A Psychological Explanation for Why People Can’t Move On From the 2016 Election

What happens when the "absolutisms of everyday life" get shattered.

Image courtesy of Flickr

For a huge swath of the American population—65 million, if you’re counting Hillary Clinton’s popular votes—the 2016 presidential election was an unexpected disappointment, to say the absolute least. Or a soul-crushing, world-shattering trauma to say the most. An Intercept headline from November 9 captured the disappointment like this: “Liberals Wonder What to Tell Their Children. The Truth: America Is Not a Fairy Tale.”

Since the election, a steady stream of think pieces—not to mention tweets and everyday conversations—have attempted to blame, analyze and otherwise make sense of what happened. Now, with Clinton’s new book, appropriately titled What Happened, her personal story is thrust into the public sphere again, reigniting the fire of the commentariat class. This time, it was Slate that nailed the narrative: “Clinton Confirms That Democrats Will Relitigate the 2016 Primary Until the Sun Swallows the Earth.” It all shows how Tuesday November 8, 2016, was not simply a political event for this country, but, for many people, the beginning of a psychological crisis.

The psychoanalyst Robert Stolorow, PhD, author of Trauma and Human Existence: Autobiographical, Psychoanalytic, and Philosophical Reflections, and a founding faculty member of the Institute of Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Los Angeles, has written about how the election was, for some Clinton supporters, experientially similar to the terror attacks on 9/11. Both historical events blew apart our assumptions of how reality worked. “The existential meaning of emotional trauma lies in the shattering of what I call the absolutisms of everyday life,” he explains, or “the system of illusory beliefs that allow us to function in the world, experienced as stable, predictable, and safe.”

While President Trump plays the role of savior for his supporters, he’s the nemesis, to put it lightly, for the other side. For that second group, the election of The Donald—a collective trauma—meant that the world had changed forever and was no longer a place of safety. It’s what Germans call weltschmerz: the pain of realizing that the world can’t live up to your expectations for it.

In an attempt to understand it all—and, more practically, figure out why our Twitter feeds seem to be stuck in 2016, Thrive Global reached out to Stolorow over email. His insights are as concise as they are potent, like why Hillary is expressing so much blame and apology, both in her book and on her press tour, and why reading everything you can about an event that leaves you reeling is really a defense mechanism against an unpredictable world.

THRIVE GLOBAL: From afar, how do you see Hillary Clinton processing her loss? It seems like the book is part of it, as were her hikes before. How would you characterize it?

ROBERT STOLOROW: I think Hillary Clinton’s loss has entailed a massive component of traumatic shame for her, and that she has been trying to counteract that shame by finding someone/something to blame for the shameful defeat. Blame, often suffused with rage, is perhaps the most common antidote to unbearable shame.

TG: How was the 2016 election a shattering of "absolutisms of everyday life," and how do you see that shattering reflected in our public discourse?

RS: Especially vexing for many people is the limitedness of our ability to know outcomes, such as the outcome of an election, in advance. Being troubled about this limitation can be particularly acute for someone who grew up feeling alone and unprotected in childhood and who turned to his or her own mental activity as the only source of protectedness and safety. Covering every base in advance is of paramount importance for such a person, and the limited ability to do so is anathema to him or her, resulting in unbearable anxiety and a propensity for obsessional rumination, doubt, and indecision.

TG: How did this play out last November?

RS: This way of counteracting vulnerability with mental activity showed up in the weeks prior to the election, as the dangers of a Trump presidency began to materialize. People, myself included, manifested a compulsive attentiveness to the predictions of pundits and pollsters, but such predictions ultimately were exposed as deeply flawed. Without the ability to protect against danger through anticipation and prediction, people were left with unmodified feelings of vulnerability and endangerment. Safety was revealed to be an illusion, a revelation that lies at the heart of the existential meaning of trauma.

TG: Is there a better, healthier alternative to this “compulsive attentiveness”?

RS: In the wake of such trauma—whether individual or collective—people need what I call a relational home, a context of emotional understanding in which unbearable existential anxiety and overwhelming uncertainty can be held, better borne, and ultimately integrated.

TG: You’ve written about how “a relational home” can be found by sharing your experience in a “context of human understanding” with another person. It’s more empathic than sympathetic—where you’re not just being assured that “it’ll be fine,” but rather joined by a friend or a therapist in the recognition that life is finite and the world can get really frightening.

RS: Such integration is yet to be accomplished, as people use their mental capacities to return again and again to the election, often with the hope of redoing it. Such undoing and redoing, if it were possible, would restore confidence in the power of mental activity to maintain illusions of safety.

Within such a relational home, traumatized states are in a process of becoming less severely traumatic—i.e., of becoming less overwhelming and more bearable—thus making dissociative and other evasive defenses less necessary. Emotional pain and existential vulnerability that find a hospitable and enduring relational home can be seamlessly and constitutively integrated into whom one experiences oneself as being.

TG: Rather than continuing to argue over what went wrong and who’s to blame for November 8, in other words, we should invest that energy into making deep connections— and maybe help make relational homes for one another.

Psychology