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Understanding 'Post-Trump Stress Disorder'

Why liberal voters didn’t see it coming.

Source: Vincent Van Gogh/Public Domain
Old Man in Sorrow (On the Threshold of Eternity), Vincent Van Gogh (1890)
Source: Vincent Van Gogh/Public Domain

“The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.”

—Donald J. Trump Victory Speech, November 9, 2016

On Election Night 2016, with most of the votes counted, half the country went to bed feeling despondent and desperately wishing for a last-minute, early morning miracle. The following day, after pinching ourselves in the hope that we were still dreaming, we awoke feeling disappointed and bewildered as we faced the fact that Donald Trump was our new president-elect.

By the time we all got to work and back to our daily lives, some of my psychiatric colleagues had already coined the phrase “Post-Trump Stress Disorder” to describe how they, many of their friends, and many of their patients were feeling. So much winning for Trump and Trump supporters, so much losing for the rest of us.

A big part of the let-down was due to the fact that few of us saw it coming. We knew it was theoretically possible, but we were buoyed by wishful confidence and ultimately betrayed by the pundits and polls that had consistently reported a comfortable if slim lead for Hillary Clinton going into Election Day. The shock and disappointment that stemmed from Trump pulling off a surprise victory was surpassed only by the dismay of having to concede that filmmaker Michael Moore wasn't a spoilsport, but some kind of prognosticating genius amidst a sea of inappropriately optimistic liberal voters.

Only now do we have the benefit of hindsight to ferret out the errors underlying that optimism, seeking understanding through a retrospective psychological autopsy.

As mentioned, polling results played a large role in biasing our expectations. Still, while liberal voters might be disappointed by the outcome of the election, we shouldn’t be that surprised. Beyond the inherent limitations of predicting the future, with poll inaccuracies stemming from sampling methods and the vagaries of statistical approximations, a year ago some pundits invoked the so-called “reverse Bradley Effect” to predict a stealth victory for Trump, well before he even won the Republican primary. The “Bradley effect” is based on the psychological theory of “social desirability bias” that, in the case of this election, gave us reason to suspect that conservative voters might avoid disclosing their support for Trump when asked about it in polling interviews. Similarly, some Republican politicians like Paul Ryan and Ted Cruz at times condemned Trump in public, but no doubt eventually voted for him when they cast their ballots.

While the polls were inaccurate, the false optimism of liberal voters was also a byproduct of the inherent biases of modern news. For a while, a generation of liberal-minded young adults fell into the habit of getting the news from watching the comedian Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. Now that cellphones have taken over as our peripheral brains, we consume our news from social media feeds that are by design programmed to present us with the news as we want it, not necessarily as it is. We’ve become digesters of a kind of syrupy, self-righteous pablum produced within online echo chambers and filter bubbles, continually narrowed with each click of a “like” button on social media and each time we defriend or block someone with opposing viewpoints. Human brains are already slaves to “confirmation bias” (in which we favor evidence that supports our intuitions and reject evidence that contradicts it)—but within the online universe, it’s more like confirmation bias on steroids. Which means that, in the end, we can’t trust the news because we’ve become voracious consumers of fake news, not actual news that aims to be objective or fair-balanced.

In addition to the ubiquity of confirmation bias, a number of other brain-based prejudices may help to explain why a Trump victory was so unexpected for some. This past year, neuroscientist and fellow Psychology Today blogger Bobby Azarian wrote an article for RawStory that went viral called, “A Neuroscientist Explains What May Be Wrong With Trump Supporter’s Brains.” In it, Azarian invoked a number of different psychological phenomena to explain Trumpers and Trumpettes, starting with the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which posits that being misinformed about an issue tends to be associated with a false sense of expertise:

“Essentially, they’re not smart enough to realize they’re dumb. And if one is under the illusion that they have sufficient or even superior knowledge, then they have no reason to defer to anyone’s judgment.”

After reading Azarian’s article for the first time last month, I tweeted, “OK, but to be clear, this is what’s wrong with ALL of our brains.” At the time, I didn’t realize how just how ironic Azarian’s article would become. Because, in a way, the Dunning-Kruger effect helps to explain why liberal voters, thinking ourselves intellectually superior on the issues at hand, conflated our own moral opinions with indisputable facts and failed to anticipate just how many people might judge those issues differently.

Azarian also cited “hypersensitivity to threat” and “terror management theory” to explain Trump supporters, noting that “science has unequivocally shown that the conservative brain has an exaggerated fear response.” But the use of the word “exaggerated” inappropriately implies a pathological level of fear and implies that liberals don’t vote based on our own imagined fears, such as what could happen with “Trump’s finger on the nuclear button.” A more fair-balanced view might be that all voters are motivated by fear, but that we have different phobias based on our respective identities and life experiences and different ideas about how to deal with them. For example, as I discussed in a previous post about “The Psychology of Guns,” both conservatives and liberals worry about the risk of being victimized by violence, but differ on whether gun ownership decreases or increases that risk, with endless disputes about what the evidence allegedly shows. That leaves our country with a sharp divide over gun control. The same could be said about other issues rooted in fretful worry, like terrorism, unemployment, and unwanted pregnancy.

Perhaps a more relevant psychological theory to account for our experience of this election is the “ideological-conflict hypothesis.” Consistent with what Azarian implies, psychological studies have shown that conservatives may be more predisposed to intolerance towards other groups than liberals (the so-called “prejudice gap”), but a 2014 study by Mark Brandt and colleagues found evidence that:

“…the prejudice gap may be overstated. For example, both liberals and conservatives make negative attributions for groups whose values are inconsistent with their own and distance themselves from people who do not share their moral convictions. Furthermore, data from a variety of independent and diverse samples have revealed that both liberals and conservatives express intolerance toward groups with whom they disagree.

… Our studies suggest the intriguing possibility that if researchers had spent the past six decades studying intolerance toward conservative instead of liberal groups, the field would have a much different view of the tolerant liberal.”1

That sentiment was echoed by writer Emma Roller in a recent New York Times op-ed piece called “Your Facts or Mine?” that concluded:

"The strongest bias in American politics is not a liberal bias or a conservative bias; it is a confirmation bias, or the urge to believe only things that confirm what you already believe to be true. Not only do we tend to seek out and remember information that reaffirms what we already believe, but there is also a “backfire effect,” which sees people doubling down on their beliefs after being presented with evidence that contradicts them."

It’s that very intolerance of opposing viewpoints that allowed liberal voters to be so blindsided by a Trump victory. Rather than focusing on the minute differences in our individual brains that explain our respective political ideologies, we need to appreciate how universal cognitive biases and the untenability of opposing opinions make all of us apologists for our candidates in an election, prone to overlooking their characterological shortcomings in favor of the larger issues at hand. Thinking about things in this way and in hindsight, isn’t it obvious that liberal voters misstepped in writing all Trumpers off as poorly educated xenophobes and that Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” comment was a significant blunder? Didn't Clinton voters and the Clinton campaign fall into the all too easy trap of identity politics, focusing on Trump as an irresistible target of derision and by doing so, inadvertently prodding a conservative populace who took it personally instead of capitalizing on an opportunity to reach across the aisle to address their real concerns?

Maybe coming to terms with a Trump victory doesn’t so much need psychological theorizing as a more empathic effort to understand rather than pathologize conservative thinking. One day removed from the election outcome, we already started to understand the possibility of “whitelash” and the apparent reality that it wasn’t so much minority voters, but “the silent majority” that turned out in droves to decide this election. Trump’s campaign was built on appealing to this demographic and his victory speech spoke to it directly when he said, “the forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.”

So why did Trump win the election? Before the election was decided, Washington Post writer Colby Itkowitz nailed the answer in an article called “What is This Election Missing? Empathy for Trump Voters” in which she interviewed Arlie Russell Hochschild, author of Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. Vox author Seal Illing nailed it in his article “Social Decay: What the Conversation about Trump and The White Working Class Misses” in which he interviewed J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. Even Cracked magazine nailed it with David Wong’s piece entitled, “How Half of America Lost Its F*cking Mind.”

Read those articles and you’ll get what liberals and the Clinton campaign missed—how voters were able to look past Trump’s behavior in favor of the conservative ideology that he embraced. These voters didn’t vote for Trump because of an outright embrace of racism and xenophobia, they voted for Trump because of the core message, whether or not it comes true, that he might make America—that is, their own damned lives—great again. Clinton and President Obama took the opposite approach, arguing that America already is great, but that hasn’t been the experience of the silent majority over the past decade or so.

Perhaps the bottom line is that in a polarized country, a campaign claiming “change” after a two-term presidency is almost always a sure thing. That doomed Clinton from the start and explains why President Obama edged her out in the 2008 primaries and why Bernie Sanders almost edged her out this year.

Of course, it’s always easier to see things more clearly with the benefit of hindsight. The real question now is how such retrospective analysis can guide our way forward.

To start, follow National Public Radio reporter Sarah McCammon’s advice when she Tweeted, “There's a lot more to America than DC, NY, LAand if you want to understand to you need to spend real time elsewhere.” Don’t inform yourself about what’s going on in the world by relying exclusively on your Facebook and Twitter feeds. Stay friends with that person whose divergent views and comments sometimes drive you crazy. If you’re a liberal, dare I say it, keep tabs on what's being said over at Fox News and read the Wall Street Journal and the National Review. Hell, for the next 4 years, you might want to even take a peek at Infowars once in awhile.

Thinking more strategically for the future, moving the country away from a see-saw pendulum that swings endlessly back and forth between 50-50 poles may require candidates with more centrist appeal even though the political party primary process disincentivizes political compromise.

In Trump’s victory speech, he offered the following vow:

“Now it’s time for America to bind the wounds of division; have to get together. To all Republicans and Democrats and Independents across this nation, I say it is time for us to come together as one united people. It’s time. I pledge to every citizen of our land that I will be president for all Americans, and this is so important to me. For those who have chosen not to support me in the past, of which there were a few people, I’m reaching out to you for your guidance and your help so that we can work together and unify our great country. As I’ve said from the beginning, ours was not a campaign, but rather an incredible and great movement made up of millions of hard-working men and women who love their country and want a better, brighter future for themselves and for their families. It’s a movement comprised of Americans from all races, religions, backgrounds and beliefs who want and expect our government to serve the people, and serve the people it will.”

That’s a great message and frankly one we haven’t heard from our President-elect to date. No doubt, liberal voters will be wondering, with more than our fair share of skepticism, whether he means it. And in the midst of this week's protests, all of us—liberals and conservatives alike—will find ourselves waiting to see whether or not he can actually pull it off.

Dr. Joe Pierre and Psych Unseen can be followed on Facebook and Twitter. To check out some of my fiction, click here to read the short story "Thermidor," published in Westwind last year.


1. Brandt M, Reyna C, Chambers JR, Crawford JT, Wetherell G. The ideological-conflict hypothesis: Intolerance among both liberals and conservatives. Current Directions in Psychological Science 2014; 23:27-34.