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Stripped of False Realities: Americans’ Political “Psychotic Break”

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Photo by Harrie van Veen | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Harrie van Veen | CC BY 2.0

 

Stripped of the false realities of democracy, legitimate media authorities, and American exceptionalism, U.S. society is having a “psychotic break” of sorts. What many Americans have previously believed to be “reality” is disintegrating.

Science provides us with no monolithic explanation for what is commonly called a psychotic break, but for some people who have lived this experience, they describe their sense of who they’ve believed themselves to be as disintegrating in a massive way, a discovery that their sense of self is in some way false. This experience can be overwhelming, emotionally and cognitively, and can propel them into an altered state.

Every so often, the American societal-political veil lifts, and what was clear to George Carlin and other cynical nonvoters is difficult to deny even for voters skilled at denial. In the 2016 presidential selection/election process, the veil lifted, making it difficult even for previously trusting Americans to continue to believe that they lived in a democracy that provides them with a choice and a say, and made it difficult to continue to believe in the legitimacy of mainstream media. Even for those skilled in denial, it has become difficult to believe in the American exceptionalism that their nation is immune from what other nations are not immune from: a con man taking power by exploiting a sense of victimization—a reality that is now difficult to deny even for a growing number of betrayed Trump voters.

Before getting to the disintegration for Sanders and Trump supporters, first some of the unsettling blows that have made it difficult for millions of Americans in general to deny that they had a false sense of their societal-political reality:

* The chronic tension of the lesser-of-two evils choice, which had previously produced “democracy dissonance” for some Americans, was ratcheted up considerably in 2016, expanding the number of Americans incredulous that they lived in a democracy that provided choice and say. In 2016, the dislike for the Republican and Democrat candidates reached historic unfavorable levels, with Trump’s July 2016 unfavorable polls average at 57% (favorable at 36%) and Clinton’s July 2016 unfavorable polls average at 56% (favorable at 38%). Perhaps unfavorable levels for both candidates need to hit 70% for that variable alone to result in a psychotic break, but this wasn’t the only assault on many Americans’ “societal-political sense of self.”

* The “loser” of the presidential election received nearly 3 million more votes than the “winner.” Of course, for some Americans who believe they live in a democracy that provides them with a choice and a say, perhaps the “loser” needs to have to have 10 million more votes than the “winner” for their psychotic break.

* The day before the 2016 election, mainstream media were close to certain that Hillary Clinton would win (New York Times 85%; CNN, 91%; Huffington Post, 98%). This prognostication failure has further shattered what was left of trust for mainstream media authorities.

While science provides us with no monolithic explanation for a psychotic break, one trigger explanation that resonates with some people who have had this experience is a horrific “double-bind.” An example of such a double bind: A sexually abused child is told by the family member abuser: “It’s now too late for you to escape, because I will deny it and nobody will believe you”; and the child is left with the choice between continuing the sexual abuse or denouncing the abuser, an action the child believes will result in the child being accused by family of lying and/or the child held responsible for destroying the family. And so this unresolvable dilemma overwhelms the child.

The lesser-of-two-evils choice—especially when the two choices are both extremely evil—is a double bind of sorts.

Bernie Sanders put his 12 million primary voters and other supporters in a double-bind. For Sanders supporters, Hillary Clinton epitomized what they despised. Clinton has been: heavily supported by Wall Street and arms dealers; repeatedly pro-war from Iraq to Libya; a friend and admirer of Henry Kissinger, who for Sanders supporters is one of the greatest war criminals in world history; a former board member of the anti-labor union Wal-Mart Board of Directors; a co-sponsor of the Flag-Protection Act of 2005, which included prison terms for those who destroy the flag; and has had an otherwise despicable and untrustworthy history for progressives.

Bernie Sanders’ choice was to either support someone that his supporters despise and distrust or don’t support Clinton and Trump wins, and the Democratic Party and its media operatives politically assassinate Sanders as was done with Ralph Nader post-2000 election. Sanders’ public reaction was to choose what he had many reasons to believe was a false reality—that Clinton was not going to betray her new-found progressivism. Given Clinton’s history, Sanders had good reason to believe that Clinton as president would likely betray campaign progressive promises and simply blame failure on the Republicans. But rather than choosing Nader’s path, Sanders suppressed the reality of Clinton, and asked his supporters to do the same.

Many Sanders supporters could not shed the reality of Hillary Clinton’s anti-progressive history and that the Democratic Party establishment had sabotaged Sanders (who the polls had shown had a much better chance than Clinton of beating Trump); and these supporters lost faith in both Sanders and the electoral process and did not vote—a political-self psychotic break of sorts for people who had ardently believed in voting.

Other Sanders supporters followed Sanders’ direction and voted for Clinton, only to find themselves now assaulted by the reality that Sanders had instructed them to support a corrupt political process that resulted in Trump winning anyway.

How about Trump supporters? Millions of Trump supporters, even before his inauguration, began having their political-self psychotic break, recognizing that they had been “played,” that Trump had no intention of keeping his campaign promises, and used them to gain power and attention.

A major issue for Trump supporters was “crony capitalism,” but even before Trump was inaugurated, he orchestrated the Carrier deal of tax breaks for jobs, which was so obviously a betrayal that even Sara Palin decried it calling it “crony capitalism.”

That has not been Trump’s only pre-inauguration betrayal.

Trump repeatedly promised to “drain the swamp.” The epitome of the “swamp” is the revolving door between the U.S. government and Goldman Sachs, yet Trump’s nominees for his administration include former Goldman Sachs employees Steve Mnuchin for Treasury Secretary and Gary Cohn for National Economic Council. It’s now become increasingly clear that Trump appears to be well on his way to creating the most putrid swamp ever, as he nominated for cabinet positions six of his top donors, as well as several establishment politicians (for example, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s wife Elain Chao as Transportation Secretary; 20-year U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions for Attorney General, and others).

Trump promised his supporters an “anti-politician,” and they received a caricature of a politician who didn’t even wait until he was inaugurated to betray his promises.

For the patriotic “Make America Great Again” Trump supporters who have believed their entire lives that Russia is America’s enemy and that the CIA protects Americans from “commies and terrorists,” what do they do with the reality that Trump has made war on the CIA and has befriended Russia, who the CIA reports actively worked for Trump’s election?

From Trump’s history, it is not likely that these mind-blowing assaults on what was once considered “conservatism” and “patriotism” will end.

Among Trump’s approximately 63 million voters, some now claim that the most passionate rallying cry of every Trump rally—“lock her up”—was just theater, and that they are unbothered that almost immediately after the election, Trump stated that he is not going to prosecute Clinton. Their focus is only on the financial promises that Trump—who they believe to be a “warrior businessman”—will grow the GDP at a fantastic rate, and that this along with deregulation and corporate tax breaks will result in a return of high-paying jobs. For this group, the future holds another likely shock. Should corporations accrue more cash, recent history has shown us that they do not hire more workers at higher salaries but instead spend this cash on stock buybacks.

What happens post-psychotic break?

The individual psychotic break and resulting altered state, from the outside, is a frightening frenzy of beliefs, speech, and behavior that makes no sense. But to those experiencing it, there can be an array of new ideas—some which they ultimately reject as delusional (e.g., no, they can’t fly) but some not delusional (e.g., yes, they have been traumatized by authorities who have lied to them).

On an individual level, psychotic breaks routinely go two ways. If one is lucky and has support, one can emerge from this altered state with greater clarity of one’s true self. But if one is unlucky and fear and unsafety sabotages this process, one can become permanently labeled as “seriously mentally ill.”

So, with America’s societal-political psychotic break, it is quite possible that a few more million people will emerge with George Carlin-like clarity about the truth of the American sham democratic political system—a truth borne out by studies such as “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens” (see video of findings) that validate Carlin’s observation that no matter whether Republicans or Democrats in charge, average Americans have no fucking influence on government policy.

Or, this societal-political “psychotic break” can result in further deterioration, further “social-political illness,” transforming the United States from “friendly fascism” and bullshit hypocrisy about democracy to violent, boot-in-your-face fascism where truth tellers in the tradition of George Carlin are driven underground, way underground.

Bruce E. Levine,  a practicing clinical psychologist, writes and speaks about how society, culture, politics and psychology intersect.  He is the author of Get Up, Stand Up: Uniting Populists, Energizing the Defeated, and Battling the Corporate Elite (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2011). His website is www.brucelevine.net

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