Life without armour

Many people seem to be experiencing the Trump presidency as a psychic threat. Trump doesn’t only pose a political challenge, but a psychological one too, apparently. On the streets, on Twitter, in blogs and, notably, in the mainstream press, there is heated talk of the need for ‘self care’ in these troubled times. We must ensure that we ‘soothe our bodies, minds and souls’ as a means of protecting ourselves against the excesses of Trumpism, says a piece titled Activism and Self-Care. Trump is seen, felt in fact, as a mental disruption. Many feel ‘overwhelmed by the world’ right now, says a writer for Slate, and it’s important they get ‘sleep, exercise, therapy, good food’. This is the language of personal crisis, of self-help, rather than of political engagement.

I find this response to Trump intriguing. I also think it is too widespread and honestly felt to be written off as stupidity, or ‘snowflakeism’. Something more serious is at work. What I think we’re witnessing is the end result of the dismantling of all the filters through which people once viewed, experienced, understood or kept at bay the political world. Where once we had ideology or institutions with which to interpret or simply protect ourselves against the vagaries of life in modern society, today, with the decline of ideas and corrosion of institutions, things seem to come at us more directly. Unfiltered, untranslated, psychically rather than politically. If people feel ‘overwhelmed’ by Trumpism, to such an extent that there’s now serious talk of ‘Trump-induced stress’ and the need for therapy to deal with Trump-era ‘mental-health challenges’, then this speaks to more than wimpishness on certain people’s part — it speaks of the unfiltered life; of what happens when the buffer zones of belief and solidarity are disorganised, leaving the individual alone against the world.

The therapeutic turn in the response to Trump has been extraordinary. Therapists are warning of ‘Trump anxiety’. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, ‘therapists throughout the region’ [Philadelphia] have confirmed that ‘for the first time in their careers’ they’re finding that ‘clients are so upset about politics that they’re willing to pay to talk about it’. Some of these victims of ‘Trump anxiety’ are displaying actual ‘physical symptoms’, such as ‘chest tightness and gastrointestinal distress’. The Washington Post reports that schools in the D.C. area are offering students and staff ‘counselling sessions’ to cope with the Trump era; there is concern that emotional health will be ‘negatively affected by [the] Trump administration’. In Boston, the Public Schools Behavioural Health Department has promised support to students who ‘may be having a difficult time processing any fears or concerns they may have’.

Universities are cranking up the therapy, too. After students at Cornell University held a ‘cry-in’ to mourn Trump’s victory in November, the university’s management offered talking cures, spaces in which vulnerable-feeling students could give voice to their personal angst. Other universities have offered ‘healing spaces’, promising to ‘listen and offer support’ to those who ‘feel uncertain about what may come’. And of course there has been the creation of Trump-era ‘safe spaces’, in which students have been told ‘you are loved’ and ‘You deserve wellness. You deserve to thrive.’

This is not simply a case of Generation Snowflake acting up. It’s going on outside the university, too. The mainstream media have embraced the cult of self-care as at least a semi-solution to the supposed terror of Trumpism. The Trump era is stoking up ‘strong, difficult emotions’, says WIRED; people are ‘feeling overwhelmed’. What do they need? ‘Self-care… exercise, see friends, be mindful’ — all of which ‘helps to temper the intensity of the human brain’s response to stress’. The Washington Post offers ‘self-care tips for those who are terrified of Trump’s presidency’. It claims some people are feeling ‘complete terror and anxiety’ — complete terror? How extraordinary — and the only way they might fix or at least tame their ‘feelings of vulnerability’ is by taking care of themselves ‘emotionally and mentally’. The Guardian says the daily news in the Trump era is a ‘syringe-driver of doom’, raising our ‘cortisol levels’. What is to be done? ‘We should not dismiss as trite the notion of self-care…’

Some will seek to contrast the rowdy, mass protests against Trump with this more self-regarding trend of self-care. Alongside the ‘safe space’ reaction to Trump, there has also been mass anger, they will say. Yet here’s the thing: even the protests have felt like the cult of self-care made flesh, a 21st-century ‘healing space’, only taking the form of a 20th-century political demo. Some of the protesters have been open about this. ‘The Women’s March Was Therapy’, says a writer for The Advocate. Where self-care is therapeutic on a micro scale, the Women’s March was ‘therapeutic on a macro scale’, she says: ‘It was a global scream of catharsis.’

A Guardian columnist admits the Women’s March was ‘not just protest’ — it was a ‘celebration of love among strangers’. So it was therapeutic. Another observer says to those who claim the protests were ‘meaningless except as catharsis’: ‘Do not underestimate catharsis.’ These protests might be seen, not as a traditional political stab at making or winning demands, but as a physical manifestation of the therapeutic turn; an act of primal-scream therapy to complement the other, quieter forms of therapy; an expression, not of resolve or of a political programme, but of those ‘feelings of vulnerability’. Indeed, that writer for The Advocate says the marches consisted of ‘hundreds of thousands screaming in simultaneous solitude’. In short, this was a ‘lonely crowd’: a coming-together of individuals to air individual fears, not to express a collective agenda; still individuated despite their fleeting collectivity.

The language of the Trump-era therapeutic outlook speaks strikingly to a sense of siege, to a feeling of being ‘bombarded’ with news and information, all of it bad. The metaphor of the news as ‘syringe’; the concern that people find it difficult to ‘process’ what is happening; one therapist’s claim that she continually encounters people who feel ‘rocked to their core’… it all points to a powerful feeling of individuals being hit constantly with information that feels — to use the most common Trump-anxiety word — ‘overwhelming’.

What’s lost, it seems, is any framework through which to make sense of recent events, so instead there is a widespread ‘sense of disbelief’; or any sense of solidarity that might make you feel strong rather than weak in relation to Trumpism, so instead there are people gathered in ‘simultaneous solitude’ to express or expel ‘feelings of vulnerability’; or even any historical sensibility that might make one appreciate that electoral upsets are a fairly common thing, and that there have been political upsets far more disruptive than this one, so instead there’s a reach for the language of the Holocaust — the darkest moment in human history has returned, apparently.

In short, what’s absent, glaringly absent, is a filter. Or a barrier. Or a buffer. A mechanism for mediating, for making meaningful sense of events and experiencing them, not as hurtful, but as political; not as painful, but as challenging; not as psychic or wounding, but as an opportunity, possibly, to reassert contrasting values. Trump is hurting people, making them feel terrified and alone, not because he is genuinely dangerous, let alone Hitler-like, but because of the absence of these filters, because of the demise of the old institutional guards against uncertainty, of the buffers between the world of politics, capitalism and work and the individual. Trump feels disorientating only because all those old means of orientation are gone, or are weak. It’s the shrunken capacity to orientate ourselves that is the problem, not that Trump is uniquely or particularly disorientating.

How has this come about? In essence, over years, decades, we lost our armour. We lost the thing, or things, that filtered the world for us, or made sense of the world for us. Whether it was institutions — churches, trade unions, political associations — or more informal kinds of solidarity — neighbourly connections, comradeship at work, the family — we had ways of protecting ourselves against the unpredictability of life in the modern era, and ways of reading the world, feeling the world, making the world meaningful, and thus not scary. But these have been in decline, for a long time, under the various pressures of government, capitalism, relativism and state meddling. And this has had the effect of leaving individuals buffer-less, unguarded, more likely to view their own lives as increasingly precarious and the political world as ever-more terrifying. People feel ‘overwhelmed’, ‘rocked’, their ‘bodies, minds and souls’ in need of ‘soothing’, because the things that once gounded them are no more. People cannot ‘process’ what is happening, we’re constantly told; yes, but that isn’t because what is happening is so strange, but because the means of processing are gone.

This is a profound problem for young people in particular. They now venture into the world without armour: without the armour of party, of institutions, of solidarity, of conviction. And so they experience the world and its inhabitants as terrifying. In everything from ‘Trump anxiety’ to microaggressions to the absurdity of wanting trigger warnings on Shakespeare, we can see the deleterious effect of life without armour: everything is interpreted as a slight or a danger, as an intolerant risk to one’s sense of self, to one’s safety, to one’s comfort, to one’s entire existence, in fact. They take refuge in the ‘safe space’, which is the opposite of donning armour: it’s a retreat from the world rather than a preparation for engaging with and understanding it.

Worse, if the young are socialised into anything today, it’s into the atomising cult of self-esteem, the politics of victimhood. If there are any social filters left, it’s this one. And this filter encourages us to read the world with terror, to find speech damaging, to find politics ‘overwhelming’. It’s a filter that warps rather than clarifies. It is one deisgned not to make some meaning of the world, but to make the world seem worse than it is; not to strengthen the individual’s capacity to understand and cope with a changeable, sometimes unstable world, but rather to flatter his belief that he cannot do this, and should not have to — that the world should reorient itself around him and his self-esteem rather than he orienting himself in order that he might better engage with the world.

A major problem of our times, perhaps the problem, has been the left’s response to the fall of the old solidarities. It has not sought to repair our armour, or fashion a new and better one — a fighting one, perhaps. Rather it has accommodated to life without armour, and in fact has dressed it up as something positive. It calls the death of solidarity the ‘politics of identity’, seeking to make individuation and atomisation seem radical rather than disorientating; it welcomes state interference in the family, in the name of feminism, viewing what happens ‘behind closed doors’ as shady and dangerous; it has replaced the demand for workers’ action for better wages and so on with new meddling trade-union initiatives designed to police speech and interaction between workers in the name of combatting sexual harassment, ageism, disablism, etc. In these ways, the left conspires in, or in fact leads, the hollowing out of the institutions and solidarities that helped us make sense of our own lives and needs and the world around us; it conspires in the removal of our armour.

If you want to see what impact this has had, consider the British Social Attitudes Survey that was published last week. It contained a remarkable finding — that young people are into diversity but not into economic equality. They appear on the surface to be progressive because they’re ‘much less concerned about religious beliefs or whether you’re gay, lesbian or straight, which people were previously more concerned about’ — that is, they’re relaxed about, or in fact cherish, diversity. But dig a little deeper and you discover that, in the words of one of the survey’s authors, they also are ‘much more accepting of economic inequality’. They have little interest in old left-wing ideas about the redistribution of wealth. This is where the politics of identity has taken us: to a situation where racial and social diversity is worshipped over material equality; where celebrating difference takes precedence over class solidarity or political solidarity. We have created a world in which division, and the cheering of it, is prized over the historic goal of equalising or increasing wealth. The young go into the world feeling both vulnerable and divided, devoid of the very basics of solidarity — devoid, that is, of the reason and sense of collectivity that make politics, especially radical politics, possible in the first place. Hence their response to Trump is emotional, and highly individuated, not political.

It is important that we cut through the hyperbole about Trump, that we challenge the idea that he’s Hitler, that America is screwed, that the world faces doom. Not in order to defend Trump — he’s big and ugly enough to defend himself — but in order to defend historical perspective, and reason. People must know, at a gut level, that they’re overreacting to Trump. They must know he isn’t the worst leader since the war; that his travel ban, however rash, does not echo the creation of the Warsaw Ghetto. They must. This is the politics of fear, and the politics of fear is always, without exception, a bad thing, even when its target is an oafish American president. Why? Because it represents an abandonment of considered reflection, a caving in to mawkishness and panic, and an acceptance that we are fragile and weak in the face of terrifying historical forces. It is an invitation to political paralysis and self-pity. It is a boon, not for you, but for Trump. He’s the only beneficiary of your sleepless nights, and pained tweets, and creation of ‘safe spaces’. In weakening you, your fear strengthens him.

End the fear. And end the celebration of the social and political disarray that hollowed out politics and got us to this fear. Let us make a new armour, and strap it on.

*The title of this post comes from Alan Sillitoe’s autobiography.