Now What? Reflections and Suggestions on Recovering from the 2016 Election

from a Former Grief and Trauma Therapist

Did this really just happen?  Sorry, Michael Moore, but until recently, I’d have to say that I have been still in shock much of the time.  Not that I dismissed his very early prediction that Trump would win the U.S. presidency by garnering enough support in the States he needed to win a majority in the electoral college. After all, the last Republican president, G.W. Bush, won that way. I hoped that it wouldn’t come true, and even doubted it at times, but the lesson Moore was attempting to teach the American people with his repeated warning was based on history - you know, that thing we’re doomed to repeat if we forget about it?  

I had to wait a few days to begin to collect my thoughts about this subject before putting much of them into writing, and completing this piece you’re now reading has been a challenging undertaking. Like the death of a loved one, or a relationship, job, or personal dream that you really want to hold onto, this event brings a major and complex loss to a lot of us. For many of us U.S. Americans that loss is much more than Hillary Clinton's losing the election, which in itself might matter little to folks who voted Green or even disillusioned Bernie supporters who took the "lesser evil" approach in the ballot box.  It might also include loss of trust and faith in the electoral system or in many of our fellow citizens, or for others, even a sense of betrayal by their own country.

For many there is also a very real loss of one's personal safety - or at least a diminished sense of security - for ourselves or for our children.  This has already surfaced as one very troubling result of Trump's election in American schoolyards in the form of increased bullying, racial slurs, racist graffiti, and violence targeting children of color and/or of Middle Eastern descent. “These incidents have been ugly," reports Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center in an interview for a Common Dreams article citing over 860 post-election incidents.  "And time after time the perpetrator has invoked Mr. Trump’s name. The level of hate that has been unleashed is unprecedented." The article's author goes on to say that the Law Center adds that these documented incidents "are likely a 'small fraction' of the actual number of election-related hate incidents that have happened since the election." 

“These incidents have been ugly," says Cohen. "And time after time the perpetrator has invoked Mr. Trump’s name. The level of hate that has been unleashed is unprecedented.”  Although I'm a white male living south of the US border, this particular effect of Trump's victory has been one of the most immediately distressing concerns for me.  As a counselor and teacher in the US, I worked with hundreds of children and adolescents whose risk of being victimized because of their heritage, their beliefs, or their sexual orientation has just been increased dramatically.  My eyes now begin to tear up every time I think of them. Some of those kids have been growing up knowing that there has been a Black man in the White House for half or more of their lifetimes, a symbol of possibilities that their parents and grandparents could, at best, have only imagined. And a President who has consistently modeled and encouraged tolerance. He is now scheduled to be replaced by a man known widely for his racism, bigotry, sexism, and scapegoating of those who do not fit his stereotype ethnic/genetic model of what it means to be an American.  


This brings me to the painful reminder that, above all, we are also faced with what is likely to be an even greater loss coming in the form of major setbacks to so much of what we progressives would call progress.  The positive changes, great and small, made in the last few decades not only for human equality and tolerance, but also for our environment, our reproductive rights, our healthcare, and many other areas we care about deeply are now all at risk. 

So there are so many feelings in the mix of our first reactions that, for a lot of us, it’s just all really overwhelming to deal with at first. Consequently our anger may have  immediately surfaced. Rage over something like this can feel pretty righteous. Or we might have immediately slipped into depression or even despair at times. Or denied the reality that it could possibly really be happening ("I can't believe it!")  Or tried to figure out a way to bargain or even pray our way out of it.  We also might have just gone numb for the time being until the initial shock subsides. 

Those of you already familiar with Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s famous stages of grief and loss have, I’m sure, already recognized them in that last paragraph.  Knowing about those stages and noticing where we are in the process of grieving can really help in getting through it, though we don’t necessarily go through them in a prescribed order and not everyone necessarily experiences all of them. During my 20 some odd years of working with people in emotional crisis and in processing my own major losses, I’ve witnessed many times and experienced myself firsthand the passage back and forth and, eventually, through those stages.  Still, some of us will dismiss them as irrelevant right now, because what we are already experiencing feels important to hold on to. 


There is some truth in that sentiment, I think, because righteous anger and unwillingness to accept what is - to most of us - unacceptable injustice have fueled every movement for equality, human rights, environmental justice, peace, and positive social change in history.  So that fifth stage of processing a loss, acceptance, may well be one worth putting off or avoiding altogether for some of us.  And, like those other causes I mentioned, this is a case that, to me, is one well worth making a fuss about. 

In a post-election interview on "60 Minutes" Trump vowed again that he will appoint "pro-life" judges to the U.S. Supreme Court who can then overturn Roe v. Wade and give determination of the legality of women's reproductive rights "back to the states." He has also vowed, with the support of the Republican majorities he will have in both house of Congress, to reverse Obama’s commitment to the Paris Accords international on responding to climate change.  If you’re still wondering how far he might go in his initial months in office, his list of contenders for his cabinet said it all, from Newt Gingrich to Sarah Palin. And if his chosen chief strategist, white nationalist and former alt-right media mogul Stephen Bannon, is any indication of where things are heading, we'd all better fasten our seat belts. 

Each day the news brings yet another reminder of how bad the next four years look already. For the last couple weeks these have been a running tally of of the additional things we are likely to lose as a result of his latest cabinet post nominations and staff appointments, from his top immigration advisor's "Muslim registry" proposal and National Security Advisor's defense of resuming water boarding and killing the families of terrorism suspects, to the anti-minimum wage fast food CEO head of the Department of Labor, to the Goldman and Sachs moguls selected to run the country’s finances, to the Exxon-Mobil boss Secretary of State, to the entrusting of national defense and homeland security to the most hawkish of the country’s generals, and - perhaps most insanely horrific of all - turning the Environmental Protection Agency over to the most notorious climate denying, EPA-bashing fossil fuel industry attorney in the country.  You may remember when Rick Perry drew media attention during his own Presidential campaign when he forgot the name of one of the departments he planned to dismantle, the Department of Energy. Now that Trump has picked him, a DAPL board member, to head it, can their yet be any doubt where we are headed?


And so it begins. The undoing of decades of progressive change within the system, the pushing of the hands of the American sociopolitical clock back to the 1950's, and the slowing of our race against time in the face of the increasingly disastrous results of human accelerated climate change to the pace of that same decade. As Oliver Milman reports in The Guardian, "Trump has assembled a transition team in which at least nine senior members deny basic scientific understanding that the planet is warming due to the burning of carbon and other human activity." The list, he reports, includes "the transition heads of all the key agencies responsible for either monitoring or dealing with climate change," and not one has "any background in climate science.” To quote geopolitical analyst and MIT professor Noam Chomsky's post-election statement, "Humans are facing the most important question in their history - whether organized human life will survive in anything like the form we know - and are answering it by accelerating the race to disaster."


So, like Michael Moore, I will be repeating his recommended mantra to myself and to my many friends from other lands who will, no doubt, be asking about the sanity of my fellow US Americans: No, we, the majority of US citizens, did NOT elect this man, (with the popular vote count in Hillary’s favor by over 2.5 million, as of this writing) who all records indicate will prove soon to be a far worse mistake than all the other electoral embarrassments of our past. With the Jill Stein initiated recounts in key states that gave Trump his electoral college majority now stalled or stopped altogether, how things will come out in the next few weeks may be still a bit uncertain, but, for now, President Trump is still looking a likely reality next month.

I myself am moving in and out of my own awareness of both the immediate horror and the imminent danger ahead. I have always been pretty good at compartmentalizing emotional states. A chaotic childhood can be a good place to learn that survival skill, and it becomes a very helpful one to therapists shifting between numerous clients in crisis while at work and the personal and family needs and obligations awaiting us at home. The positive things in my life are bringing me joy again, at least momentarily, though the darkness beyond that brilliant super moon in the sky just after the election remains undeniable.  I’m writing again now too, and that's usually a sign that it's getting easier to carry on.  But what's been lost is gone, and getting used to that does not bring it back or in any way make up for its absence. 

Most of the comedians who normally bring relief had little to offer and were really struggling with finding a way to make me laugh the first couple days, but they're quickly getting much funnier again, having had a lot of practice during his campaign. Colbert has been doing a fine job, while continuing to acknowledge his own pain and concern, Trevor Noah is doing a great job finding laughs to counter his own despair, and Alex Baldwin’s SNL impressions have been on target enough to garner regular reactionary tweets from the Trump toilet. I would recommend regular viewings of your own favorites for analgesic relief to anyone as preoccupied as I’ve been with this mess. 


“Why grieve at all?” some might ask, or “Who has time for it?”  The tough thing about a major loss is that it comes and has its impact on our emotional terrain whether we acknowledge it or not. We can choose to ignore it and pretend it isn’t affecting us, like we may have done with other major losses and disappointments, but then the resulting feelings we’ve been left with will often get displaced, having unintended negative effects on those around us - and ultimately on ourselves, as well.  Like the kid who got scolded or punished by a parent and then kicks the cat or breaks a window, bringing on only more trouble, we may be better off expanding our awareness of what is going on beneath the surface in our own psyches and taking some time to learn more about and notice our own grief and trauma recovery process.  I’m convinced it will help us truly get through it much more effectively and leave us better equipped to cope with the changes and losses that lie ahead. Even four years may feel like a very long time.

As life's routines resume, we will gradually find more and more things to smile about, but the grieving process continues as long as it takes. And acceptance sometimes does not mean lying down or forgetting, but, instead, facing our fate, continuing our watch, and preparing ourselves for our next move. Be sure to allow that to include spending time with your friends and staying close to those you most care about. No one of us can do it alone. Let's give each other all the love and support we need to make it because, short of some monumental turn of events in the next few weeks, we are probably all going to need it.