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Normalizing the Abnormal: How Trump Has Affected the Mental Health of the United States

What is the impact of Donald Trump's presidency on the mental health of the United States? Brian Daitzman delves into the psychological bond between Trump and his followers, the mental health diagnoses among QAnon followers, the mental distress caused by Trump's policies, and the societal consequences of divisive politics.
Published:April 25, 2024
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By Brian Daitzman

The intersection of political leadership and societal mental health has become increasingly pronounced in the contemporary political climate, particularly during Donald Trump’s tenure as President of the United States.

The psychological bond between Trump and his followers, the impact of his policies on various demographics, and the broader societal implications of divisive politics highlight the profound influence of political narratives, personalities, and policies on collective mental health.

The Psychological Impact of Political Leadership
Shared Psychosis: Donald Trump and His Followers

The concept of “shared psychosis” (also referred to as “folie à plusieurs”) provides a framework for understanding the psychological bond between Donald Trump and his followers.

This phenomenon involves a contagious sharing of delusional beliefs emanating from a dominant personality to their followers. Trump’s charismatic authority and his followers’ adulation created a symbiotic relationship wherein his narcissistic and destructive behaviors were mirrored and amplified among his base.

This mutual reinforcement of deleterious traits can lead to an escalating cycle of radicalization, as we saw culminate in the Capitol riot. Trump’s refusal to concede the election, his propagation of unfounded claims of electoral fraud, and his incendiary rhetoric served as a catalyst for his supporters’ actions. January 6, 2021, illustrated a mutual psychosis that endangered democratic norms and public safety.

Mental Health Diagnoses Among QAnon Followers

The intersection between extreme political beliefs and underlying psychological issues is exemplified by the QAnon conspiracy movement. Research reveals a significant prevalence of mental health diagnoses among QAnon adherents, such as bipolar disorder, depression, and anxiety.

These findings suggest a link between the susceptibility to conspiratorial thinking and existing psychological vulnerabilities. The movement’s embrace of unfounded and fantastical claims reflects a deeper need for belonging and meaning among its followers, many of whom have experienced psychological trauma or social isolation.

The radicalization of individuals with mental health issues, attracted by the promise of insider knowledge and a grandiose battle against evil, underscores the importance of addressing mental health care as part of broader efforts to combat the spread of extremist ideologies.

Mental Distress in Response to Trump’s Policies

The presidency of Donald Trump has been associated with increased mental distress across various demographics, particularly among LGBTQ individuals and racial minorities. Studies have documented the exacerbation of mental health issues in these communities, driven by the administration’s policies and rhetoric.

The rollback of transgender protections, the implementation of the Muslim ban, and the separation of migrant children from their parents at the border are examples of policies that have directly harmed the mental well-being of affected populations.

The emboldening of hate crimes and the normalization of discriminatory rhetoric under Trump have further contributed to a climate of fear and anxiety, necessitating a concerted effort to support the mental health of marginalized communities in the aftermath of his presidency.

Societal Consequences of Divisive Politics

The pivotal role of political leadership in shaping societal divisions is evident, and nowhere more so than during the tenure of the United States’ 45th president.

The Trump Administration’s policies and rhetoric deepened societal fissures and have had profound effects on the mental health and societal cohesion of both marginalized communities and the general population.

Democratic Erosion and Societal Divisions

Research highlights a worrying trend of democratic erosion in the United States, a strategy increasingly associated with the long-term goals of the Republican Party. This trend accelerated under the presidency of Donald Trump, whose falsehoods sought to reshape reality and institutions to his advantage.

This erosion is evident in legislation promoted by Republican lawmakers, particularly in states where their power is strongest. It manifests through laws that restrict voter access to ballots, politicize election administration, and involve extreme gerrymandering, all of which deepen societal divisions. Additionally, the expansion of executive power, characterized by efforts to subvert election outcomes and undermine the independence of the civil service, poses a direct threat to democratic principles. These actions contribute to a climate of division and mistrust within society.

The Role of Partisan Politics

Findings suggest that the partisan dynamics, particularly with certain party controls of state governments, significantly reduce democratic performance and integrity. This political landscape, marked by attempts to restrict ballot access, has not only alienated vast swaths of the electorate but has also contributed to a sense of disenfranchisement among marginalized communities.

The politicization of election administration and the judicial system, coupled with the judiciary’s conservative tilt, further exacerbates societal divisions by undermining faith in democratic institutions and eroding the protections of voting rights.

Mental Health Consequences

Insights into the “traumatized” nature of American society highlight the mental health consequences of divisive politics. The rise of platforms dedicated to discussing trauma and the popularity of trauma-related content reflect a collective grappling with the harm inflicted by political divisiveness.

The concept of trauma related to the political climate, underscored by policies and rhetoric affecting immigrants, LGBTQ people, and people of color, has significantly contributed to the stress, anxiety, and feelings of being overwhelmed experienced by many Americans.

This traumatic landscape is further compounded by the pandemic, racial justice protests, and the overall climate of polarization and violence, which not only strains the societal fabric but also necessitates a comprehensive approach to healing and rebuilding.

The Role of Media and Information Dissemination

The complicity of the media, not just right-wing propaganda, in normalizing extreme political behavior through both the amplification of divisive rhetoric and the portrayal of abnormal behaviors as contentious political strategies has had profound implications for societal discourse and democratic processes.

Bothsidesism, often employed by both credible and less credible journalists, is a fallacy that attempts to create an illusion of balance by equating unequal issues. For example, the media frequently portrays the existence of a 'debate' about climate change, suggesting that opposing views hold equal weight. However, the scientific consensus confirms that climate change is real and primarily driven by human activities. Those who deny climate change are not engaging in good faith; rather, they often have agendas aligned with the interests of the fossil fuel industry. If the vast majority of scientists agree on the human impact on climate change, while only a few lawyers and industry lobbyists from big oil companies disagree, can this truly be considered a debate? How can it be a debate when one side is grounded in facts and the other in misinformation?

This normalization has facilitated the entry of previously marginalized extremist views into mainstream political discourse, contributing to society's polarization. The media’s role in this process can be understood through two primary mechanisms: amplification of divisive rhetoric and portrayal of abnormal behavior as political strategy.

Amplification of Divisive Rhetoric
The media, including both traditional news outlets and social media platforms, have played a pivotal role in amplifying divisive political rhetoric. By giving undue attention to sensational, controversial statements and actions, media outlets have contributed to a political environment where extreme views gain visibility and legitimacy.

This coverage not only sensationalizes the political landscape but also emboldens individuals and groups with extreme ideologies by providing them with a platform to reach wider audiences.

Portrayal of Abnormal Behavior as Political Strategy

The portrayal of extreme and abnormal political behavior as merely another strategy within the political game has further normalized such actions. By framing these behaviors within the context of political maneuvering, the media diminishes the perceived severity of actions that would, under normal circumstances, be considered undemocratic or authoritarian.

This framing encourages the public to perceive extreme political behavior as a legitimate tactic in political contests, thereby eroding norms of democratic discourse and conduct.

Influence of Social Media in Spreading Conspiracy Theories
The role of social media in spreading conspiracy theories and false information has been particularly concerning. Platforms have facilitated the rapid dissemination of “alternative facts,” undermining the shared basis of reality necessary for democratic debate. Social media algorithms, designed to engage users by promoting content that elicits strong emotional responses, have inadvertently favored the spread of sensational, often unfounded narratives.

This has created fertile ground for the proliferation of conspiracy theories, which, once relegated to the fringes of political discourse, now find themselves at the center of political debates.

Consequences for Democratic Discourse

The consequences of these media dynamics for democratic discourse are profound. By undermining the shared reality upon which democratic debate depends and by normalizing extreme political behavior, the media contribute to the erosion of democratic norms.

This erosion makes it increasingly difficult to engage in constructive political dialogue, resolve conflicts through democratic means, and maintain the social trust necessary for democratic governance.



Bibliography

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Cox, Ana Marie. “We Are Not Just Polarized. We Are Traumatized.” The New Republic, September 14, 2023. Available at: https://newrepublic.com/article/175311/america-polarized-traumatized-trump-violence.

Groppe, Maureen and Sarah Elbeshbishi. “Exclusive Poll: Overwhelming Majority Says the U.S. Faces a Mental Health Crisis.” USA Today, January 8, 2022. Available at: https://usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2022/01/08/mental-health-americans-see-crisis-amid-ongoing-covid-pandemic/9135532002/?gnt-cfr=1.

Knobe, Joshua. “Cognitive Science Suggests Trump Makes Us More Accepting of the Morally Outrageous.” Vox, January 10, 2017. Available at: https://vox.com/the-big-idea/2017/1/10/14220790/normalization-trump-psychology-cognitive-science.

Lewis, Tanya. “The ‘Shared Psychosis’ of Donald Trump and His Loyalists.” Scientific American, January 11, 2021. Available at: https://scientificamerican.com/article/the-shared-psychosis-of-donald-trump-and-his-loyalists/.

Moreau, Julie. “Trump’s Presidency Linked to LGBTQ Mental Distress, Studies Find. Recent reports have found that anti-LGBTQ proposals can have a detrimental effect on the mental health of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans.” NBC News, October 12, 2021. Available at: https://nbcnews.com/nbc-out/out-health-and-wellness/trumps-presidency-linked-lgbtq-mental-distress-studies-find-rcna2871.

Moskalenko, Sophia. “Many QAnon Followers Report Having Mental Health Diagnoses.” The Conversation, March 25, 2021, 2:01pm EDT. Available at: https://theconversation.com/many-qanon-followers-report-having-mental-health-diagnoses-157299.

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