History, Language, Politics

Lexicon and National Trauma



This presidency will end, but “the election” remains in our lexicon as a national trauma. 

I took the photo above the day after the election. Even a year later, that’s still what it’s called – “the election.” You don’t have to say “the 2016 election” or “the election of Donald J. Trump.” People know what you’re talking about. Yes, we’ve been through controversial elections before, and only time will tell the staying power of this phrase. But today, a year later, the nation shoulders the singular weight of a presidency collectively marked, not by the day the administration took office, but by the election itself.

While we can’t discount the disasters of the actual Trump presidency, psychologists increasingly argue that the election itself produced lasting, impactful trauma. This week, health journalist Beth Skwarecki spoke with therapists across the country about the long-term psychological effects of the election. According to Karen Koenig, a clinical social worker,

“I can say with certainty that my clients who are trauma survivors are coming into sessions triggered by our new president… The election itself reached into [a memory] of being abused while others in their life told them everything was fine.” 

These effects on our national psyche will remain, even after Trump leaves office. As Skwarecki argues, “the fact that he was ever elected indicates that many Americans accept his behavior.”

I’ve had numerous debates on whether or not Trump-voters are, themselves, racist/sexist/homophobic, etc. As the year goes on, has become clear that the answer to that question matters very little. Even if a majority of Trump voters did vote for tax breaks or a (stolen) supreme court seat, the point remains – a huge swath of voters could ignore threats and debasement leveled at their fellow Americans for a candidate denounced across party lines. The election put on full display the American willingness to throw one’s neighbors under the bus in exchange for specious promises of material gain. Whiteness trumped justice. Patriarchy trumped progress. Trump trumped democracy. We have not yet come far.

The country won’t forget that.

And perhaps it shouldn’t. The election showed many of the more privileged among us that the arc of history does not inevitably bend toward justice – we have to bend it ourselves.

Like “9/11,” the phrase “the election” has become part of our nation’s lexicon, marking what it truly was and is – a national trauma.

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