “He wouldn’t be comfortable,” we tell each other. We’re right. I think we’re all doing what we can not to antagonize the folks on the other side. When the election is over, we want to get along with our Republican neighbors the way we used to.

Still, it’s sad. I pride myself on being a Jew who is capable of discussing religious difference with Christians. It took me many years of study to learn enough about Christianity to engage in these discussions. But I don’t have a clue how to go about having meaningful political discussions with Republicans.

My unscientific guess is that Jews feel Political Anxiety Disorder more acutely than Gentiles. Why? For one thing, we know on a visceral basis that elections matter. We know that key to Hitler’s rise to power was the success he enjoyed in German elections. In the 1932 election for the German Presidency, Hitler lost to incumbent Paul von Hindenburg by a 16% margin, but he did receive 37% of the vote. Elections through the beginning of 1933 established the Nazis as the largest party in the German parliament, and though they were not in the majority, the elected power of the Nazis was important to Hitler’s seizure of absolute power. I’ve always wondered how the Germans (even a minority of Germans) could have voted for a man like Hitler. Like many people, I suppose, I’ve figured that there must have been something wrong with those people.

I wonder less than I used to about those Germans.

Look. I’m not saying we have a Hitler running for President. I’m not trying to compare anyone to Hitler, or to people who voted for Hitler. But in Trump, we do have a candidate who proposes actions against other people on the basis of their religion and country of origin, and these proposals do leave me with some of the same anxiety I feel when I think of the Third Reich. I’m not saying that this anxiety is rational, but it’s not completely delusional either. In Trump, we do have a candidate who proposes to deport 11 million people (most of them Hispanic, but also including Asians and Africans) from the United States to who-knows-where, and mass deportations were a critical component of Hitler’s final solution. We do have a candidate who proposes a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the United States, and Jews know all too well what can happen when a particular religious group is singled out by a government for hostile treatment. As I’ve already argued, Trump’s policies would inevitably result in at least a quanta of what Jews suffered during the Shoah: families divided from each other, people torn from their homes and their possessions, and the pain that follows expulsion and refugee status. The hardship of mass deportation would include, inevitably, the death of some of the most vulnerable people forced to move, particularly the sick and the elderly. These proposals represent a kind of cruelty on a mass scale the likes of which I never expected to see seriously discussed in the United States.

There’s more. A small contingent of Trump supporters is engaging in an anti-Semitic campaign unprecedented in the lives of American Jewry. The primary target of this campaign has been Jewish journalists, on the right and the left, though no journalist criticizing Trump is safe. Now, the campaign has spread beyond journalists. Recently, one of my Rabbi-teachers has been targeted with hundreds of vile anti-Semitic messages, many accompanied by photos of Hitler, crematoriums, swastikas, caricatures of Jews, and transport trains. For certain: these anti-Semites are on the fringe of American society—they are cowards hiding behind their Twitter accounts. But inexplicably, the Trump campaign (perhaps unwittingly) continues to promote these fringe voices, retweeting their comments and memes, even when their anti-Semitism is notorious. This retweeting is not isolated stuff: one analysis took a look at Trump’s 21 retweets during a week in January and found that more than half of them were from accounts with white supremacist connections. And as of this week, the Trump campaign is continuing to retweet messages from anti-Semitic sites.

There’s more. There’s Trump’s bizarre flirtation with the KKK, about the least appealing and most anti-Semitic group in the United States. On occasion, Trump supporters have been recorded screaming “Sieg Heil” at protestors, or yelling “white power!”, or giving the Nazi salute. Violence, violent incidents and violent rhetoric are common at these rallies. Trump himself has suggested that perhaps protestors at his rallies should be “roughed up,” and has spoken fondly about “good old days” when protestors would be “carried out on stretchers.”  More recently, Trump rally attendees have called for Clinton’s death. They are not merely chanting now for Clinton to be “locked up.” They are now calling for Trump to “hang the bitch” and “kill them all.” Trump calls “ridiculous” any comparison of his rallies to those staged by Hitler, but I’m not the only one who sees the parallels.

What recourse is there here for the rational-minded? We can try and dismiss some of this awfulness as hyperbole, exaggeration, or the excess of a too-long political campaign. I truly believe that my Republican friends have no stomach for Trump’s horrow show. They would never go to a Trump rally, imitate Nazi behavior or call for anyone’s death! So surely we are dealing with a crazy fringe element of people I don’t know. But even if I don’t know these people, they are there. Where do they all come from? And can I count on the nice, sane people who are voting for Trump to keep the crazies under control? I can think of at least one time, 80+ years ago, when the crazies won out.

My rational mind reaches for symmetrical comparisons. Perhaps a Clinton rally appears to a normal Trump supporter the way a Trump rally appears to me. There are no death threats at Clinton rallies, and no neo-Nazi behavior, but perhaps there’s something else going on in the Clinton campaign that is as viscerally frightening to Trump supporters as the Trump campaign is frightening to me. This makes sense to me, that maybe, we’re all scared. But I don’t become less anxious contemplating the anxiety of those in the political opposition.

My fear is better under control, now that it appears that Clinton will win. After all, only about 40% of American voters favor Trump. But, 40% is still a lot of people. Even if Trump is not Hitler, I no longer wonder as much as I used to, how Hitler might win 37% of the German vote.

I guess I’m not saying much here, other that the fear I feel is real, even if it isn’t rational, and it’s not only my fear I’m feeling. A lot of us are scared. Moreover, I am thinking, maybe, our fear is not purely a by-product of our politics. Maybe our politics is a product of our fear. I don’t know exactly what that would mean, but it can’t be good.

  • Stephanie Barbé Hammer

    I’m scared that more people aren’t scared. The racist, misogynist, xenophobic behavior and language of Trump’s supporters and of Trump himself is terrifying. A Native American acquaintance, a very gifted writer, speaks of how they feel a visceral sense of fear when they see a Trump/Pence sign. Although I am a privileged white person, I feel it too.

  • Ann Brantingham

    I feel it too. When Trump mocked the disabled reporter, I felt an uncomfortable chill that this event didn’t end his campaign. His constant referral to Hillary as “crooked” seems to be acceptable but it just feels like a stab every time I hear it. This type of rhetoric makes me worry about the return of ugly laws which would disappear anyone that is disabled (mentally or physically). I teeter on the edge of disability, but based on the glares I get at shopping malls, the ugly laws would affect me. I hope that after this election our country can decide that love and acceptance are the preferred state.

    • Thanks, Ann. Very very powerful. I think if we share the fear we feel, and in particular the very personal ways we feel this fear, then we can take a step towards healing.

  • Jane O’Shields-Hayner

    Political Anxiety Disorder? Yes. You’ve pegged it. As a creative person I feel frozen in place. I can’t focus on old work, which gives me much needed diversion, and I can’t keep up with what’s coming at me. The monsters face has changed before I have time to process it. I have a need to watch Trump like a rattlesnake sliding into our yard. I can’t turn my back on him. This is the closest thing to my childhood memories of the Cuban Missle Crisis I’ve experienced. This time I’m the adult trying to get children through it with as little lasting misery as possible.

    • Jane, yes, yes. There’s something in this anxiety that keeps my fingers from reaching the keyboard.

  • msl613

    Really excellent analysis. However, while I feel the same way as you do about Trump, I think it would have been more effective, and sharable, if you had left it neutral. Political Anxiety Disorder is affecting everyone, supporters and haters of both candidates. By slipping into an anti-Trump tirade you’ve shut out the pro-Trump/Anti-Hillary people from being able to absorb the important information and insight at the beginning of the article.

    • Thank you for writing this. Your critique is not only spot-on, it addresses a concern that’s front-and-center for me as I write. This IS a blog about dialogue. I don’t want to shut anyone out.

      But there is a tension at the heart of the kind of dialogue I want to do. My idea of dialogue is to seek, with great enthusiasm, to encounter an “other.” I don’t want to eliminate difference, or paper it over, but instead to welcome and value difference. To engage in dialogue, I must present the particularity I represent. The trick is to do so in a way that both communicates who I am and allows for a reciprocal response. The trick is to keep in mind an overall objective, which is not merely to represent effectively, but also to learn, and even keep open the possibility of personal transformation and growth. The trick is to speak powerfully and personally, but in a way that invites (and even, enables) a powerful and personal response.

      As I admitted in my piece, I don’t know how to do the kind of dialogue in politics that I do in religion. Politics is harder to discuss in an inclusive way, particularly during a political campaign, where there’s going to be a clear winner and loser. I DO make an effort to write as dispassionately as I can, but it’s a principle of dialogue for me: I must speak for my own particularity. I can try to do so in a quiet voice, with the greatest possible understanding I can muster for those on the other side. I can try to do better, and I will try.

      • msl613

        I appreciate your response. Obviously it’s your blog. And like I said, I totally agree with you. I have a lot way too many, pro-Trump friends. And if shared this they wouldn’t be able to “hear” the first part of what you’re saying. My work-around was to take an article you linked to about this “syndrome” without the political bias. Thanks for the HT. 🙂

        • I’ve been thinking about your comment all weekend. I understand that you agree with me, and that we’re discussing here is not whether the substance of my message is right or wrong. What we’re discussing here is how can we speak to each other in a way that allows our messages to be heard, and understood.

          There is a difficult balance in dialogue. To the greatest extent possible, I want everyone to participate. This space needs to be as safe and welcoming as I can make it. If you’re a regular reader, I think you’ve seen how I treat commenters with all the respect I can muster. I would welcome it if a Trump supporter came forward to tell us why they are scared, or why they think my fears are unfounded. But I do believe that I have to come here as I am, and with all the respect I can muster for those on the other side, I have to say what I think and what I feel.

          Is there “political bias” in this post? I guess there is, to the extent I identified who is making me feel anxious, and why. But it’s not “bias” to say that Trump proposes mass deportations and a focus on Muslims entering the U.S. That’s what he’s proposing. It’s not bias to say that these proposals are going to hurt those people targeted. There may be some bias in my saying that these proposals are cruel. Perhaps I could have come up with a less loaded term than “cruel.” But it’s hard to come up with a different term to describe a willingness to inflict this kind of pain on people. “Wanton indifference”? “Naive insensitivity”?

          It is difficult, for me at least, to write with impartiality where I see people being harmed, and people being threatened with harm. I DID admit in my post, it’s possible to imagine that the threat of harm here goes in both directions. I am open to the possibility that we might all engage in dialogue about the things that scare us. But as I can’t see any comparable threat of harm to Trump supporters, I had to come out and say that, too. I don’t see how I could simply have assumed that the threat both sides face, or at least feel they’re facing, is equal and symmetrical. It’s simply not the case in every conflict that both sides are equally wronged and in the wrong.

          And I guess, there’s something else. I have a small voice, a few people who listen to me here. If I see injustice and don’t speak out, what am I?

          • Even if you’re reporting facts, there is bias in the decision to emphasize one particular set of facts over others. But like you say, that merely reflects what you think and feel – nothing wrong with that. I think msl613 was simply making the point that Political Anxiety Disorder is something that Clinton and Trump supporters alike can relate to, which itself has worth, being a human common denominator that transcends the political divide. And if you want it to do that work, reach both sides, it needs to be set in a neutral space, separate from your “speaking out.”

            • David, I respectfully dissent.

              There is an extent to which every statement we make is “bias.” No one can be completely objective. But there is a difference between bias and strict neutrality. In fact, “neutrality” is itself a bias, at least in certain circumstances. The example of the Swiss in WW II leaps to mind.

              There’s also a difference between bias and particularity. I speak here about matters of religion, but from A (stress A, as in my own) Jewish perspective. I have not tried to figure out a way to be “Swiss” in these conversations!

              A good post-modern approach to the problem of bias is to confess one’s particularity, rather than to hide one’s bias under a veneer of depersonalized omniscience. The trick, then, is to do so in a way that welcomes other voices into the conversation. I admit, I have far to go on this score.

              I much appreciate your comment

              • Okay, I can agree with that. Though I think we’re getting into false dichotomy territory. There is after all considerable space between “hiding” one’s feelings on a topic, and running through the full impassioned exposition every time you speak on that topic. A simple solution – write different pieces and cross-link.