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29 October 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 5:17pm

It’s no surprise Donald Trump’s presidency could be pushing Americans to the brink of PTSD

It’s almost ironic that Republicans have so little respect for voter fears, considering how heavily Trump’s midterm campaign has leant into them.

By Holly Thomas

The midterms are approaching, and Trump’s Republican campaign is a cesspit of fear-mongering and lies. The anxieties of those who lost in 2016 have been not just realised, but amplified. Amid the mailing of bombs to prominent Democrats, the savage murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and accusations of voter suppression, the President forges ahead, stoking panic and discord.

Just hours after a mass shooter killed eleven people worshipping in Pittsburgh synagogue on Saturday, the President hosted a planned rally, which he joked he’d nearly cancelled due to a bad hair day.

Trump is heightening Americans’ anxieties, and the strain is showing. “All of a sudden America REALLY sucks,” W Giovanni Gonzales from Santa Fe, New Mexico, told me. “Every time I think we’re at the bottom, we go even further. Like, what’s reality?”

Gonzales, who voted Democrat in 2016 as a graduate student, falls into a demographic which could already have suffered significant psychological fallout from Trump’s election. According to a recent study conducted by the University of Arizona, a quarter of millennials had such a strong reaction to the vote that they now show stress levels which indicate a high risk of developing PTSD.

I asked Gonzales what he thought of these findings. “It rings true, if not necessarily for me,” he said. “I think with the rhetoric and his fanbase it makes sense that people with triggers will respond negatively.”

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The study was widely reported by the media, which, unhelpfully, highlighted a comparison with mass shooting witnesses (This was prior to the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting on Saturday). This drew ridicule from some quarters, with one pro-Trump publication inviting these “whining babies” to go “hang out at their local VA outpatient facility”.

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Is there was a precedent for news events being literally traumatic, I asked Harley Street therapist Adam Cox? “Events in the news can cause traumatic feelings,” he replied. “Most people didn’t witness the September 11th attacks first hand, but it caused high levels of anxiety across people that witnessed it through the media. For many of these students they’d only known Obama as president throughout their politically mature years, and Trump couldn’t be further from Obama.” This tallied exactly with Gonzales’ take: “We went from the Obama presidency that had so much hope to all of a sudden being so scared, and this nativist wing was everywhere,” he said.

Irrespective of whether the election instigated trauma, it appears highly likely that its implications were triggering for many, and that those triggers varied according to demographic. According to the Arizona study, women showed 45 per cent more stress signs than men, non-Christians showed more than Christians, and black and Hispanic students were slightly worse-affected than white students. “This is likely to be directly related to the issues in the campaign where Trump was dismissive and disrespectful of women and minorities,” explains Cox. “For them, it could have felt that they’d lost the support of their country when it voted for Trump.”

Megan Edwards is a 27-year-old account manager, who voted in Tennessee in 2016. She told me that, besides finding the election itself “slightly traumatic”, the greatest strain ever since has come from worries for those she loves.

“The most traumatic part for me was having a two-year-old daughter, and seeing a man rise in power who spoke and treated women so terribly,” she explained. “ It’s devastating to think that this is an example my daughter will see as what is acceptable in leadership and positions of power today.”

It’s almost ironic that Republicans who rubbish PTSD claims have so little respect for the fears of the voting population, considering how heavily Trump’s midterm campaign has leant into them. He has stepped up his anti-immigration rhetoric, telling the thousands of migrants – who he has called a “caravan” – walking slowly from Mexico to the US border to, “Go back to your country, and if you want, apply for citizenship like millions of others are doing!” (The president seems unaware that you can’t apply for citizenship in the US unless you are physically in the States, or applying at the border at a point of entry.)

Trump has accused the Democrats of organising the caravan, and dubbed the migrants “unknown Middle Easterners,” a claim for which he is yet to provide evidence. He has repeatedly called this the “election of the caravan, Kavanaugh, and common sense,” and tossed out slogans like “jobs not mobs”. He declared at a Houston rally last week: “That is an assault on our country and in that caravan you have some very bad people and we can’t let that happen to our country.”

While Trump revs up his support, he oppresses opposition. As reports of voter suppression in Georgia, Kansas, and North Dakota emerged, he tweeted: “Cheat at your own peril. Violators will be subject to maximum penalties, both civil and criminal!” The implication that law enforcement could be summoned is particularly intimidating for minority voters, who have been worst-affected by voter issues in these states.

Whereas Republicans were shy to back Trump’s incendiary language in 2016, they have rallied round him for the midterms. They’re echoing his slogans, and amplifying the impression that the Democrats represent an unruly, dangerous herd. For those who do not support Trump or the Republicans, the atmosphere this stokes can be terrifying.

“It’s not just enthusiasm, but more like this unbridled obsession for neo-conservatism, which is basically fascism,” explains Gonzales. “We have a ‘democratically’ elected fascist in the White House. His fanbase thinks they can do whatever the fuck they want without consequence. And they do that!”

This certainly seems to bear out. In a week which saw the news agenda dominated by the horrifying death of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of the Saudi regime, the president joked about the assault of a Guardian reporter by Montana congressman Greg Gianforte. As his Montana audience laughed along the president mimed a “body slam,” declaring that Gianforte was “my guy”.

Trump has been relentless in his attacks on the “hateful” media, seemingly only spurred on by the discovery of 14 bombs sent to CNN, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and prominent Democrats last week. Before the alleged bomber was apprehended, he fueled conspiracy theories that the spree was a Democrat plot exploited by the press, saying: “The media’s constant, unfair coverage, deep hostility and negative attacks… only serve to drive people apart and to undermine healthy debate.”

Ever the willing victim, he added: “We have seen an effort by the media in recent hours to use the sinister actions of one individual to score political points against me and the Republican party.”

Trump’s vitriol looks to be contagious. Just hours after the bomb intended for Hillary Clinton was discovered, Republican voters chanted “lock her up” at a Wisconsin rally. When the man accused of planting the bombs, Cesar Seyoc, was arrested, he was discovered to be living in a van covered with stickers of Trump and Mike Pence. One said “CNN sucks”, parroting a common Trump rally chant. The President himself appeared unconcerned by the association, even boasting that the accused bomber “preferred me over others”.  

The inflammatory mood doesn’t appear to be confined to just a few individuals or rally attendees. “[Since the election] I’ve noticed along with the distress and confusion, a lot more hatred and evil in people than I’d ever noticed before,” Edwards told me. “Some days I feel sad, depressed, anxious, overwhelmed about it all. We have removed cable television from our household because it was too negative and demanding of our attention. Given President Trump’s tactics and motive, I have to ignore much of what is going on the news in order to keep my sanity.”

The effect of the midterms on those already feeling the browbeaten on an almost daily basis by the Trump administration shouldn’t be underestimated. “For those affected by the election, a divisive rhetoric used in the midterms could make it feel like ‘it’s all happening again’,” says anxiety expert Adam Cox. “However if the electorate reject Trump in the midterms, it could feel like progress is being made, which would reduce symptoms of stress.”

Trump himself has shown no sign of slowing his pace. In fact with each opportunity he is presented to pacify or reassure, he steps up his game. On Friday, when asked whether he would consider modifying his tone of commentary, he replied:  “I could really tone it up.” On Saturday, after eleven of his own citizens were murdered in their place of worship, he refused to cancel a rally. When he arrived to speak in Illinois, he said that he had been drenched at a “very unfortunate news conference,” adding: “Maybe I should cancel this arrangement because I have a bad hair day.”

The “very unfortunate news conference” which had inconvenienced him so was to address the mass shooting and murder of eleven Jews in Pittsburgh.

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