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American Agita: Resistance As Antidote To Donald Trump-Induced Anxiety

For the 74 percent of registered voters who voted for someone else, or who didn’t vote at all, writes Steve Almond, Trump has been a walking anxiety attack. Pictured: A protester holds a sign during a Day Without Immigrants protest, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017, in Washington. (Alex Brandon/AP)closemore
For the 74 percent of registered voters who voted for someone else, or who didn’t vote at all, writes Steve Almond, Trump has been a walking anxiety attack. Pictured: A protester holds a sign during a Day Without Immigrants protest, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017, in Washington. (Alex Brandon/AP)
COMMENTARY

You don’t need a fancy scientific survey to recognize that Americans are, in the aggregate, way more stressed with Donald Trump in the Oval Office.

We all sensed this was coming, though a lot of us hoped that the dignity of the presidency would rub off on Trump and, somehow, magically, turn him into an economic populist willing to unite a country he had so fervently divided.

Instead, he’s governed — to whatever extent that verb applies — as a wannabe authoritarian, surrounded by sycophantic cronies, contemptuous of any body that seeks to limit his power or expose his lies. His parade of executive orders has sought to honor his most bigoted and senseless campaign promises. His domestic policy agenda appears tailored to the whim of the GOP quislings in Congress: tax cuts for the wealthy, giveaways for oil companies and deregulation for Wall Street swindlers. The greed is so transparent nobody even bothers to mention it.

In a single month, Donald Trump has done more to erode American optimism than any leader in our history.

It is clear already that the Trump presidency will be a moral failure. But just as profound is the new administration’s emotional failure.

Trump’s most ardent supporters, safely cocooned in a world of for-profit propaganda, may be thrilled with his bullying publicity stunts and his rambling, vainglorious pressers. But whatever pleasure they feel is not likely to come from a place of hope. It’s the defensive, agitated satisfaction that comes from believing you have the bully on your side.

For the rest of us — the 74 percent of registered voters who voted for someone else, or who didn’t vote at all — Trump has been a walking anxiety attack.

The fear has been most acute amongst Muslims, immigrants, undocumented workers and those insured by the Affordable Care Act (like me and my family!). But at this point, it extends to anyone with a functioning conscience.

Unlike previous presidents, Trump has no apparent interest in healing the wounds inflicted during the campaign, even rhetorically. He knows only one way to interact with the world: through an endless cycle of conflict, a solipsistic opera of blame and self-pity.

His inaugural speech capped a dismal year spent gaslighting voters, trying to convince them that America — the most prosperous and peaceful nation on earth — was a flaming ruin.

His first month in office has been beset by chaos and scandal, compounded by preening incompetence and pathological dishonesty.

His worldview is essentially that of Thomas Hobbes, the pre-Enlightenment philosopher who posited that life was an endless “war of all against all.”

Here’s how Trump (or, rather, his ghostwriter Bill Zanker) put it in his 2007 book "Think Big:" "The world is a vicious and brutal place. We think we’re civilized. In truth, it’s a cruel world and people are ruthless. They act nice to your face, but underneath they’re out to kill you … Even your friends are out to get you."

What kind of person believes this?

A depressed person.

The sort of person who might respond to a scandal that threatens to take him down by starting a nuclear war. A guy fundamentally incapable of apology or self-reflection.

That’s our president, folks.

In a single month, Donald Trump has done more to erode American optimism than any leader in our history. The most hallowed of our presidents all had one thing in common: the ability to inspire people to heed the better angels of their nature.

Whatever you may think about his policy agenda, Trump does the opposite, day after day. He has dragged Americans into his small, dark world of fear and paranoia and selfishness.

If Americans want to recapture a sense of hope about the future of our country... we are going to have to find a way to resist not just Trump’s most damaging policy aims, but the psychic weight of his sheer presence.

Journalists who have lived abroad recognize this syndrome. It’s what happens in an autocracy, when citizens are forced to absorb the delusions, and dangerous behavior, of a mentally unstable leader.

If Americans want to recapture a sense of hope about the future of our country — and I truly believe that we do — we are going to have to find a way to resist not just Trump’s most damaging policy aims, but the psychic weight of his sheer presence.

This means tuning out his tweets and belligerent antics and focusing on the basic tools democracy: civic engagement, organizing, activism. Courageous idealism has to flourish when our better angels flag.

If America is going to be great again, it will have to be in defiance of this president, not because of him.

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Steve Almond Cognoscenti contributor
Steve Almond is the author of 11 books of fiction and nonfiction. He writes Cog's advice column, #HeavyMeddle, and is the co-host of Dear Sugar Radio.

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