Dr. Seth Norrholm: How to survive the physical, financial and emotional abuse of the Trump era

Donald Trump has been abusing the American people for at least four years. The abuse is physical, through Trump and his administration’s willfully negligent response to the coronavirus pandemic, which has now killed more than 300,000 Americans. In addition, Trump has encouraged political violence against his perceived enemies, including Democrats, antifascists, Black Lives Matter activists, journalists and others.

The abuse is financial. Trump and the Republican Party have enacted policies — both before and during the coronavirus pandemic — that have severely harmed the economy, worsened social inequality and diverted huge sums of the public’s money to the very richest individuals and corporations. Trump and his party’s policies have resulted in record unemployment and job losses, rampant hunger and poverty, and millions of Americans living under threat of eviction and homelessness.

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The abuse is emotional. Trump and his allies have caused the American people to suffer a type of collective post-traumatic stress disorder. Trumpism as a society-wide emotional and mental pathology is also shown by the way Trump’s “white working class” supporters (and even more so his non-white followers) manifest a form of Stockholm syndrome in which they identify with the abuser and “love” his mistreatment of them.

In the 2020 election, Trump was soundly defeated by Joe Biden. But like other abusers, Trump will not stop his cruel and vile behavior. Moreover, the American people’s decision to “break up” with him has caused Trump to rage and become even more abusive.

Trump has attempted a coup against democracy and the American people, and has amplified his use of stochastic terrorism and other incitements to political violence. Even after Trump (likely) leaves office next month, he will continue to claim that he is the “real president” of the United States and interfere with the normal functioning of government and society whenever and however he can.

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In all probability, Donald Trump will continue to be a menacing and nearly omnipresent figure in American life, culture and politics for years to come. He is America’s very own authoritarian stalker. 

How can the American people escape Trump, and begin to heal from his reign of terror and abuse? To explore that I recently spoke with Dr. Seth Norrholm, whom I have interviewed twice before. He is a translational neuroscientist and one of the world’s leading experts on PTSD and fear. He is currently the scientific director at the Neuroscience Center for Anxiety, Stress, and Trauma (NeuroCAST) in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences at the Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit. Norrholm has also contributed several essays to Salon, co-authored with clinical psychologist Alan Blotcky and others.

In this conversation, Norrholm argues that the combination of Trump’s emotional and other abuse is a chronic stressful event that will have health impacts on the American people for years into the future, and that the Republican Party, the right-wing media and Trump’s followers have been enabling this ongoing abuse of the American people. He warns that this abusive pattern, in combination with the mass death of the coronavirus pandemic, may lead to a form of survivor’s guilt among the American people, which will require national mourning and intervention.

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This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Donald Trump and his regime have also afflicted massive and traumatic stress on the American people, so it is not surprising that we are collectively dealing with PTSD, anxiety and depression. Even after leaving office, Trump is still going to be a large presence in American life. Using the traumatic stress, abuse and PTSD model, what happens when the abuser refuses to leave the victim alone but continues to harass and stalk them, as Trump is likely to do for years to come?

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Unfortunately, that is the case with many abusive relationships. There will be some type of formal legal action taken, such as a divorce or restraining order. There will be some attempt by the abuser to push the boundaries of the restraining order, for example. That can involve physical stalking or online stalking. They may make a dummy account to track and stalk their target online as well. The relationship is formally dissolved, but the abusive elements still remain.

Now, if we think of Trump as being in an abusive relationship with the American people, this is unique in the country’s history. He is soon to be the former president. Assuming things go as planned, Joe Biden will be inaugurated on Jan. 20. Those elements of the election and transition of power are akin to the formal process of ending a relationship legally.

But with the president of the United States, there’s a lot of continuation there. He’s still referred to as “Mr. President,” he still gets a security detail, and a lot of the perks and benefits of having served in the office. We’ve never really had to confront a continuation with a malicious president. What do we do as a country with someone like Donald Trump who is so pathological, so evil and so corrupt? With a former president who has those traits, and still quite a bit of symbolic power in the country and world?

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Abusers will continue to claim that the victims are in a relationship with them even when it is over. They often claim their former partners as a type of personal property. Donald Trump is going to do this by claiming that he is still the “real president” and that Joe Biden is illegitimate and a fraud.

That is part of the alternate reality that abusers and malignant narcissists create for themselves. It is an example of gaslighting and the other forms of lying intended to get the abused person to the point where they begin to doubt themselves. They ask, “Am I crazy, or is he crazy?” The victim can become disoriented in terms of their core identity.

Donald Trump is trying to maintain an alternative reality by stating, “I am the president.” There are a few ways to understand what Trump is doing there. First, I do believe he is a con man and a grifter. The longer he keeps up this fight, the more money he can generate. Regardless of his apparent psychopathology, Trump has the ability to seek wealth, power and adulation. Second, he fears exposure both legally and as a fraud. That is why he keeps up his alternate reality.

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What is unusual about this situation is that there are 74 million people, Trump’s voters, along with his party, his cabinet members and others, to help keep Trump in his alternate reality. There are so many enablers for Trump and his delusions. That is very different from the typical domestic abuse situation. Trump has a team of “surrogate abusers.”

The worst thing one can do for a malignant narcissist or an abuser like Donald Trump is to tell him or her that they are correct or to otherwise validate the lies and false persona. Because then not only is this person pathologically telling themselves how special they are and how superior they are, but they have an echo chamber that is telling them the same thing.

Clinical work and other research show that the most dangerous time in an abusive relationship is the end. That is when there is likely to be an escalation of some sort. This is when the abuser is most likely to be their most volatile.

What has Trump and his allies’ emotional and physical abuse of the American people done to us collectively?

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The last four years with Donald Trump have been a major chronic, continuous, stressful event. It has created a state of anxiety and unpredictability that was present on almost a daily basis. That is different from a typical PTSD case, where a person can identify one or more discrete events that happened in their life and from which there are post-traumatic consequences. An example would be a combat veteran who was hit by an IED or a motor vehicle accident victim who survived a deadly crash.

Those are distinct events. Therapeutically, a clinician would try to isolate that event for the patient, to point out that the likelihood of experiencing something like that again is quite low, for the most part. We help the patient to better see reality. There are ways to work through and process that type of post-traumatic situation.

Trump’s time in office and what he did to the country is very different. One has to recognize that the source of the persistent state of stress is not going anywhere anytime soon. Now, what are we as a society going to do with that problem? I believe that there need to be task forces comprised of experts in domestic violence and mental health and other medical professionals. Their job would be to do community outreach.

Some specifics as to what Trump and these years with him have done to the American people: There are adverse psychological, physical, and cardiovascular problems; gastrointestinal problems; appetite, diet and sleep problems. Trump and his stress have likely caused new addictions, as well as caused people to relapse. Such problems are increased with a chronic stressor.

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Suicidal ideation has likely increased under Trump. Combine that with the COVID pandemic and the country is going to be struggling with a psychological tsunami of problems that will need to be addressed.

Donald Trump and his time in office will be studied for years to come by social psychologists as well as mental health professionals. It is a textbook example of a pathocracy, and how a society can be manipulated into collective anti-social behavior by a pathological leader. As an example, consider Trump’s recent rally in Georgia, which In so many ways was a crystallization of his evil and dark charisma. As an expert on mental health and neuroscience, what did you see at that event?

It was a confluence of psychological phenomena. There was the psychopathology and disordered personality of Donald Trump on full display for an hour and 40 minutes. But the crowd also demonstrated the cult dynamic that exists between Trump and his followers. Trump likely could be diagnosed with several personality disorders. Beyond any specific one, it is safe to say that his personality as a whole is disordered. At Trump’s Georgia rally, he showed his grandiosity, his sense of superiority and his disdain for people he views as inferior.

Do not overlook how Trump’s grandiosity is attractive to his followers. It is appealing, like a drug for them. That is part of the collective narcissism where Trump’s grandiosity spills over onto his followers, who are then empowered, in some cases, into becoming reckless, violent and aggressive.

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The mindset is, you’re either with us or you’re an enemy. From a cult perspective, it is either all or nothing in terms of reality and loyalty. And there were, of course, literally hundreds of lies told by Trump at the rally.

As part of Trump’s god complex and his followers’ feelings of shared omnipotence, he is offering the cult members a type of promised land. Trump’s promised land is a White America in which there are no immigrants, everyone is rich and there is no racial diversity. As part of the shared omnipotence of Trump’s cult, members are told that they must not stray from the flock or oppose him or criticize him — because if they do, they are out, the relationship collapses. Trump’s power over his followers is extreme.

What role did the coronavirus play at Trump’s rally in Georgia? That event was a literal death cult meeting, in which where people were not wearing masks during a deadly pandemic.

Outright denial. Not believing that the threat is real. Ignorance. But Trump used an interesting cult tactic here. He told his followers that the coronavirus was nothing to fear, then he got it and recovered (without highlighting the extraordinary care and treatment he received) and as such “demonstrated” to them that if they get it, nothing really bad will happen. Moreover, it’s a reinforcement of the idea that the cult leader will protect me and all will be fine.

For those Americans who have survived the pandemic and the other horrors of Trump’s time in office, will they experience some type of survivor’s guilt?

Absolutely. There are going to be a significant number of people in this country with survivor’s guilt, which is the idea that somebody did not survive, and I did, and then trying to reconcile why that is. In addition, there will be a large number of people who will continue to masks in the future because they are hypersensitive to this trauma. I believe we will also see more people becoming “preppers” because of the pandemic and all the death, stress and isolation. One of the things that will need to happen, in terms of healing from Trump-related PTSD and the pandemic, is some type of national closure.

I believe the best way to accomplish that is to have an annual national day of remembrance. There should also be a monument constructed on the National Mall as a reminder of the losses from the pandemic, and also a warning and symbol of not forgetting the political and social factors that led to this disaster. We cannot let this disaster disappear from the public consciousness.

Two vaccines for the coronavirus have already been approved and are being distributed. Will Trump’s followers agree to be vaccinated?

In a cult, logic does not matter. Consider that at first Trump was calling it a hoax. Then he was talking about miracle cures. Then he started talking about a vaccine. Trump has taken his followers all the way from, “This thing doesn’t exist,” to “We’ll have a vaccine out to you shortly,” a feat of true mental gymnastics. In cult psychology, a logical pattern is not necessary. If Donald Trump is delivering the message, there does not need to be any logic for his followers to listen to him.