Hope and Hopelessness in Trump's America

It’s not necessary to agree with the White House to stay hopeful.

Posted Feb 09, 2017

In the brief period since Trump took office, those who oppose the president have been riding an emotional rollercoaster.  "It's after midnight, I should be asleep, and I am livid about our government,” writes one Twitter denizen.  "The more I follow everything Trump and co. are doing, the more hopeless it feels,” writes another.  

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Some liberal-minded people are experiencing a sort of “Trump Addiction”—they feel almost magnetically drawn to reading about every executive order and new appointment, even though each one slowly chips away at their optimism.  To avoid feeling overwhelmed, others are tempted to navigate away from political websites, switch off the radio or television, and generally "tune out" the news.  Whether Trump-addicted or tuned out, the common denominator between both of these states is a sense of hopelessness.  CNN recently reported that even Trump’s own Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, called the president’s recent tweets criticizing the judiciary “demoralizing” and “disheartening,” words sometimes used to refer to feelings of hopelessness.

Hopelessness obviously isn’t a good thing.  Not only does it feel bad, but it’s associated with inaction, making it a recipe for disaster in the context of a participatory democracy.  As a form of government, democracy thrives only when people with diverse opinions vigorously debate, act, and vote.  

So, how do those in the political opposition remain hopeful?

There are more than two decades' worth of research about the psychological conditions under which hope thrives.  Perhaps most importantly, this work shows that it’s possible to be hopeful even when things aren’t going your way.  That’s because hope is a future-focused emotion.  Although it’s somewhat influenced by the current state of affairs, hope primarily involves the belief that the future can be better.  So, it’s possible to be very unhappy with the way things are going in Washington and still be hopeful that your actions today can make a difference tomorrow.

The most widely endorsed model of hope in the field of psychology was developed by C.R. Snyder, a researcher and clinician at the University of Kansas in the 1990s.  According to Snyder’s work, hope thrives when three basic conditions are met.

The first condition is having a goal, something important or meaningful to strive for.  Certainly those in the political opposition have many goals.  The key to setting this condition in your own life is to choose to adopt a goal that is truly meaningful to you—one that gives you a sense of purpose.  Viktor Frankl, the late great psychiatrist and holocaust survivor, was often asked what kept him going during his time in the concentration camps.  In response, he often quoted philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”  Certainly we’re far from the horrors of World War II, but this saying still holds great wisdom.  A lot of people are feeling disheartened by “how" the political climate is right now.  But a sense of purpose can keep the flame of hope lit by giving us a “why” to live for.

The second condition for hope to thrive is having what Snyder called "pathways”—strategies or plans that you believe could help you to achieve your goals. There are lots of possible pathways in politics, including protesting or marching, blogging or tweeting, volunteering for a non-profit organization, donating to a cause, writing to your congressperson, signing a petition, or even running for office.  Regardless of whether you choose one of these pathways or any other, the important thing for keeping yourself feeling hopeful is to choose to do something that you believe will positively contribute (even in a small way) to achieving whatever goal or goals you’ve embraced.  It’s not necessary to change the world all at once, just to take one step at a time along your pathway.

Finally, the third condition for hope to thrive involves nurturing a sense of personal agency.  Agency, a fancy word for empowerment, pushes us forward to work on our goals.  As in Watty Piper’s celebrated children’s book, The Little Engine That Could, agency fills us with the belief “I think I can” and is the engine of hope.  For many, this sense of agency comes in part from the care and encouragement of those in our lives.  When people come together in support of one another and their collective goals, this bolsters agency.

In many ways, the political opposition to Trump currently has all three of these conditions met.  Many people who attended last month’s Women's March, for instance, have commented that there was a palpable sense of hope in the air. This doesn’t mean people were happy.  On the contrary, they were marching out of dissatisfaction.  But the march still fueled a shared hope that the actions of the people present could make a difference.

Regardless of where each of us falls along the political spectrum, most of us can agree that staying hopeful and engaged in a good thing.  In 1799, Patrick Henry famously said, “United we stand, divided we fall.”  The truth is, the population of the United States has never stood fully united on its political ideals.  There will always be disagreements, even passionate and angry ones.  But as divided as we may be about our ideas, we can remain united in the hope that our democratic actions matter.


David B. Feldman is an Associate Professor of Counseling Psychology at Santa Clara University and co-author of (HarperCollins).

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