A Psychologist's View on Why Trump is Polling So Well - Part 2

It is no secret that our nation has been experiencing chronic dissatisfaction with the politics of Washington. Congress’s approval ratings are abysmal and have been for a long time. Both sides of the aisle, Democrats and Republicans, seem to be really good at pointing the finger, causing stalemates, and getting very little accomplished.  This impasse is even potentially putting our lives at risk on a daily basis. In a recent 60 Minutes segment called “Falling Apart,” Steve Kroft reported on the aging infrastructure in our nation. Roads, bridges, and airports are “out of date,” he said. The main reason for this massive problem is the inability of our current government to raise the necessary funds. “Another example of political paralysis in Washington,” Steve Kroft chirped.

Adding to this sense of national helplessness are the colossal cultural shifts occurring and the enormous global issues facing our nation. Take the issue of gay marriage. For those staunchly against the redefinition of marriage, I imagine it feels deeply alarming to witness national opinion shifting on a belief that was so assumed for many centuries. It even feels like an immense spiritual and cultural crisis for some. I also suspect that the repeated instances of mass shootings contribute to our national fear, particularly when the discussion after is so riddled with strong opinions about the issue of gun control. Then there’s the Affordable Care Act – and our conflict with the Middle East – and the issue of global warming – and the drought in California – and …well, you get my drift. It is my opinion that national and world events leave us feeling nervous, scared, and perhaps even helpless - no matter what political persuasion we might espouse. What I’m trying to say is that the combination of all these events and circumstances can leave us feeling vulnerable.

Whenever humans face a situation that stirs feelings of helplessness or fear, they’ll do a lot to try and AVOID it. It’s why we have a hard time facing the loss of a beloved lover or friend. It’s part of the reason why grieving a death is so painful. It’s why we find facing our own limitations difficult.  It’s why parents have a hard time letting their teenage children have some independence. The feeling of helplessness, or fear, is uncomfortable, and it’s inherently difficult to lean into or tolerate it. We don’t tend to like feeling vulnerable.

So what does all this have to do with Donald Trump?

When feeling helpless, scared, and nervous, we humans tend to respond in typical ways. We try to take back control. Depending on the situation, we might get angry. We want to feel omnipotent. We want to feel powerful. And therein lies the seduction of Donald Trump. On the face of it, Donald Trump is not an obvious choice for President. He’s failed at marriage and business numerous times; he says profoundly offensive things; and he’s deeply narcissistic (more than your average politician!). However, for many I suspect he feels like a superhero, able to swoop in and regain control, leaving us all feeling less scared, vulnerable, and helpless. Without being able to provide details, Trump promises to subdue Isis, take back trading power from foreign entities (such as China and Mexico), build a wall between the US and Mexico, and tax the wealthy. When he’s pressed for details during interviews, Trump frequently says, “I know how to do it.” Or “We just do it.” Just because he says he can do it, it can be done. Because he says he can take back control from foreign powers, it will be accomplished. Just because he says he will build a wall, it will be completed. “It will be an amazing wall,” he said in a recent interview. He’s a “superhero” – able to regain control, punish the wealthy, put money in your pocket, and re-establish our power in the world – all in one bounding leap. He’s omnipotent. He’s also unpolished in how he expresses his opinions. I suspect that because of the chronic paralysis of Washington, our nation is frustrated and angry – very angry – and I wonder if some are tired of polished candidates that say all the right things but don’t follow through. In contrast, Trump is uncouth, brash, and cusses on national television. He’s a bully. I think some actually like it because it’s mirroring their own anger and frustration at Washington. He’s the bully that can go in and fix everything. Trump is saying what some wish they could say.

Ultimately, I doubt Trump will make it to the White House. But I do think the amount of support for his campaign reflects a dynamic that frequently occurs within the human psyche – when we feel helpless, vulnerable, and scared, we overcorrect by wanting control, wanting to feel powerful, becoming angry, and denying the layered complexities of life as it really is.  It is my humble opinion that the support for Trump represents and embodies that over-correction.

Metaphor, Empathy, and Intimacy - Will Technology Circumvent?

One of the things that make us uniquely human, Summers (2013) states, is our ability to use metaphor. Within the context of psychotherapy, particularly because of the deep exploration of self it provides, the use of metaphor is a frequent consequence. If this opening up of creativity and the use of metaphor is uniquely human, how might constant interfacing with technology and mobile devices disparage this process?

Summers states that psychotherapy is a process between two people who engage each other for the express purpose of transforming and expanding the subjectivity of one party. The patient begins to understand herself more deeply. Subsequently, one of the hopes we have as therapists is that the transformative power of this very dynamic generalizes to other relationships and situations for our patients. The insights one gains in psychotherapy can begin to change relationships OUTSIDE of therapy. But if our patients live in a world of tethered technology, of potential disconnected-ness, doesn’t this circumvent the very changes we’re hoping to effect?

When considering the developmental arc of growth in the human being, the child is helped to master negative feelings by parental responses to the pain and the offering of a different viewpoint. Simply put, when a child is comforted and soothed, rather than dismissed, a child is left feeling valued and healthy self worth grows. As a result, the optimal conditions for the child are both mutual and self-regulation. The child learns to regulate his own emotional responses to life challenges. Children need the responses of primary caregivers to learn how to master their own feelings in order to learn how to self regulate. But what happens when mobile devices become so embedded in and between human interactions? Will our absence with each other serve to circumvent our learning to self regulate, to feel comforted by another’s response?

Summers makes the statement that concentrating on the patient in psychotherapy, with all his/her complexities, is a mode of engaging human experience that makes psychotherapy inquiry unique and powerful. This singular focus on the experience of the other person, might it be thwarted by constant interaction with “others” that are only experienced through email, text, or Facebook?  Doesn’t communication, when it primarily occurs through technological means, inherently create a wall of intimacy whereby the participants cannot intimately engage with one another?

This might sound a bit simplistic. The longer I’ve been a psychologist, the more I feel like the main goal of psychotherapy is not only assisting clients in gaining insight about themselves, but helping them learn to tolerate their God-given feelings, and thereby growing in their ability for intimacy and vulnerability. This seems to occur the most powerfully in-between people and WITH each other. While technology is not inherently evil, my fear is that our world of tethered technology provides a ready made defensive and avoidance of the very conditions that help us feel like humans. Instead of conversation over dinner together, we feel tempted to check our mobile devices. Instead of noticing each other’s facial expressions, and thereby allowing for connectedness, we gradually become more and more distracted from each other. Instead of starting conversations with others in parks, coffee shops, gyms, or the grocery checkout line, we play games on our phones, listen to music with earphones, or check our Facebook page. In essence, we lose our ability for human relatedness.