This piece originally appeared as part of Rolling Stone’s annual Hot List, in the July/August 2021 issue of the magazine.
When Twitter banned @real-donaldtrump on January 8th, it short-circuited the 45th president’s hard-wired connection to the nation’s consciousness, silencing his anytime platform to threaten, cajole, insult, troll, and terrify the nation. Two weeks later, the inauguration of the subdued, levelheaded Joe Biden brought an end to four years of national trauma.
For the liberal opposition, Trump’s departure meant mental liberation! We were free to obsessively share Bernie Sanders mitten memes; to consume news stories of low-impact ephemera like the shrimp tail a comedian (allegedly) discovered in a box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch; or to propose overconfident solutions to the saga of the stuck Suez Canal container ship. So starved were Americans for non-Trumpian drama that Oprah’s interview with Harry and Meghan about their split from the royals damn near broke the internet.
But the end of the Trump presidency has also left a wicked hangover. Instead of pure release and relief, the national nervous system remains decidedly on edge. The hyperfocus formerly dedicated to Trump has been swinging around indiscriminately — and only occasionally landing on stories of national weight, like the conviction of Derek Chauvin in the murder of George Floyd.
The difficulty in recalibrating what is worth our attention, says psychiatrist Bandy X. Lee, president of the World Mental Health Coalition, is a mark of mental injuries produced by four years of having our fight-or-flight reflexes triggered by Trump. “After prolonged vigilance and trauma, it is very hard for the limbic system to return to its previous normal,” she says, referencing the part of the brain that regulates our survival responses.
Lee calls the lived experience of the Trump administration a “complex trauma,” by which she means that Americans “were not only exposed to prolonged, repeated conditions of having to fear for our very survival, but the very person who was supposed to protect us” — the president — “inflicted more harm than all our enemies for the past 100 years. This is a lot for us to come to terms with as a nation,” she says.
The challenge for America, mental-health experts say, is to come to a sense of closure with the Trump administration — despite the lack of accountability our former White House tormentor has faced. Psychiatrist James S. Gordon, author of The Transformation: Discovering Wholeness and Healing After Trauma, emphasizes the good that can come from stepping down from the eat-or-be-eaten mindset that Trump cultivated. “Trump was a total believer in the zero-sum game. He wins. You lose. Too bad! You’re a sucker!” Gordon says.
Post-Trump brain freedom presents Americans an opportunity to move beyond that anger and mistrust and “to come into balance, and to find our meaning and purpose,” says Gordon, who teaches at Georgetown University. This calmer, more centered mind space is enhanced by the easing of the pandemic, which has enabled a return to many of the daily activities, from concert festivals to book clubs to dinners with friends, that give life meaning. That, in turn, creates room for reconciliation. “When we’re being traumatized, it’s very hard to pay attention to somebody else,” he says, “and very hard to relax with them and accord them respect.”
Rather than forgetting and just moving forward, Lee says, America has got to put in the work of confronting the damage Trump wrought — both to the stability of our country and to our national self-image — and to the danger that his political movement continues to pose. The prerequisite for reconciliation, she argues, is truth. “The sooner we face reality, the sooner healing can occur,” Lee says.
That is, of course, a heavy lift. In the meantime, if your personal trauma recovery requires chiming in online about the re-emergence of Bennifer, the Bill Gates divorce, or the mystery of the military’s UFO videos, please know we’re not here to judge.