Donald Trump, His Supporters, and the “Extinction Burst”

I want to tell you a personal story that is helping me make a little bit of sense out of the crazy times we find ourselves living in now.

When my eldest son was little, he required lots of different therapies to help him catch up with his peers. He received speech therapy, occupational therapy, something called “floor time” therapy. He was in a social skills group.

For awhile we had a behavior therapist who was coming to our house to help us address the tantrums and defiant behavior my son was having at homework time. Fifteen minutes of work would drag out to three hours, ending with both my son and me in tears.

The therapist said we were going to put the problem behaviors “on extinction.” The plan would establish clear consequences for outbursts and rewards for good behavior. We would show my son that there was no alternative for him except doing what was required.

“You will get to a point where things seem to be improving, and your son cooperates,” I remember the therapist telling me. “But when he realizes you mean business, and this is serious, he will act out. This is called the ‘extinction burst.’ It is usually marked by extreme tantrums and defiance, the likes of which you may have never seen.”

The therapist warned me that the extinction burst is the point at which many parents give up. He told me giving up would reinforce the bad behaviors and my son would learn that if he had a big enough tantrum, he would win. He urged me to remain consistent, and promised that after the “burst,” we would begin to see improvements.

I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to give up with all the work required to help my son. But I never did. And the therapist was right. And now my son is a 10th grader, and he has come so far that it often feels like this story happened to someone else.

Why am I posting this? Because it occurs to me that many of us are working to put racism and sexism “on extinction” in this country. And that this whole thing, the election of this horrible, dangerous, racist madman, the racheting up of his crazy behavior, the doubling down of his most ardent supporters — it all feels like an “extinction burst.”

We’re at the point where we want to put our heads in our hands and give up. Some of us never imagined it could get this bad. Many of us are overwhelmed.

This is the part where we look at America screaming in our face, kicking its feet, throwing things at us, and you know what? We take a deep breath. And we dig in.

Because we love America, and we believe in America and her possibilities, with the fierceness with which I love and believe in my own sons.