The Emotional Divide of Trump’s Presidency

13 minute read

What you’re experiencing is normal. These feelings are entirely appropriate. Major news events really do press in at every turn, and the pace–yes, absolutely breakneck lately. It is the best of times, you bet. It’s also the worst of times, no doubt about that either. Both things can be true–philosophers and scientists agree on this–because reality is subjective. Especially since Election Day.

Among Donald Trump’s true believers, it’s all good. The candidate said he would shake things up, and as President, he produces temblors more reliably than the San Andreas Fault. “Mentally, it’s great,” says Mike Meyer, 69, a Trump voter in Saginaw, Mich. “Everything seems upbeat now.”

For those who voted for someone else, what the Disrupter in Chief is most disrupting is their ability to sleep soundly and maintain an optimal level of serotonin.

“I would wake up in the morning feeling as though I had a rock in my stomach,” says Carol McGuire, 66, of Columbus, Ohio, about the days following the election. “The word dread would apply.”

In other words, the country is not the only thing that’s split. So is its mental health.

Every election produces winners and losers, and the Nov. 8 vote was not America’s first presidential contest; it was its 58th. Republicans won the White House, so it’s the Democrats’ turn to be sad. That’s the dynamic that has propelled U.S. politics since the dawn of the two-party system.

But here’s something both sides agree on: There’s something unusual going on this time. The angle of the sun isn’t quite right. Birds fall silent at midday. Trump has engendered a qualitatively different response from the public, as befits a qualitatively different presidency. But the logic of the matter ends there. Emotions, in large sections of the population and in states of all colors, are as febrile as Trump at his most raw.

The anxiety is acute, free-floating and no secret at all. It filled the streets of 600 cities and towns with 3 million to 4 million chanting protesters on Trump’s first full day in office, and jammed the lobbies of U.S. airports seven days later, after he signed an Executive Order closing the nation’s doors to refugees. The unease haunts the crosstabs of public-opinion surveys: in an American Psychological Association (APA) poll released on Feb. 15, 6 in 10 Americans call the current political environment a source of “significant stress” for them. In the 2016 presidential campaign and its aftermath, the APA poll found the first statistically significant increase in stress levels since it started asking 10 years ago.

More than 10 million Americans don’t know what the future of their health care coverage is going to look like a month from now. Will they continue to receive subsidies to buy health insurance on the public market? Will they be asked to pony up the full cost of a plan on their own? Those who are pregnant, have pre-existing conditions or have young adults relying on their insurance are worried about what comes next–and that goes for Trump voters too.

Meanwhile, Executive Orders on immigrants and refugees sent a chill through the undocumented. The nomination of Neil Gorsuch as Supreme Court Justice reminded reproductive-rights advocates that Roe v. Wade could be up for relitigation. And the threat of rollbacks on nondiscrimination protections, which the Administration later backed away from, spread fear among the LGBTQ community.

Indeed, the locus of the discomfort at both ends of the political spectrum is the place where politics and emotion come together.

“Feelings are strong, and it’s not in a normal way,” says Kimberly Woodrosky, 53, a lifelong Democrat in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., who voted for Trump.

“People got that butterfly feeling in their belly, like something’s about to change, and for some that’s hard, it’s not good,” adds Thomas McTague, 38, a police officer and Trump supporter in nearby Plymouth, where the same general good feeling about Trump’s election, he says, is shadowed by a parallel unease.

The strife is difficult to parse. This may be partly because some of it is both generated and amplified by the Establishment that Trump identified as the enemy–the “permanent Washington” and a news media his White House angrily and incessantly accuses of lies and distortion. It doesn’t matter to the base. What some people call chaos might also look like a pretty good start to those who think of the Establishment as a problem and elected Trump as its destroyer.

“I am so happy that he is taking this as a job, not like a presidency,” says Sandy Lewis, 56, whose Trump vote helped the candidate carry Pennsylvania. “He’s still getting himself in a little bit of trouble with that attitude, but you know everything’s going to work out.”

Will it, though? If Lewis’ faith could be bottled, it would find a ready market in the Atlanta waiting room of Kathleen Gildea, a psychotherapist whose patients are so agitated by Trump’s presidency that she now removes magazines bearing his image from the reception area in her office. “Is it possible to begin using other things as your magazine cover photos?” she asked a TIME reporter.

“Everyone is expressing, as one client put it, a constant ‘hum’ of anxiety,” says Gildea, 73. Sleeplessness, overeating due to anxiety or depression, short-tempered irritation with co-workers are all common. “What I’m hearing a lot is, ‘I’m afraid of what’s coming next.'”

The rising unease first became apparent to mental-health professionals during the campaign. Reports from the field moved the APA to add questions about electoral stress to its annual nationwide survey. The first poll, released in October, found 52% of Americans identified the election as a significant source of stress. The follow-up, which concluded the day before the Inauguration, found that stress about election results diverges along party lines (72% among Democrats, 26% among Republicans), and 6 in 10 Republicans reported being stressed about the future of the nation.

Neither poll could be compared with results from earlier elections–this was the first time the APA did election-specific stress polling. But APA experts think the January survey captured a sense of dislocation in American voters that went beyond the usual unsteadiness that can follow an election.

“It’s not like it’s a clear divide of ‘My candidate won and I’m not stressed’ and ‘My candidate lost and I’m stressed,'” says Lynn Bufka, as associate executive director of practice research and policy at the APA. “There is a level of stress happening that seems to transcend the political parties. That is a little unusual. It appears, collectively, that there is a level of stress about what’s happening in the country and what’s going to happen to the future of our nation. It could be that it highlighted differences in ideas about what the future of the nation could be. I don’t know.”

No one else does, either. It may all be too new–and too wrapped up in the psychology of an impetuous, endlessly self-involved President who is only too happy to behave in ways no President has before. His impulses jolt us every morning, thanks to his penchant for middle-of-the-night tweeting. He makes news all day long too. So to those worried about what he’ll do next, the buzz of a news alert on a cell phone can feel like a palpitation. Therapists advise their clients to ration their exposure to news, but many Americans are finding it difficult to look away.

“I just feel like the more I talk about him, the more he becomes part of my life, the more I let him affect me,” says a 17-year-old high school student who asked not to be named because she is undocumented. “But there’s no way around it. He’s everywhere. Literally my entire Facebook.”

Remember when Facebook was about finding old friends? Now, topics once avoided in polite company–politics and religion, but mostly politics–are discussed endlessly, and the immersive nature of digital media and the never-ending social feeds merely add to the sensation of being overwhelmed.

“Everyone is talking about it, and everyone is worked up over it,” says Joanna Ford, 46, a licensed counselor practicing in Denver. “People are saying, ‘I lost some friends because of this.’ Or, ‘My cousin stopped talking to me on Facebook.’ I am seeing that both sides are impacted. Even people who are not interested in politics can’t not be at this point.”

Ford estimates that these days, four out of five clients want to talk politics. “They are bringing it up, if not talking about it the whole time,” she says.

“I do a lot of marriage counseling and job counseling and other issues,” says Gildea, the Atlanta therapist. “This anxiety is overtaking the reason they initially came in.”

When Gildea checked in with a colleague in Anchorage, mind you, that therapist reported no such preoccupation with Trump among his patients–just some grumping at his favorite bar.

Of course, Alaska, like most nonurban areas, went strongly for Trump, and therapists are concentrated in the urban areas where Hillary Clinton won handily. “People are excited that we elected someone who said they would do something and they are doing it,” says Brandon DeFrain, 34, chairman of the Bay County Republican Party in central Michigan.

The pace that Trump set in his first weeks has impressed more than his base. His approval ratings remain at record lows for so early in a first term, but a Gallup poll out Feb. 13 found that 6 in 10 Americans call Trump a strong and decisive leader and one who keeps his promises. “He’s, like, wild,” says Marie Rakow, 86, of Richland Center, Wis., another swing state. “I don’t know where he gets his energy.”

When it comes to polls, Gallup reflects the Establishment. It asks about “presidential qualities and characteristics,” a problematic metric for a President whose appeal to his base is to act otherwise. He was judged less than honest or trustworthy even as a candidate. Another recent Gallup poll says only 29% of Americans think world leaders respect Trump (vs. 67% for Obama at the start of his first term and 49% for George W. Bush). Do none of the usual rules apply to this man?

Clearly not most of them. But it helps to ask around. According to a taxonomy of the U.S. public undertaken by CBS News, Trump enjoys devoted, almost unconditional support from 22% of Americans. He has “conditional” support from another 22%, but stands to lose some or all of it from most of those people (80%) if he fails to fix the economy or if he “acts like a typical politician.” That finding underscores how much of Trump’s appeal is based on his bona fides as an outsider, but it also describes a prison of his own making. He does have to run the U.S. government, the largest enterprise on the planet.

Trump could pick up an additional 21% of the public that the CBS poll labeled as “curious” about him. The biggest pool of Americans–35%–flat out oppose Trump no matter what. They skew liberal and include large shares of minorities–the people who in many cases have been given real reason to worry. Trump inveighed against immigrants during the campaign and urged on the ICE raids that panicked Hispanic communities nationwide in early February. It’s unclear whether the raids were, in fact, a sign of more aggressive moves against undocumented workers or more of an opportunity to provoke. Either way, the effect is the same: abject fear.

Randy Mayer, 52, senior minister at Good Shepherd United Church of Christ in Sahuarita, Ariz., happened to be in the apartment of a Honduran family his church helped settle when Trump appeared on TV talking about immigrants. “When the kids came in the living room and saw what was on TV they just started to uncontrollably cry,” Mayer says. “They can’t sleep because they think they are going to be sent back to the violence and terror. Their uncle was killed by the gangs right in front of their house in Honduras as they watched.”

“I try not to think about it 24/7, but it’s very hard not to,” says Claudia, a Uruguayan nanny without papers or a driver’s license, who asked that her full name not be used. “You go out to work and you don’t know if you’ll come back.”

Across the country, coached by advocacy organizations, immigrants are putting in place the kind of provisional plans that New Yorkers and Washingtonians made after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11: Who will pick up the kids if Mom doesn’t come home?

These days are especially difficult for young people from minority populations–from Muslims to LGBT people–that have historically nursed apprehensions but who as individuals came of age under the Obama Administration, when empowerment steadily increased. At age 9, Avery Jackson is one of the most recognizable transgender people in the world, having appeared on the cover of National Geographic. After Trump’s election, the mood has changed, says her mother. “She crawls into bed next to me and holds my hand,” Debi Jackson says. “There’s something going on where she needs to be comforted.”

For refugees and Muslims, the Executive Order on immigrants presented, despite the ongoing court challenge, a grim reality. In Chicago, a gay Syrian refugee who asked to be identified only by his first name, Mohamad, spends most days indoors, terrified, he says, of being deported to a country where his family has disowned him and his life would be at risk. Though he has applied for asylum, he talks of suicide.

“I feel fear when I go outside and see a policeman or go through any security,” he says. “It’s really draining my energy, and I feel that I really want to end this thing. Four years of Donald Trump–I can’t live this way.” The immediate future offers scant signs of relief.

Trump the disrupter thrives on the uncertainty that therapists call a chronic stressor. “I wish I had a magic answer,” says Gildea, the Atlanta psychotherapist. “Frankly I don’t know what’s going to happen either.”

Some people have found that participating in protests can double as therapy. Others are watchfully waiting as the days–and the news–unfold. As the resignation of Michael Flynn as National Security Adviser indicates, facts have a way of asserting themselves. The Establishment, whatever its sins of omission regarding the working class and rural America, does police itself.

But then so do voters. The governing reality is the one of dollars and cents, still too scarce for many Americans. While the election ranks, the No. 1 source of stress in the U.S. is still money.

“It’s tough all over,” says Rakow, the Wisconsin Trump voter. “I just hope he gets the health insurance working right.” In January her aunt’s Medicare supplement rose to $290 a month, on top of the $107 premium. “That’s almost $400 right there. It’s a lot of money on a fixed income.”


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