28 June

One Man’s Truth: Fear Blinds. The 2020 Election

by Jon Katz

Last week, I reported in one of my columns that the annual survey by Chapman University of the things Americans fear the most in 2020 was the presidential election coming in November.

The university found that 47.5 percent of Americans were
“afraid” or “very afraid” of the outcome of the November election.

It seemed that about half the country is afraid that President Trump will be re-elected, and the other half is worried that he won’t be re-elected.

This is a tragic finding in a democracy. America was the world’s first real democracy, and at the heart and joy of the American experience was the right and the power to vote.

Elections were often loud and combative, but the founders of the country would have been devastated to learn that more people feared them than any other thing, including racial turmoil and a pandemic that has killed more than 110,000 people.

Elections are the heart and soul of our Republic, and I see this fear expressed in the deep concern and worry of so many people who message me, almost in a panic, virtually pleading, to ask if I really, honestly, believe that the President might be defeated this Fall.

I’m more familiar with the fear of the people who oppose Trump, his supporters believe him when he says it is great and all-powerful, like the Wizard of Oz.

The only fear they share with me is socialism and Jewish billionaires.

“I’m just afraid to believe you,” John, who fears Trump greatly,  told me today in an e-mail.

“From your mouth to God’s ear,” wrote another, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

“Thank God for you, ” a woman wrote to me recently. ‘I’ve just started reading you, and I hope I can believe you, I hope I can trust you.”

In Trump, I sense a particular dread of him among women, many of whom see him as a predator, menacing in a familiar and terrifing way.

It seemed that if I couldn’t reassure them the demon was going away, I would fail and they would go elsewhere. I’m used to being disagreed with, but this was something new, something troubling and familiar.

I am being asked to soothe, not necessarily inform.

But I keep thinking, why can’t these worried people believe what they see with their own eyes? Why so gloomy?  They don’t need to believe what I write, they can think for themselves, as I try to do.

I am no mystical seer. I am no better than them.

Those messages are strange things to say to a political writer, I’ve never written such a message to any political writer or campaign observer that I’ve ever read.

People were traumatized by the failure of journalism, politics, pollsters, and media to understand Trumpism or foresee his shocking win. His shocking victory damaged the credibility of shocked Democrats and progressives and made many mistrustful and deeply worried.

When Barack Obama won, the new Americans thought we had been transformed. Nobody expected that we would suddenly be transformed back to 1947.

Who, really, can these people trust now? They’ve been worried and angry for four years now, and you don’t have to be a psychologist to know how damaging that can be.

It’s not the same thing, but it echoes the experience of going to war. People have been worried every day all day for thousands of days.

No feeling takes over our lives more suddenly or completely than fear.

“Fear narrows the little entrance of our heart,” wrote Thomas Merton. “It shrinks up our capacity to love. It freezes up our power to give ourselves.”

Until I began writing about politics, I didn’t grasp how frightened people are about President Trump, or how deep this anxiety is cutting into their lives.

A leader – a President – whose behaviors and ethics we have come to trust has upended tradition and civility and invaded our consciousness and sense of well being.

I was in treatment for fear and anxiety for 30 years, and I would never have guessed that more people in this country fear the results of the November election than any other thing facing our country.

That is mental health, not just political, territory.

I’ve said several times that there are brilliant things about Donald Trump and one of them is his ability to frighten and upset people who oppose him or disagree with him.

How much cruelty and revenge can we watch without being damaged ourselves?

Donald Trump knows how to get into people’s heads and get to their emotions. That is what he does and has always done.

These worries are amplified and exaggerated on social media. People who spend time on social media worrying about politics are not changing minds or altering attitudes. The President has weaponized social media just as he has weaponized government appointees, protestors, and a pandemic itself.

Spending too much time on social media is a  telling symptom of anxious people seeking reassurance but finding only anger and more worry and self-doubt.

That is not a way to feel more secure or hopeful.

I have wondered more than once why so many people who do not care for the President can’t believe that he is in dire trouble and is now unlikely to win. Shouldn’t that ease worry and fear?

In fearing defeat, they have become almost equally fearful of victory..

We all know that 2016 was a trauma for many people, one from which they have yet to recover; in fact, many of their worst fears have been realized.

Most people don’t see extreme fear as an anxiety disorder; they think everyone but them needs help.  They think their fear is completely just and justified.

They can’t or won’t realize it isn’t all, or even mostly, about the President. He is a symptom, not a cause.

That is so hard to see when you are in it.

PTSD and trauma occur when someone experiences a profoundly threatening or frightening event. The shock can be significant enough to cause insomnia, flashbacks, distraction, and painful or unpleasant emotions.

In a sense, people who call themselves liberal or progressive were traumatized into mistrusting their hopes or feelings.

The best cure for fear is self-esteem – the conviction that one can take responsibility for their lives and take care of themselves. And that things will work out.

Something else that helps is to go to work for the candidate or political party you like. There is a lot of work to do before November.

Trump’s tweets help to trigger their fears in the same way loud noises frighten veterans who saw combat.

Reading over the symptoms of trauma and PTSD – the things that trigger these disorders – I see them in so many of the posts and messages I am receiving now, people who worry every day, quarrel with strangers online, and obsess on the media.

There is nothing that will make people crazier and more fearful than that.

They deepen their trauma and fear by obsessing on the news or feeling that they are in great danger.  That is how they justify being worried.

I often get upset at things Trump has done and the suffering he has caused. I do not feel in great personal danger from him, or Trumpism.

I see many people have also lost their political sense of self-esteem.

They are perpetually nervous and angry, they can’t believe their own judgments and analysis, and they can’t accept that things might ever be better, even though the evidence mounts almost hourly that this is likely to be true.

They don’t trust pollsters and journalists, but they don’t seem to trust their own instincts either, or that vulnerability is an incubator for fear.

But they said that last time, they said, and he won, and he was way behind, and he came back, and the polls and the pundits were wrong, perhaps they are wrong again.

In this, I hear the fearful child, worrying about getting on the school bus alone for the first time. This is not the apocalypse; our world is not coming to an end. Politics is messy, but it is not brain surgery or physics.

An awful lot of foolish people make their way to politics.

This recurring and obsessive worrying and gloom stand out particularly in recent days and weeks, as Trump seems to be coming apart at the seams, drowning under the weight of pandemics and social disorders and economic trouble he can’t master or control.

Rather than solidify his grip on power, he is showing the nation that he has no idea how to use his power to heal, empathize, or manage real crises. For people who don’t like him, this ought to be reassuring, not frightening.

The now mystical pandemic is eating him alive, even if he doesn’t catch it.

But fear blinds.

Fear blinds people from hoping or seeing reality. They seek reassurance from others instead of learning how to do it themselves.

I recognize these symptoms because I experienced them myself in other contexts. I learned that nobody can own other people’s feelings and ideas. I have to do that myself.

The kids who dislike Trump and his policies are not worrying on Facebook or trading snarky messages on Twitter; they are out protesting and scheming and empowering themselves. They have lessons for the rest of us.

Every time I write about the likelihood of President Trump losing in the Fall, my column goes viral, hundreds, sometimes tens of thousands, of people read it and share it.

I am careful to resist the temptation to say it over and over. It could make me rich.

People want to read, but most people are afraid to believe it.

It isn’t that I need to be believed -I am no psychic or genius. It’s instead that they can’t believe what they see or what they believe.

They can’t seem to shed their pessimism and worry because they haven’t recognized it as anxiety and treated it accordingly.

Political campaigns don’t cure anxiety disorders, no matter who wins. Our country is a mess; it will be a mess for a long time. Suck it up.

If President Trump wins or loses, a lot of people will need to step back and re-think their emotional lives, and many will need to get help or find help when they realize that.

Like PTSD and trauma, the damage doesn’t directly go away when the source of the fear goes away.

Trump got into a lot of heads; he has a gift for that. He provokes anger, worry, and even a kind of terror.

I believe this is because he speaks to the worst parts of ourselves, things we fight to suppress and deny.

Trump may be triggering old and deep-set anxieties that are bubbling to the surface, or he might be creating new ones.

Since fear was my issue, it often goes right through me. I can feel it.

Because I am Dyslexic, I was terrified of starting a blog. I knew I would get a lot of messages from rude or unthinking people making fun of me – I’ve been there – or demanding I get an editor.

I asked one of my doctors about this, and he said, “look, you have to understand that the definition of neurotic fear is that it is not real. You can write your blog and do it well; you know that. You fear that you will be called stupid again.”

Okay, I saw the truth in that.

Instead of being frightened, I owned my blog and my typos, and one of my affirming pleasures in life was and is telling those obnoxious people to get lost. Each time I do it, I felt stronger. It wasn’t the blog writing; it was me I was afraid of.

There are lots of good reasons to be concerned about Donald Trump, and you are now officially in great company if you follow polls.

When you take the fear away,  you will see that sadly, this poor man will destroy himself long before he will destroy the rest of us.

I want to tell these fearful people that by obsessing on the news, arguing on social media, fearing for their very futures, they are feeding their fear and making it worse.

Anxiety like this is a disorder, don’t kid yourself.

I’m sure this fear exists in Trump supporters as well as his opponents but a different context. His supporters were not traumatized; they felt vindicated and victorious.

Victors don’t feel fear, the vanquished do.

A victory like Trump does not promote fear; it fosters loyalty and grievance, which the President always promotes himself. When his people say they fear his defeat, they are saying something quite different from the people who felt invaded and conquered.

It’s different.

From the first, I recognized that President Trump was a threat to my mental health, especially since I was in treatment for anxiety for decades.

I worked hard to separate my worries from politics, and deal with them as an essential mental health issue for me.

I focused on doing good, limiting media, getting help if I needed it, and following and trusting my instincts. It has worked well for me. I do not fear Donald Trump.

I see the election as a profound wake-up call for our democracy, a great awakening that will be heard and cheered around the world.

“You do not need to know precisely what is happening or exactly where it is going,” warned Merton. “What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith, and hope.

12 Comments

  1. I voted for Hillary in 2016. I was disappointed when she didn’t win, but certainly not “traumatized.”
    Experience has taught that when your candidate doesn’t win, you suck it up and move on.
    You DON’T spend the next four years obsessing on how much you HATE the current President and will stoop to any level to get him out of office.
    I am however, traumatized now watching the destruction from within that is happening in our country. Rampant violence, attacks on police, crime, terorism and mayhem in New York City (my former home) and now daily shootings in neighboring Syracuse.
    A downward spiral I don’t see ending anytime soon — regardless of who wins the election.
    The toxic dye is cast.

      1. How would you like it, Jon, if an angry mob, armed with projectiles, came marching through Bedlam Farm, screaming, “Whose Streets? Our Streets!”?
        Would you cheer them on (as you do here)?
        Would you call the police — assuming you still have police?
        Or would you grab your gun?
        You say it can’t happen?
        It already is — even to people in gated communities.
        If you don’t have safety in a community, you have nothing.

        1. I’ve lived in cities most of my life – New York, Boston, Washington, Dallas, Philadelphia, and seen many protests and covered many. I had a car burned out from under me and bricks thrown into my houses more than once.

          I celebrate protest as much more American than your loathing of them, and I have no desire to defund or eliminate the police, nor does anyone I know. Why would make that crude and dishonest assumption? You would enjoy Moscow or Riyadh. Not protests there. Every country in the world has difficult issues to revolve, we are near the top of the list. It’s called democracy. Go to your history books and read about the American Revolution and the bloody and destructive protests that launched a revolution.

          If you care so much about peace and quiet, go sign up with Trump and his campaign and stop whining, you are right on the same page, and that is democracy too.

        2. Then, after you vote for Trump, Patty, you can lament for the next 4 years about what he further does to the environment, and how he is responsible for more wild animal deaths, and torture, and the habitat loss, and the regulations that were keeping wild and domestic animals safe (er)., like ducks, for example.
          And then you and others can lament about the cruelty to refugees, and the poor. BUT you won’t ever
          try to understand the cruelty, pain and fear, that people of color experience daily, and have for decades, by my and your fellow citizens…and all because the color of their skin happens to be darker than theirs and yours and mine. The unrest in the streets is for a reason…not just for the hell of it.
          It’s not for the sake of nothing. Stop whining, Patty, and start learning and waking up to the reality in this country and this world.Have the same amount of empathy and compassion for people who are not like you, as you do for the ducks in Central Park. Why don’t you imagine the protesters to be ducks and geese, protesting against how they are treated and the fear they live with every day. Unfortunately, that imagined scenario, makes sense, too.

  2. I think the collective fear of Trump being re-elected is greater than the fear of his not being re-elected. I hope this fear will be the impetus to get people to vote. If that happens, the headlines on November 4 will read: Mr. President – You’re fired!

  3. “this poor man will destroy himself long before he will destroy the rest of us.”
    That is a hope that I would like to share but cannot. That ‘poor’ man has the power of the presidency at his disposal and is not constrained by law given the AG and the Senate support him. He will easily continue to destroy the country and democracy if reelected. Reelection is hardly impossible when 40% of the country support him regardless of what he does. I have to agree with John Bolton’s assessment that the country cannot survive another 4 years of Trump.

    On the other hand, your assessment of the national collective fear and trauma rings true for me. It can become paralyzing especially now with Covid to deal with as well. It’s something I push back on constantly. 45 is very much a trigger for various mental health issues as any mental health professional can attest.

    1. Thanks, Ruth, I appreciate your perspective, I can’t share your gloom. I am not writing as Trump hater, but as an observer and Trump has just about destroyed himself already, with much worse to come. The failure to see that is, I think, becoming a neurotic disorder, not a political judgment.

  4. Whomever of the two major party candidates is elected will be a win for the banks and the corporations and a loss for the rest of us.

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