America as a “Battlespace”: A Note on Traumatic Stress in the Age of Trump

I have noticed a strange thing in the last few years. I used to know and play a lot of protest songs—mostly civil rights and anti-war songs. More and more often I find I can’t play and sing these songs without becoming extremely emotional. It is like a wave of grief just rises up and chokes me. My voice just locks up. It is literally (and I don’t say this lightly) like I can’t breathe. It is, in fact, painful—clearly a strong physical reaction to emotional stress. I can only conclude that I am suffering from a kind of traumatic response to what I see and hear around me every day.

A few years ago, I was invited to give a presentation at a summer institute on “Intercultural Communications.” Some really interesting research was shared there—something that should give us all pause. The data reflected work that the researchers had done about the effects of “workplace harassment.” The harassment mostly consisted of people being subjected to verbal taunts of a racist or anti-Semitic character. On the surface, though this harassment was unpleasant, it didn’t seem to be a real threat to anyone’s life or health.  The results of testing told a quite different story. In many cases the victims of even this relatively “mild” harassment showed signs of highly elevated stress and emotional trauma. In fact, their symptoms closely resembled those of soldiers returning from war zones like Iraq or Afghanistan—symptoms which weren’t “mild” at all. They include heightened blood pressure, anxiety, depression, insomnia and other sleep disorders–and these can all contribute to other serious health issues.

Now over the last 30 years or so, nothing been a more frequent target of scorn from the GOP, conservatives and the “right-wing” in general  than the idea of politically correct language. It always puzzled me that the notion that we should be more sensitive to the historical racism and “othering” that has become embedded in our language, and try to correct it, should be such a focus of the “culture wars.” In essence, the goal of PC language was simply to use better manners. Who could possibly mistake that proposition for something divisive?   

Throughout the same 30 years, the right-wing railed against “Big Government” or “Intrusive Government.” These labels were often used as a wedge issue to urge de-regulation of all kinds. For myself, I find the idea that the government is actually checking the quality of my air and water and inspecting my food, drugs, and bridges and so on is pretty comforting. It’s not really big or intrusive—it’s just what a government should do. In stark contrast, I don’t think we have seen any government that is actually more intrusive in a daily hurtful and destructive way than the last almost four years of Donald Trump’s current Republican regime.

I distinctly remember that it was only about a month after Trump’s inauguration that I began seeing articles from counselors, therapists and psychologists reporting high increases in patients reporting stress, anger depression and anxiety. I also remember my own visits to my doctor. He would ask that routine question, “Have you felt depressed or suicidal lately?” I would have to answer, “Well yes, but I don’t think it is a chemical or personal issue…it’s just because I see and read the news every day.” Then he would chuckle, and we would drop it.

The problem is, it’s certainly not “Post-traumatic Stress” because the cause hasn’t gone away yet. But the effects are pretty much the same. That should be no surprise. For over four years I and everyone else in this country have been bombarded with crude, offensive, outrageously insensitive language and sentiments. We have seen our constitutional guardrails get torn down. We have seen our laws obstructed and subverted. We have seen convicted criminals pardoned while righteous whistleblowers and members of our security establishment were intimidated, punished and threatened. We have seen a constant assault on the media. We have had to watch destructive policies enacted while corruption and graft run rampant. We have been bombarded by countless, incessant, and often obvious lies. We have even seen children forcibly taken from their parents—and then lost in a nightmare of mismanagement. Finally, almost every day we live in a storm of mindless hateful tweets and twitters from our “Dear Leader.” It is like living in a tiny dorm room with a large hive of angry, aggressive hornets always buzzing around. It is, frankly, intolerable. It is big intrusive government like we never dreamed of.

Now Trump is talking about my country as a “battlespace” into which he wants to deploy tens of thousands of troops in a show of “unlimited military force” to achieve “total domination” of the American public…

I started by mentioning how raw I seem to be emotionally. Over the last two years or so, this has gotten markedly worse. Most days now I find myself choked up even when simply mentioning a news story to my wife or posting a song on Facebook. A really hard, dull ache comes immediately to my throat (a feeling that I only had in years past after hours of weeping). Now it just rises instantly. It is physically painful. As a fairly average, relatively privileged white guy, I can only imagine what people of color and other minorities have to live with every day.

Maybe I am becoming more sensitive and empathetic (a good thing). Maybe I am just suffering from traumatic stress because things are getting so much worse every day (a bad thing). Maybe PTSD really stands for “Political Traumatic Stress Disorder.” Whatever it is, I would really like it to just stop for a while.

3 thoughts on “America as a “Battlespace”: A Note on Traumatic Stress in the Age of Trump

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  1. Thanks, Gilbert. Your words often express my reality before I can even think about the right words. I, too, am near tears much of the time…still in grief over the death of my son, but the political situation has heightened the level of sensitivity and pain I feel over the condition of this country. I was physically ill after the election–and cried for months. I was thankful that Kae died before the election–she would have been inconsolable.
    .
    I am thrown back to 1968 with the protests, looting, Nat’l Guard on campuses–and it brings up the intensity of feelings–and the beauty of the anti-war, civil rights music. This month’s protests have given me a smidgen of hope–for the first time since those days. May we live long enough to see real change.

    Blessings to you, dear friend.

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    1. Thanks Jeanne, I had no idea about your son. sincere condolences and sincere sympathy. Some great people have passed in the last few years. In most cases I share your view that they might not have minded missing all this. i just posted a couple of new things you might like. I’m glad some people are finding some benefit in what I share.All the bet. 

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  2. Out of all this sadness, better lives will come. The light is shining into the dark corners of our national psyche. It is so painful and sad but I do think it is very purposeful. It’s hard to imagine that we are moving in the right direction, but – long view here – I think we are. (Said through tears.)

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