The U.S. is traumatized and needs real healing

The U.S. is a traumatized nation. Millions of people are now “trumpitized” as well, which greatly adds to their distress. The individual and collective traumas that result here in Lane County and nationwide threaten everyone’s mental health, safety and security — and our democracy. 

Explicit efforts must be made to heal these traumas, which will require the adoption of innovative community-based initiatives as well as new economic, social and ecological policies.

Sociologist Kai Erickson defined individual trauma as “a blow to the psyche that breaks through one’s defenses so suddenly and with such brutal force that one cannot react to it effectively.” When this occurs people often “withdraw into themselves, feel numbed, afraid, vulnerable and very alone.” 

Erickson defined collective trauma as “a blow to the basic tissue of social life that damages the bonds attaching people together and impairs their prevailing sense of community… [it is] a gradual realization that the community no longer exists as an effective source of support and that an important part of the self has disappeared.”

Since the mid-1970s powerful economic forces have traumatized more and more individuals and generated collective traumas as well. These include relentless economic globalization that has outsourced millions of jobs overseas and gutted entire U.S. industries and towns, new technologies that continually eliminate blue collar jobs, and the growing control of government by corporations and the super rich that has generated vast economic inequality. 

A number of social forces have added to the economic traumas, including growing urbanization, crowding and social complexity, increasing speed of life produced by the internet and other technologies, anxiety about foreign and domestic terrorism, distress caused by lack of affordable health care and fears that immigrants will take away even more jobs and alter our cultural makeup. 

Adding even more anguish and fear to the economic and social traumas are powerful ecological forces, including, but not limited to, the destructive impacts of record wildfires, heat waves, historic storms and other disasters caused by the global climate emergency. 

Almost everyone has been impacted by one or more of these forces, with people who are less educated, white males, and those in rural communities among the hardest hit. The often abrupt loss of family-wage jobs, the inability to support their families and other impacts have left many individuals traumatized by feelings of shock and hopelessness. The forces have also destroyed the social connections and cultural bonds that provide vital community support, leading to collective trauma. 

All levels of government have failed to meaningfully address these challenges, leaving many people feeling disrespected, left behind and angry at the “elites” they believe control government and society. These sentiments were a major factor in the election of Donald Trump as president in 2016. Rather than offering positive solutions, however, his constant bevy of lies, childish name calling, vast corruption, calls for violence against political opponents, blatant appeal to racism, bigotry, sexism and misogyny, and countless other self-serving illegal, unethical and immoral acts have accentuated the worst of our nation. 

The result is that a majority of Americans now feel trumpitized. On top of all of the other traumas they experience, they are now more frightened than ever before about what the future holds for them, their children and our nation. 

Healing trauma begins by acknowledging it, naming it and understanding its causes and effects. Only then can the process begin of releasing the personal and collective anguish, rising above past hardships, and creating a better future. 

As described in my previous column (“After the Fire,” 9/17), with concerted effort, local residents can accomplish much of this by bringing the entire community together to help all adults and youths learn self-care skills, establish social connections across cultural, economic and geographic lines, empower neighbors to assist other neighbors and engage organizations of all types in building mental wellness and resilience. 

But these community-based initiatives will continue to be relentlessly assaulted unless the underlying economic, social and ecological forces that produced the traumas are meaningfully addressed.

This cannot be accomplished by going backwards, as Trump and some other politicians propose. Trying to recreate the blue collar jobs that have been lost, such as timber jobs here in Oregon and coal jobs in Appalachia, will not only fail to address today’s challenges, it will make the economic and social traumas generated by ecological forces like the climate emergency far worse. 

The only option is to go forward and address the genuine need for new types of rural and urban businesses and jobs that restore the natural environment, as well as inexpensive education and job training, affordable health care, basic income and other forms of economic security. Dramatically reduced income inequality, incentives for businesses to produce goods domestically, and numerous actions that reduce the climate emergency to manageable levels are also urgently needed. 

These solutions require the type of resources, policies and coordination that only the government can provide. Even though effective government action seems impossible today, it has happened before. 

In the early 20th century, for example, the progressive movement responded to disruptive economic and social forces by modernizing government, establishing regulations that made big business more responsible and improving working and living conditions for many people. It also established some of our nation’s first environmental and resource conservation policies. Twenty years later, the New Deal created jobs that kept millions of Americans out of poverty during the Great Depression. 

These and other examples show that the government can rise above partisan politics, see conditions clearly and meaningfully address the economic, social and ecological forces that are traumatizing our nation and threatening our democracy.

Real change won’t be easy or happen fast. But effective solutions to the economic, social, and ecological forces that are traumatizing and trumpitizing our nation are within our reach.

Bob Doppelt coordinates the International Transformational Resilience Coalition and writes  an (ir)regular column for Eugene Weekly.