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Against Bargaining

On not taking leave of your senses

What does it mean to be mentally healthy in a world gone mad? Sirens are blaring, lights are flashing, and we have been whisked out of the territory of metaphor onto the hard ground of fact. The rise to power and election of Donald J. Trump is the sick recrimination of a society shriveled by anger and anxiety, and the response from deep within the psyche of the same society has been various degrees of panic, depression, and grief. Illinois suicide hotlines have been overwhelmed since the election, with calls up 200 percent, according to Chicago public health officials. A mental health asteroid has smashed into the carapace of a culture already calcified with anxiety and ambient dread. Major newsrooms are rumored to have hired in therapists so their journalists can continue to work. Everyone is wondering what this crisis will mean for their future, for their families, trying to work out how they’ll cope. Some coping strategies, however, are more dangerous than others.

The first time I suspected that Donald Trump might become president, I was at the back of the convention hall in Cleveland, watching the reality TV tycoon accept the nomination at the climax of a shindig that was somewhere between the Eurovision Song Contest and the Nuremberg Rally. I listened to the delegates in front of me whoop and scream and earnestly debate whether Barack Obama would be among the Muslims forcibly deported from the United States, and I thought to myself: these people love him for all the reasons my people hate him. We’ve underestimated the ignorance, the hate, the showmanship. This guy might win.

I should mention at this point that I have an anxiety disorder. As I staggered out into the soupy Cleveland night, I felt the familiar rats-in-the-belly squirm, the tightness of breath that precedes a full-blown panic attack. And so I did what I have learned to do to manage anxiety. I calmed myself down. I took some deep breaths, had some sugary tea, turned off social media, and told myself that I was over-reacting. Millions of Americans couldn’t possibly be that stupid. It would be okay. That was a big mistake. Yuge, as a certain someone would put it. I should have sat with that panic attack. I should have listened to what that legitimate anxiety was trying to tell me. It turns out that you cannot stop fascism by turning off Facebook and doing some deep breathing. All you can do is make yourself feel better, and there are limits to how much better it’s safe to feel right now.

There are none so blind as those who won’t see—specifically, those who have been conditioned through generations of history lessons and Hollywood propaganda to be suspicious of authoritarian strongmen and yet still refuse to recognize an actual fascist when he struts into the White House with a Suicide Squad of goons. I studied Hitler’s rise to power almost every year at secondary school. You may well have done the same. Thinking back through those textbooks I memorized, though, one question was always glossed over: What was it actually like to be an ordinary German in 1933? What were people feeling, listening to the state wireless whine out the workings of the new world order? How many were pleased to see the blackshirts on their streets—and how many were simply keeping their heads down, telling themselves that they’d been through worse, that they should give the new guys a chance and see if they really meant what they said? How many tried to normalize the utterly unconscionable, because the alternative was despair?

As I write, fascism is being normalized on every uplit screen and white liberals are turning away to gaze pointedly at their own navels. Asking how much of this is our fault is more comfortable than asking what the hell we do now, because it’s a question with an easy answer. “All of it was our fault” is the easy answer. It’s the wrong answer, but it’s the easy answer, because if you can persuade yourself that it’s your fault, that means you still have control.

At times of turmoil, your brain plays tricks on you. Normalization is not just a thing people do because they secretly like fascism and want it to win. Well, not all of them. Normalization is also psychic armour. It is a way of making the intolerable tolerable. It is a survival strategy, and like many such strategies, it is largely available to those with least to lose. Most black and LGBT Americans, along with anyone else who grew up feeling unsafe in America, moved through the stages of grief for a culture that cared about their lives long ago. For everyone else, the same grief is sore and shocking, and it’s causing some strange behavior.

The trouble with the five stages of grief is that one of them is bargaining. As a rogue’s gallery of far-right ideologues, white supremacists, and howling authoritarian sociopaths line up to take control of the White House, bargaining is what well-meaning liberals have spent all week doing—at least, those who have not already been personally threatened into silence. They’ve hopped from denying a Trump win was possible to telling themselves and each other that maybe it’ll be alright, just as you might soothe a child in a storm shelter. Maybe the federal government will save us, or moderate conservatives, or Jesus. Maybe there’s something reasonable in the rage of disinherited white Americans who rolled Orange Hitler into the Oval Office. Maybe we should have listened to them more, had more empathy, even as Trump voters deny any possibility of empathy for those whose beliefs, nationality, or skin color happens to differ from their own. Maybe we shouldn’t have called their behavior racist, misogynist, extremist. Maybe it was us, we say, rearranging the traditional post-crisis leftist firing squad into a perfect circle. Maybe we had this coming.

This, of course, is an internalization of the language of abusers everywhere. Look what you made us do. We wouldn’t have hurt you if you hadn’t provoked us. If you’re quieter, nicer, and better behaved from now on we can put this behind us—although we’ll have to punish you first. The people who have taken power in the mightiest nation on earth are native speakers of the language of abuse. They live and breathe the rhetoric of control, of gaslighting, of shame. This is how abuse works—not just overtly, but insidiously. It claims territory in your heart. It colonizes your mind until it becomes comfortable. Until it becomes something you can live with, or at least survive.

So you tell yourself that you survived Bush and Blair. Surely you can survive this, too. If you keep your head down. If you give the new order a chance. If you don’t make any strong statements. If you trust the government not to run the train off the rails. There will be attempts to reason with the abuser. To make him less of an abuser, because it is in fact hard to accept yourself as a victim. In the face of a sea-change in the sociopolitical order, you shut yourself tight in your shell and seal yourself off against everything that disturbs you. This might be thought of as the clam before the storm. And this is how it happens. This is how the bad guys win. This is how a “white supremacist” becomes a “controversial Breitbart executive” becomes a “White House senior counselor.”

This is also how life has changed in the United Kingdom since June, when the Brexit vote plunged the country into economic, cultural, and constitutional disaster. A slow, chilling creep of normalization of language and policies that would, scant years ago, have been the preserve of extremists. As the Overton window lurched to the right and the new, wholly unelected Prime Minister declared that “ordinary, decent people” were right to fear immigrants, the millions of abnormal, indecent people who did not vote for Brexit—47 percent of the nation—curled into themselves with horror. The political left immediately started tearing itself apart, and those of us not wedded to the Labour party watched in alarm as the very people who were supposed to stand up for human decency and workers’ rights took a wildly mistimed sabbatical to attack one another in public. Paranoia and conspiracy theories ran rife through the news, the tabloids abandoned any pretence at having moved on from their storied history of supporting fascists, and those who were clinging onto hope with their fingertips began to lose their grip.

As the Trump ascendancy became inescapable, therapists and psychiatrists across America were unsure how to treat a surge in patients presenting with symptoms of anxiety and depression. Psychiatric orthodoxy envisions anxiety as an individual problem, a maladaptive response to everyday conditions. There is nothing everyday, however, about Donald Trump and his march to the presidency on a carpet of hate—and to feel anxiety in response is anything but ill-adjusted. It is a survival instinct for the millions of Americans who really are directly threatened, physically threatened, by the new power agenda: their bodies make them targets. The traditional understanding of anxiety, despair, paranoia, hopelessness assumes some element of delusion or overreaction. But the white supremacists in the White House are very real. A vengeful, sociopathic narcissist who has been accused of sexual assault and threatened to deport and incarcerate millions of black, brown, and Muslim Americans will now have control of the nuclear codes and access to the most extensive surveillance network ever envisioned. Anxiety and despair are not irrational in this context. They are, in fact, the only rational response.

Months ago, thousands of “citizen therapists”, mental health professionals in the United States, produced a manifesto airing their concerns about what “Trumpism” was doing to the American psyche: 

The public rhetoric of Trumpism normalizes what therapists work against in our work: the tendency to blame others in our lives for our personal fears and insecurities and then battle these others instead of taking the healthier but more difficult path of self-awareness and self-responsibility. It also normalizes a kind of hyper-masculinity that is antithetical to the examined life and healthy relationships that psychotherapy helps people achieve. Simply stated, Trumpism is inconsistent with emotionally healthy living—and we have to say so publicly.

Sanity is socially and politically determined—and when politics change, the definition of who is well and unwell, who is sane and who is sick, tends to change with it. The traits of good mental health, of the supposedly well-balanced individual, are often suspiciously similar to those of the compliant citizen, the obedient worker, the dutiful woman—whatever those traits might be, depending on the mood of the world and the whims of the powerful. Those who oppose the existing order can count on being labeled as deranged, as irrational, especially if they make the mistake of showing emotion in a power regime that considers all emotions weakness, all feelings laughable—except the rage of the “white working class,” as long as it is properly harnessed in service of vested interests. What happens, then, when an attitude of outrage, of resistance, becomes reclassified as mental illness?

Just look at what happened to Kevin Allred. When the Rutgers University lecturer posed a question about the Second Amendment for his students online this week, he was not expecting to be forced into a psychiatric hospital. Hours after he posted, according to his own report, he found the police at his door, telling him he had to go with them to Bellevue hospital. He was declared sane by a number of baffled in-house medical professionals, but diagnosis is no longer simply a medical issue. It is also a political one. A president-elect who has threatened to jail his opponent and refused to decry racist violence done in his name is considered mentally well by virtue of the position he holds. A precarious academic who raises an issue about the Second Amendment online is subject to mandatory psychiatric treatment.

Do not doubt that this is a war of nerves as much as a war of resources.

Popular politics are no longer simply post-truth—they are post-reason. When working-class people vote against their own interests, they are usually dismissed as irrational. The Clinton campaign, much like the Remain campaign in Britain, worked on the basis that people would vote with their reason, rather than their feelings—forgetting that white men in the West have always been encouraged to believe that it is their feelings that matter more than anyone else’s, and a unilateral response to those feelings is justified. That’s what Trump voters, Brexiteers, and their ilk have done and continue to do as the everyday violence against women, queer people, black, brown, and Muslim citizens escalates across the Western world. They have interpreted their own feelings as an excuse for bigotry and a license to abuse. They have allowed their feelings to be exploited by venal salesman with vicious agendas. They have allowed their feelings to be put to work for the very people who caused so much of the mess. As above, so below: hurt people hurt people. Just because it’s comprehensible does not make it okay. Just because your feelings are injured does not give you license to injure others in turn.

This, again, is the logic of abuse: I have been hurt by life, and therefore I am entitled to take my feelings out on other people. I have no doubt that millions of those who voted for Trump have been deeply wounded by life. I have no doubt that those who feel that the hard-won ascendency of women and people of color to a slightly more equitable social position is a direct identity threat feel those feelings genuinely, and profoundly. That’s fine. It’s fine to have feelings. It’s not fine to place those feelings at the wheel of the ship of government and steer it into a damn iceberg.

Let me break it down for those of you fortunate enough not to have lived in fear of this sort of abuse. The people who propelled Trump to victory and are now celebrating have been stalking and harassing women, people of color, Jews, Muslims, and LGBT citizens online and in the flesh for years. They have been stalking and harassing these citizens and calling it good fun. When those of us who were targeted spoke out, we were told that the abuse was not real. That they didn’t really mean it when they leaked our addresses online and sent death threats to our families. That we provoked it, brought it on ourselves. That we should laugh it off and get off the internet. Close your computer. Be quieter. Behave.

We tried to raise the alarm. We tried to make it clear that these people were serious, that they meant business, that they were doing harm. Now those people are seizing power across the Western world, and bringing with them all the tools of psychological warfare that they have used with impunity for so long.

Do not doubt that this is a war of nerves as much as a war of resources. Systematic psychological abuse is a favorite tactic of the alt-right, and was an election strategy for Trump. Identify an enemy by name or aspect, grind them down with threats and harassment, do your best not just to dehumanize them in the eyes of others but to undermine their own sense of human worth. Hours after Donald Trump declared victory, forum members from one of the many Neo-Nazi outlets that stumped for the president-elect were cackling over the misery of frightened women, people of color, and LGBT citizens terrified for their families and communities. Andrew Angin, publisher of the Daily Stormer, urged his followers to double down on the abuse:  “You can troll these people and definitely get some of them to kill themselves,” Anglin wrote. “Just be like ‘it’s the only way you can prove to the racists that Hillary was right all along.’”

Anglin egged on his tame troll army, reassuring them that headlines announcing a rash of suicides would further demoralize the left. Read that back to yourself. Understand that these are words of war. Understand that rational as despair may be, there are those who would count your pain a victory.

They would be wrong on that count. Because the new right, the alt-right, all these new permutations of old bigotry consider every emotion weakness if it isn’t ballistic spite. They adhere to a cult of toxic masculinity that deems evidence of feeling a defeat. That is why they are so fixated on “triggering” their opponents, why they are obsessed with the notion of “safe spaces,” why the worst possible thing you can be is a “snowflake,” oversensitive, convinced of your worth as a human in a humane society. They believe that compassion is maladaptive, that liberalism is a disorder. They are wrong. Having feelings does not make a person weak. Allowing those feelings to control your behavior is what makes monsters.

We all know people who are not managing, people who we’re actively checking in on. In the days since the result—which, however the embarrassed commentariat scrambles to recapture the narrative, was and remains a profound shock—I have fielded calls from friends, relatives, and strangers driven to the point of despair. People who were already precarious and vulnerable and now have to imagine the prospect of four years of swivel-eyed authoritarian rule that may push the entire species to the point of habitat collapse. Then, as if things weren’t bad enough, Leonard Cohen died. I found myself torn between sadness and real worry that millions of people around the world who were barely coping as it was were suddenly listening to Various Positions.

It is, perhaps, no surprise that the people who seem to be managing best out of the at-risk citizens I know are almost all survivors of some sort of sustained abuse—of domestic violence, child abuse, of the historic abuse enacted by grim and sordid definition on marginalized and minority groups, or all three. Some of the most vulnerable people I know are also the best in a crisis, because they kick immediately into survivor mode. One of my most fragile friends has spent the past few days making some of the fiercest political art of her life, another has put together quick, comprehensible reading lists for strategies of resistance, another is fundraising like mad for abortion rights charities and bringing networks together to keep up the momentum. This doesn’t mean they’re grieving any less, nor that those of us still pinned to our beds with panic are poor soldiers in this war to which we find ourselves conscripts. It means that the strategies that will sustain us all in the coming weeks and months are exactly the strategies that have always allowed human beings to survive abuse and intimate terrorism. They are strategies for practical survival that are also emotional armour.

In the coming months and years those of us who still believe in a better world will need to guard the most important frontline—the one in the head. Trump and his team may be about to inflict horrors on the world—not unimaginable horrors, more’s the pity, but horribly imaginable ones. We must find a way to maintain our outrage, our shock, our refusal to accept the new power order as legitimate, whilst guarding our emotional resolves. Normalization and passive acceptance are an easy source of comfort but just about the worst coping strategies imaginable for living under an authoritarian, racist regime—so we must find others. Resistance is, and will remain, exhausting. Can we continue to treat toxic masculinity, aggression, bullying, misogyny, and othering as dangerous and unhealthy when their very personification sits in the Oval Office? Can we hang on to our sense of what is right, and just, and necessary even as the definition of decency, of normalcy, is twisted and tortured into a new and violent shape? We can, and we must.

That doesn’t mean we have to be happy about it. Personally, I spent the three days after the election weeping, writing and trying to force food down myself as I re-arranged every plan I had made to step away and rest for a while after seven years of exhausting journalistic work. Donald Trump has really messed with my life plan. This is far and away not the worst thing he has done, but it makes it a bit more personal. I was planning to go away for a while and write a novel. I was planning to have an actual holiday for the first time in my adult life. It was a nice plan. God knows, I need a rest. For now, basic self-care will have to do.

Nothing I’ve done or not done has ever kept or will ever keep me safe from those who mean harm to me and to those more vulnerable than me. However dicey it might be for my mental health to stand in opposition to these people, it is more dangerous to do nothing. Comfort now comes at the cost of calamity later. I’m not going to take silly risks. I’m going to make sure I have a day off now and then, and a ready supply of tea. I am going to spend time with my face in my mum’s dog’s fur. But to normalize this crisis, to rationalise it, to slink away and make a nice safe life for myself while I can, would be to betray everyone I know who doesn’t get that option.

Normalization is psychic armour. But so is resistance. In the coming weeks and months and years we must navigate a course between the exhaustion of perpetual outrage and the numbness of normalization. That means taking care of ourselves and of one another. It means practicing a sort of emotional intelligence that the new power order lacks the capacity to imagine, an emotional intelligence that is all that stands between us and fascism with a cartoon face. It’s also called courage. If standing up to bullies was cost-free, we’d have a different world. If enough of us do it anyway, we can still make one.