CNN before love-making is not his idea of a turn-on.
But she can hardly turn it off—engrossed as she is in the latest unnerving gyrations of Washington.
Who else to blame but Donald Trump? A president who excites hot feelings in many quarters has cooled them considerably in the bedroom of a Philadelphia couple, who sought counseling in part because the agitated state of American politics was causing strain in their marriage.
The couple’s story was relayed to POLITICO by their therapist on condition of anonymity. But their travails, according to national surveys and interviews with mental health professionals, are not as anomalous as one might suppose. Even when symptoms are not sexual in nature, there is abundant evidence that Trump and his daily uproars are galloping into the inner life of millions of Americans.
During normal times, therapists say, their sessions deal with familiar themes: relationships, self-esteem, everyday coping. events don’t usually invade. But numerous counselors said Trump and his convulsive effect on America’s national conversation is giving politics a prominence on the psychologist’s couch not seen since the months after 9/11—another moment in which events were frightening in a way that had widespread emotional consequences.
Empirical data bolsters the anecdotal reports from practitioners. The American Psychiatric Association in a May survey found that 39 percent of people said their anxiety level had risen over the previous year—and 56 percent were either “extremely anxious” or “somewhat anxious about “the impact of politics on daily life.” A 2017 study found two-thirds of Americans’ see the nation’s future as a “very or somewhat significant source of stress.”
These findings suggest the political-media community has things backwards when it comes to Trump and mental health.
For two years or more, commentators have been cross-referencing observations of presidential behavior with the official APA Diagnostic and Statistical Manual’s definition of narcissistic personality disorder. Journalists have compared contemporary video of Trump with interviews from the 1980s for signs of possible cognitive decline. And even some people on his own team, according to books and news reports, have been reading up on the process of presidential removal under the 25th Amendment of the Constitution—fueled by suspicions that the president’s allegedly erratic and undeniably precedent-shattering approach to the Oval Office may prove eventually to be a case of non compos mentis.
A more plausible interpretation, in the view of some psychological experts, is that Trump has been cultivating, adapting and prospering from his distinctive brand of provocation, brinkmanship, and self-drama for the past 72 years. What we’re seeing is merely the president’s own definition of normal. It is only the audience who finds the performance disorienting.
In other words: He’s not crazy, but the rest of us are getting there fast.
Jennifer Panning, a psychologist from Evanston, Illinois, calls the phenomenon “Trump Anxiety Disorder.” She wrote a chapter on it in a collection by mental health experts called “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump.” In an interview, she said the disorder is marked by such symptoms as “increased worry, obsessive thought patterns, muscle tension and obsessive preoccupation with the news.”
A study from the market research firm Galileo also found that, in the first 100 days after Trump’s election, 40 percent of people said they “can no longer have open and honest conversations with some friends or family members.” Nearly a quarter of respondents said their political views have hurt their personal relationships.
This goes beyond office arguments or the Thanksgiving gathering in which some cousin or in-law drinks too much and someone storms out after the diner-table conversation turns to politics. Even the closest daily relationships can suffer.
The Philadelphia couple who found Trump had a detumescent effect on their love life weren’t arguing about the president, said their therapist, Cynthia Baum-Baicker. They were just coping with shared distress in different ways. Information for many people reduces anxiety, and so TV news was a kind of psychic tether for the wife.
“I remember the husband basically said, ‘If you ever want to be intimate again, you’ll turn the TV off in the bedroom. I can’t have that man present and listen to him and feel any sense of arousal,’” said Baum-Baicker.
Some of the explanation for Trump’s effect lies not just in psychology but in political theory. In countries like the United Kingdom the head of state (the queen) and the head of government (the prime minister) are separate roles. In the United States they are one. In an era of media saturation presidents tend to be omnipresent figures. And even polarizing figures like Bill Clinton after the Oklahoma City bombing or George W. Bush after 9/11 served as national consolers—suggesting how people subconsciously assign an almost parental role to the presidency.
Trump’s relentless self-aggrandizement, under this interpretation, makes him less a national father than adolescent at large.
“Authority figures represent the parent, [so] President Trump seats in the seat of parent for all Americans,” said Baum-Baicker. “So now, my ‘father figure’ is a bully, is an authoritarian who doesn’t believe in studying and doing homework. … [Rather than reassurance] he creates uncertainty.”
Even Trump supporters are not insulated from this modern age of anxiety.
Elisabeth Joy LaMotte, who practices psychotherapy in the nation’s capital, said she “doesn’t view it as a party-specific thing.”
“Conservatives are hurting, too,” she said. “I view this anxiety as collective in a very strong sense. They’re hurting in part because they feel they don’t have permission to share their real views, or they feel conflicted because they agree with things that the president is doing but they’re uncomfortable with his language and tactics…. And they feel alienated and isolated from friends and family who differ from their views, as if there’s not permission to view it in a different way in D.C.”
Nearly every interview with psychologists returned to the theme of “gaslighting”—the ability of manipulative people to make those around them question their mental grip.
Trump daily goes to war on behalf of his own factual universe, with what conservative commentator George F. Will this week called “breezy indifference to reality.”
Examples include false boasts on the size of his inauguration crowd; his denunciation of unfavorable stories as “fake news”; the assertion that an investigation into his campaign which has already produced multiple criminal convictions is “a hoax.” Some people can’t just roll their eyes at obvious bullshit—they experience an assault on truth at a more profound psychic level.
“Gaslighting is essentially a tactic used by abusive personalities to make their abuser to feel as though they’re not experiencing reality, or that it’s made up or false,” said Dominic Sisti, a behavioral health care expert at the University of Pennsylvania who penned an article with Baum-Baicker on Trump’s effect on stress. “The only reality one can trust is one that is defined by the abuser. Trump does this on a daily basis—he lies, uses ambiguities, demonizes the press. It’s a macroscopic version of an abusive relationship.”
When people are frightened by erratic behavior and worry what’s coming next in any arena of life, said Panning, that creates an extraordinary amount of anxiety and often a feeling of dread.”
Even Washington actors in the Trump dramas aren’t immune. A recent New York Times story alleged that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein speculated about invoking the 25th Amendment and considered wearing an FBI wire in a meeting with Trump in an attempt to catch him obstructing justice. The story cited unnamed associates saying Rosenstein was behaving “erratically” and that he appeared to be “conflicted, regretful, and emotional.”
The recent Brett Kavanaugh hearings revealed many others in public roles behaving out of sorts—full of red-faced rants that left some partisans cheering but struck others as unhinged. Legal activist Ed Whelan was widely described in news reports as a temperamentally sober-minded guy. But he took a leave of absence from his NGO, the Ethics and Public Policy Center, after combing through online floor plans and Google Maps to suggest, without evidence, that Kavanaugh’s accuser had him confused with someone else Whelan identified by name. His statement of apology said he made “an appalling and inexcusable mistake of judgment.”
But therapists say today’s political conditions are ripe to send people of all partisan, ideological and cultural stripes to the emotional edge.
“Human beings hate two things,” said Michael Dulchin, a New York psychiatrist who has seen Trump anxiety in his practice. One is “to look to the future and think you don’t have enough energy to succeed and live up to your expectations. The other is to not be able to predict the environment.”
Put these together, he said, and the psychological result is virtually inevitable: “Anxiety and depression.”