Diagnosis: Trumpism Infecting the Michigan GOP

“He is projecting an image of hyper-masculinity, demeaning critics, brittle — brittleness in the face of criticism and the strongman idea that ‘trust me, I won’t be very specific, trust me, and I will take care of all your problems.’ And we are seeing in our — in our therapy offices particularly members of minority groups who are very troubled by what they’re hearing and seeing. And so this strongman, brittle ego, hyper-masculinity needs to be named, called out.” — William Doherty — psychologist and director, Citizen Professional Center, University of Minnesota, on the Diane Rehm Show

Trump -the verge

Photo: The Verge

Donald Trump came to Michigan last week to demand, smug-faced, that African-American voters unquestioningly support him. Detroit, Flint, Pontiac, get in line, folks, if you know what’s best. Obnoxious as the GOP candidate is, the party itself isn’t exactly a political Xanadu for black voters. When Trump delivered his RNC acceptance speech, there were an estimated 18 blacks out of nearly 2,500 delegates in the room. Trump’s African-American support is polling at between zero and two percent, a fact not surprising given his checkered history of racism.

Voicing his tightly scripted, teleprompter-driven remarks against a sea of angry old white faces, many draped in old glory-themed sartorial choices, Trump blamed Democrats for impoverishing Michigan cities and leaving the state’s infrastructure in shambles. The GOP nominee boldly claimed that the “Michigan manufacturing sector” would bow to his authority and bring back jobs under his strongman control.  Donald promised “great deals” for the American worker.

How does he plan to single-handedly accomplish all this?

He hasn’t a clue, but that’s not important to him, because his motives have little to do with the well-being of Michiganians, or Americans of any stripe. He’s a self-centered nutjob, and the media is finally talking about the looming public danger of his mental deficits.

A group of over 2,200 mental health professionals have opted to break the 50-year old Goldwater Rule — an ethical guideline which prevents experts from weighing-in on the mental stability of public figures, without personally examining them. They published a statement of concern over the dangerous effects of “Trumpism.” (Excerpts below)

As psychotherapists practicing in the United States, we are alarmed by the rise of the ideology of Trumpism, which we see as a threat to the well-being of the people we care for and to American democracy itself. We cannot remain silent as we witness the rise of an American form of fascism. We can leverage this time of crisis to deepen our commitment to American democracy.

What is Trumpism?

Trumpism is an ideology, not an individual, and it may well endure and grow after the Presidential election even if Donald Trump is defeated. (Variants can be seen all over Europe.) Trumpism is a set of ideas about public life and a set of public practices characterized by:

  • Scapegoating and banishing groups of people who are seen as threats, including immigrants and religious minorities.
  • Degrading, ridiculing, and demeaning rivals and critics.
  • Fostering a cult of the Strong Man who:
    • Appeals to fear and anger
    • Promises to solve our problems if we just trust in him
    • Reinvents history and has little concern for truth
    • Never apologizes or admits mistakes of consequence
    • Sees no need for rational persuasion
    • Subordinates women while claiming to idealize them
    • Disdains public institutions like the courts when they are not subservient
    • Champions national power over international law and respect for other nations
    • Incites and excuses public violence by supporters

At the political level, Trumpism is an emerging form of American fascism, a point being made by social critics across the political spectrum, including Robert Reich, Robert Kagan, and Andrew Sullivan. As journalist Adam Gopnik points out, whether or not the term “fascism” fully fits, it’s clear that the American republic faces a clear and present danger when the candidate of a major political party embraces an anti-democratic ideology. At the cultural level, the Urban Dictionary has defined Trumpism as “the belief system that encourages pretentious, narcissistic behavior as a way to achieve money, fame, and power.”

What are the Effects of Trumpism?

  1. Fear and alienation among scapegoated groups, beginning with Latino immigrants and Muslims, and then other groups who become identified as threats
  2. Exaggerated masculinity as a cultural ideal, with particular influence on young people and economically insecure men
  3. Coarsening of public life by personal attacks on those who disagree
  4. Erosion of the American democratic tradition which has emphasized the agency of we-the-people instead of the Strong Man tradition of power

Why Therapists Must Speak Out

We must speak out for the well-being of people we treat and care for in our work. Trumpism will undermine the emotional health of those seen as the “other” in America—both historically denigrated groups and those whose turn will come. And it will compromise the integrity of those who are seduced by the illusion that real Americans can only become winners if others become losers. The public rhetoric of Trumpism normalizes what therapists work against in our work: the tendency to blame others in our lives for our personal fears and insecurities and then battle these others instead of taking the healthier but more difficult path of self-awareness and self-responsibility. It also normalizes a kind of hyper-masculinity that is antithetical to the examined life and healthy relationships that psychotherapy helps people achieve. Simply stated, Trumpism is inconsistent with emotionally healthy living—and we have to say so publicly.

We must speak out for the well-being of our democracy, which is both a way of living and acting together and a set of political institutions. Therapists have taken for granted how our work relies on a democratic tradition that gives people a sense of personal agency to create new narratives and take personal and collective responsibility for themselves, their families, and their communities. Reliance on a Strong Man who will solve our problems and deal with internal and external enemies is a direct threat to the democratic basis of psychotherapy. Therapy only flourishes on democratic soil.

Why speak collectively? Our responses thus far have been primarily personal—and too often confined to arm-chair diagnoses of Donald Trump. But a collective crisis faces our nation, a harkening back to the economic depression and demoralization of the 1930s (which fed European fascism) and the upheaval over Jim Crow and Black civil rights in the 1950s. Fortunately, the resolution of these crises led to a deepening of American democracy, not the abandonment of it. Martin Luther King, influenced by his mentor Bayard Rustin and by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, didn’t just critique unjust systems from the outside. He called for strategic, collective work to take back an American democracy that belongs to all the people. As therapists, we have been entrusted by society with collective responsibility in the arena of mental, behavioral, and relational health. When there is a public threat to our domain of responsibility we must speak out together, not just to protest but to deepen our commitment to a just society and a democratic way of life. This means being citizen therapists who are concerned with community well-being as much as personal well-being, since the two are inextricably joined.

Where We Stand as Citizen Therapists

We understand the draw of Trumpism and we acknowledge that some of our fellow citizens, and some of our clients, may vote for Donald Trump not because they embrace all aspects of Trumpism but because they are frustrated with their circumstances and fed up with the current political system. We are against Trumpism and its architects, not against those who are inclined to give it a chance to change the direction of the country.

But we reject the false equivalence of saying that because there is dishonesty and demagoguery on all political sides, why not support someone from the outside? Trumpism is qualitatively different. To repeat: Trumpism undermines the core of American democracy by promoting the idea of a single leader who will bring greatness to the nation by battling Those People. Democracy requires personal and collective agency so that we can work together across differences to solve problems and develop a shared way of life. Psychotherapists must be firmly on the side of democracy and work in solidarity with groups directly threatened by current and future versions of Trumpism. This work will not end with the election in November 2016. The wake-up call has been received. Our first response is this manifesto. More to follow.

Therefore, as citizen therapists we stand united against the dangerous ideology of Trumpism, and we encourage others to join us in a deepened commitment to a democratic way of life that engages the talents, yearnings, and capacities of all the people.

What Trumpism looks like in Michigan:

It’s no secret, there truly is a monster of sorts infecting Michigan Republicans, like a pestilent guinea worm — insidiously working its way in through the lowest extremities and emerging at the top, in the form of Attorney General Bill Schuette. Most recently, Trumpism has reared itself in an attempt to officially label 94-year old former Gov. William Milliken as irrelevant and not representative of core GOP conservative views, citing the governor’s wholesale rejection of Trump, and endorsement of  Hillary Clinton.

It occurred earlier this month in Grand Traverse County, a comparatively affluent, well-educated, and mostly Republican corner of Michigan where the revered statesman and his beloved family have called home for generations. The local party passed a resolution denouncing Gov. Milliken. The motion was promoted by Jason Gillman, an outspoken Tea Party member known for his hate-filled anti-gay obsession.

Gillman, with his obtuse positions on LGBTQ issues, often displays a classically diagnosable homophobic preoccupation, including his comments likening gays to pedophiles while he served as a county commissioner. Gillman justified his dislike of Milliken’s values thusly:

“Much in the way our nation has been beset by ‘gender confusion’, it seemed the former state executive has had a political identity crisis for some time.”

Gillman’s dad, a retired attorney who served in the Milliken administration, had a very different opinion. Michael Gillman, spoke with a number of media outlets expressing his opposition to his son’s resolution.

“I think we’re at a critical time for the Republican Party and I think that it’s important that we do nothing to diminish or attempt to exclude anybody who is going to call themselves a Republican.”

Gillman, the younger, is burning down his party’s tent. Grand Traverse County Republicans are watching in silent horror at the barrage of letters to the editor condemning their resolution. Among the many voices in opposition, a second-term GOP delegate penned one of dozens of letters to the local paper:

“I am not proud of the Grand Traverse County Republican party now, since it has been overrun by unhinged radicals who are using the party for their personal playground. What an embarrassment!” — Karilee Walter, letter to the editor, Traverse City Record-Eagle

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin





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