What’s Wrong With America? Understanding the Effects of Traumatized Leaders

We Americans have seen some rather ugly campaign runs in recent history, but there’s no denying that 2020’s presidential race has plummeted America’s global reputation to a whole new low. For many of us, this is the first time we’ve ever had to wait past election day to receive the final results on who our leader would be for the next four years. This time around, we’re not only being denied results, but now we’re being told that vote counts are actually being frozen and challenged before they’re even completed.

Not only has the aftermath of this voting round been supremely painful, but the mood leading up to it has been unnervingly dark. Since when do Americans feel the need to board up the windows of their businesses, bulk up on security staff, and sit around on pins waiting for an outburst of violence the minute a winner is declared? Sure, it’s reasonable to expect the losing side in any competition to be disgruntled for a bit after the race is done. But this time it’s different, isn’t it? Somehow we’ve gone from “business as usual” to expecting a lot of civil unrest. But even more disturbing than the fact that so much violence is occurring is the fact that it seems to have become acceptable for Americans to throw adult hissy fits over something as basic as exercising their right to vote. How many people around the world dearly wish they could have more of a say in how their governments run? America is far from perfect, but the fact that we’ve kept voting meaningful as long as we have is something we should be proud of, not something we should be using as an excuse to attack each other.

Current news coverage of this messy affair is focused on legal battles, sluggish counting mechanics, and violence in the streets. While these things make for juicy headlines, they are also distracting everyone from thinking about a far more important issue. Whenever you want to understand human behavior–either on an individual or nationwide scale–you need to turn your focus to human psychology. At the end of the day, people’s internal psychological mechanics are what have the greatest influence over their behavior.

Now maybe you think President Trump is has done a fantastic job as a political leader. Fine. My purpose in writing this article is not to promote specific political policies. Instead, I want to help you develop better discernment skills by learning to recognize psychological mechanics at work in front of you. Regardless of what you think of Trump’s political agendas, from a psychological standpoint, the man is clearly in a state of severe trauma. How do I know this? Because of the way he behaves.

Psychological problems express themselves in different ways, making some easier to diagnose than others. The same is true in the world of physical ailments. You can have a cancerous tumor in you body yet remain unaware of it for years. But if your skin reacts badly to a soap you’re using, the resulting rash will immediately alert you of a problem. Of course we need to be cautious here, because skin rashes can be caused by many different issues, and are not always a result of a surface irritant. The same is true in the world of psychological ailments: many different kinds of root issues can result in the same behavioral symptoms. What this means is that you can’t simply observe a man’s behavior from a distance and claim to have an intimate knowledge of why he’s behaving the way that he is. But the more you understand human psychology, the easier it is to identify when someone is in a state of psychological trauma, especially when they are using certain types of trauma coping methods.

In my article Understanding Ego Sheltering: Combatting the Fear of Being Unworthy, I explain how Trump’s behavior leaves no doubt that his subconscious mind is actively using a trauma coping strategy which I call ego sheltering. This kind of behavior simply doesn’t exist in people whose minds feel calm. I can appreciate that some of you might feel I’m being a bit arrogant to diagnose a virtual stranger in this manner, but in the world of psychological ailments, ego sheltering is as easy to identify as a severe skin rash is for medical doctors. This happens to be one of the more obvious trauma symptoms, and this is partly due to the fact that it is a more extreme coping method which is triggered by extreme stress.

Mental Defense Strategies

Now when it comes to dealing with stress, your mind has countless defense strategies to choose from. Which strategies your mind decides to try could be very different or quite similar to the strategies another mind goes for. Every mind is a unique individual, with its own style of going about things.

When you’re trying to understand why a mind is using a specific coping method, it’s vital to understand that human minds do not care about the issue of morality. It’s your soul that cares about things being morally right or wrong. But your mind assesses the “rightness” of something based on how effective it is at accomplishing your mind’s current agenda. If getting high on cocaine gives your mind a brief relief from overwhelming stress, then your mind will label taking drugs as “right” and perhaps even “critical” to its own survival. If physically beating up your spouse helps your mind feel safe from a terrifying threat, then it will label that behavior as “right.” The point is that minds can and do justify all kinds of negative behaviors as being “useful” and “good” when such behaviors feel effective in accomplishing important goals.

Once you ignore the issue of morality and only focus on accomplishing X, it’s easy to come up with all kinds of solutions that appear very shady to others, and perhaps even do lasting harm to those around you. For example, suppose I’m in desperate need of grocery money and I care nothing about morality. Once I don’t have to bother with worrying about what’s morally correct, I have a lot more options available to me. Simply stealing money out of your wallet when you’re not looking would seem like a perfectly acceptable and expedient way to solve my problem, and my problem is the only thing I’m going to care about when I’m in a state of high stress.

Extreme stress has a way of bringing out the worst in people. This is because high stress situations are ones in which you feel personally threatened, and any time you are under threat, your subconscious rushes to your defense. The subconscious part of your mind is the most loyal ally you will ever know. It will go to extreme lengths to protect you from harm, and it will always act with your best interests at heart. I personally feel that the subconscious is the most misunderstood and underappreciated element of human beings. While psychiatrists are quick to hand out negative diagnosis and criticize the way that the mind is behaving, it’s rare to hear someone explain mind mechanics with sincere respect for the mind’s logic, and a proper appreciation of its underlying agendas. Yes, it’s true that subconscious minds are usually the driving force behind the worst of human behaviors, but in even the most horrifying situations, minds are striving to accomplish positive agendas–at least that’s the way they see it. If you’re going to really understand or help human minds, you must learn how to see things from their perspective and give them the credit they deserve for trying to do something good, even if they are going about it all wrong.

A Traumatized Trump

And now we come to President Trump, a fellow whose mind has unfortunately committed to using a defense strategy that not only requires a lot of mental resources to maintain, but is frustratingly fragile. Ego sheltering is a defense strategy in which your mind attempts to create a false reality for you to focus on which will distract you from a true reality that you find too upsetting to face.

Suppose you were stuck in a room with a very disturbing painting hanging on one of its walls. Just the sight of the painting creeps you out and makes you feel very stressed. How can you lower your stress levels in this kind of situation? Physically turning away from the painting would be a good start, because that would at least get it out of your face. The problem is that even turned away, you will still find yourself staring at an image of that picture in your mind. To really get relief, you need something else that you can stare at instead–something that will give your mind a replacement image to cover that scary one with. So you go out and get yourself a large, pretty painting that you find very pleasant to stare at. Having that new image really helps you–but to experience relief, you have to be very intentional about focusing on it. The moment you look away from your distraction tool, you find yourself thinking about that creepy picture again, and you feel scared to turn around and get another glimpse of it.

If you take the situation I just described and imagine that your reaction to that creepy painting is not just some mild discomfort, but a deep core terror, then you are closer to understanding the kind of stress Trump’s mind is currently grappling with. Again, how do I know this? By the way he acts and the things he says. I’m not talking about his rehearsed behavior, such as when he’s acting out a script on some political commercial or presidential speech in which he is allowing others to partially curtail his behavior. I’m talking about his spontaneous behavior, of which there are now reams of examples, both in written and visual forms.

Unlike his predecessors, Trump is extremely resistant to being “handled” by any of his staff. Instead, we see him frequently going off script and ad-libbing his way into yet another PR scandal by saying whatever he feels like saying in a given moment. But his “wild stallion” style is a direct consequence of using an ego sheltering coping method. This coping method requires constant reinforcement of the false reality that the mind has made. For Trump, that means adamantly rejecting any statement or fact that threatens the ideal image he’s created of himself. Ideal Trump can’t be wrong, he can’t make mistakes, he can’t be uninformed, he can’t be unloved by the American people, and he can’t be fumbling as a leader. And yet the truth is that, like any leader, Trump does make mistakes, especially since he frequently pretends to know more than he does about various subjects. When he makes random declarations that later turn out to be plain wrong, he can’t admit his error because that would harm his false reality. So he simply denies that he said what he said or did what he did, no matter what evidence is thrust in his face. Trump’s ability to blatantly deny realities and unflinchingly contradict himself has astonished many people around the globe, and yet this is very typical behavior in cases of ego sheltering.

There are many ways to communicate your personal views and political agendas when you are a president. Some methods will encourage your public to support you, while others are guaranteed to stir up division and anger among the people who you rely on keep you in office. With so many of Trump’s snarky tweets and comments accomplishing nothing more than causing yet another person to feel publicly attacked by him, he has spent the last four years ensuring his own downfall because he just won’t exercise basic manners in public. No one likes the school bully who beats up the little kids just because he can. Sure, there are a lot of shady characters in the world, and sometimes a president feels a need to take an opponent down. But there are effective ways of neutralizing your enemies, while other methods just make you look like the problem. Simply tossing out a bunch of unsubstantiated threats that you never follow through on makes you look mean and petty, and unfortunately this is the method Trump favors. One minute he’s calling some virtual stranger the worst insults he can think of, screaming in ALL CAPS on Twitter like he’s some immature teenager, and the next minute, he’s declaring that the same person is his good friend. As he keeps vacillating from one extreme to another, he makes it clear that no one can ever feel secure in their personal standing with him. When he likes you, you walk on water. When he feels threatened by you, you’re evil incarnate, and his mood changes without warning.

So what makes a president act in such a self-destructive manner? Trying to maintain a positive public image and positive public relations are two important elements of any political career, yet accomplishing these things requires a lot of self-restraint. The reality is that the media does play dirty, and they love working psychological angles in interviews to try to throw their victim off balance. Handling any kind of social heckling well requires buckets of self-restraint, and self-restraint is only possible when you have certain kinds of mental resources available. When your mental resource budget is stretched to its limit at all times, you simply aren’t going to have what you need to make wise moves in the heat of battle. Instead, you’ll become panicked, and respond to every provocation with over-the-top force in an effort to chase your enemies back once and for all. This is the kind of strategy we see Trump often resorting to in his interviews, when he starts shouting over others, contradicting himself, and making utterly absurd exaggerations. The problem is that the America media is rather like the zombie army in a cheesy sci-fi horror movie: no matter what kind of ammo you throw at them, they just keep coming at you.

When you happen to be the president, it is guaranteed that you are going to have the media constantly nipping at your heels, trying to provoke you into losing your temper in public. Of course Trump knew this going into the job, and yet we see him constantly using defense strategies that are guaranteed to hurt him. The leader who faces down his foes with calm, well-worded rebuttals comes across as far more powerful than the fellow who shouts personal abuse at people and storms out of the room in a huff. Trump is desperate to remain in power, yet he consistently acts in ways that make him come across as petty, mean, indecisive, and emotionally fragile. None of these are qualities people want in their president. No matter how great your ideas might be, if you personally come across as a bully, you’re guaranteed to lose a ton of followers.

Protecting Your Self-Image

The purpose of ego sheltering is to protect your view of yourself. This strategy is only used when a person views himself very negatively in some area–so much so that he feels that his true self is someone who he just can’t bear to be with. So he creates a false version of himself–one that has the traits he wishes he had in reality. Typically in these cases, the false persona is portrayed as having some very unrealistic qualities which the person frequently points out to himself and others. These few “perfect” qualities act as flags that indicate where the person feels his true self is lacking. For example, Ted believes he is the stupidest human alive, and he is extremely ashamed of his lack of basic intelligence. “Stupid Ted” is the creepy painting in Ted’s room, and one which he is desperate to distract himself from. So in his mind, he invents “Brilliant Ted”: a fellow who knows everything about everything. Brilliant Ted is that pretty painting that Ted puts up and focuses on all the time to help him ignore the reality of Stupid Ted. As a result of this coping method, no one can converse with Ted without Ted claiming to be an expert on whatever the subject is being discussed. Even though Ted doesn’t know anything about gardening, he gets into a heated debate with his friend Joe about which soils are best for growing tomatoes. Because Ted doesn’t actually know what he’s talking about, his statements are wrong and ridiculous, yet he refuses to back down, which exasperates Joe. This is the way it works with ego sheltering: you keep role-playing your “ideal self” no matter where it leads you. Then you denounce anyone or anything that tries to dismantle that image, because you need that positive painting to stay up on that wall, giving you a tool for ignoring that creepy painting. Of course the real issue is the existence of that creepy painting, and that is the bit that everyone is missing when it comes to trying to understand Trump.

What you find in the news is endless ripping on Trump’s negative behaviors. And while there are plenty of valid criticisms to be made, you can’t understand the man until you ask what is driving the behaviors. On the surface, Trump has morphed into the classic tyrant figure under the pressure of this election. His claim that anything less than a landslide vote in his favor is an obvious fraud is just his way of saying how terrified he is of being publicly rejected. But why is getting voted out of office triggering such panic that the man is trying to freeze counting before the final tally is in? Such asinine behavior only demonstrates that despite all of his boasting, Trump is not at all confident that he will legitimately win the election. If he was as certain as he claims to be, he would be rushing the counting along so he could wave the numbers in everyone’s faces. But instead we see him acting like the fellow who is so terrified of the contents of a letter that he stuffs it under his mattress unopened. It’s sad, and I mean that in the most compassionate sense. As a trauma counselor, I always find it tragic to see a man flailing about in a sea of terror, desperately trying to keep himself afloat. If I had my way, I’d see Trump get some quality trauma counseling so he could finally come to peace with his true self and escape the incredible pressure he has put on himself of having to be the best president ever.

As is always the case with ego sheltering, the false identity Trump has created for himself is one that no human could live up to. Every president makes mistakes, and there is no feel good solution to a problem like Covid. Even a normal presidency is a nightmare of stress, yet Trump has gotten slammed with an exceptional crisis which every leader around the world has found to be a “damned if I do, damned if I don’t” situation. Ego sheltering is a stress induced problem, which only grows worse when more stress is thrown in the mix. For a man in Trump’s psychological condition, running for president was one of the worst things he could have done to himself, because the job comes with such horrific elements that no one can leave the office psychologically unscathed. Yet because Trump’s particular style of ego sheltering is focused on the issue of being a huge success in the public eye, he would have felt compelled to run for president, as it is one of the greatest social accomplishments an American can hope for. He went into the office declaring he would accomplish impossible things, like building a physical wall between the US and Mexico which Mexico would pay for. He also promised to “Make America Great Again,” which he defined as making her the most powerful nation in the world. Once again, he fixated on a goal which he didn’t have the resources to achieve. Under his leadership, America has turned into a global bully–and like a bully, she boasts of having a lot more power than she actually does while she has lost the respect of nations who used to genuinely like her. Achieving true greatness requires excellent diplomacy skills and strong moral character. While Trump’s soul might have very high moral standards, his mind is currently running the show, which means we’re not getting to hear much from his soul. This is very common in cases of severe psychological trauma: the subconscious dominates the system while the soul, body, and conscious all capitulate. In cases of severe spiritual trauma, the opposite occurs: the soul temporarily dominates the scene, and bullies the mind and body into going along with its agendas.

Trauma Attracts Trauma

Now every nation has its share of traumatized individuals, and because trauma often results in destructive social behaviors, keeping societies functional requires managing traumatized individuals well. One thing you don’t want to do is start encouraging trauma driven behaviors to be expressed more often. One of the main purposes of social laws is to keep destructive behaviors in check by dishing out negative consequences. If I steal the money from your wallet, for example, I should experience negative consequences for my thievery. I certainly shouldn’t be rewarded for what I’ve done, or I’m going to do it more often.

Since trauma is so widespread among humans, encouraging destructive trauma driven behaviors is a very dangerous move for any society to make. It’s rather like tossing a lit match into a room that’s splattered with gasoline: once the fire starts, it will be hard to put out. But here’s where we come to an essential point: there are many ways to encourage destructive behaviors in your society. Leaders play a critical role here, because like it or not, the general public uses leaders to gauge what kinds of behaviors are currently acceptable. If a leader starts flaunting certain negative behaviors over and over and defending those behaviors as positive, scores of people in that society will interpret that as meaning it’s now acceptable for them to do those things as well. If a president starts using vulgar language publicly, suddenly a bunch of people who used to restrain themselves from talking that way will stop restraining themselves and let the foul language fly. If a leader uses racist language, speaks hatefully towards certain nations, and declares that anyone who doesn’t support him is a “fraud” or a “deviant”, he will encourage others to do the same. The point is that leadership matters. It is an inescapable fact about human nature that we are immensely influenced by the leaders in our midst. Whenever humans group together, a leader will eventually emerge, because we are creatures who are primarily designed to follow.

Human beings are like gardens: we each have a share of flowers and weeds in our individual plots. Which kind of plant is currently thriving in your particular patch today depends on many factors, one of which is the influence of humans who you view as having power over you. The more power an individual seems to have, the greater his influence will be on others. In America, the president is perceived as a very powerful figure, which is why the president’s social behaviors and personal remarks have such a significant impact on American society.

So then, what’s wrong with America these days? Why is she so visibly disintegrating in moral fiber and social order? Every nation has its share of traumatized people, and for very legitimate reasons, trauma often results in people feeling a need to engage in destructive behaviors. But while a man like Trump deserves a great deal of compassion for the extreme psychological distress which he is obviously in, placing traumatized individuals into leadership positions is guaranteed to drag your society down.

A major factor in why America is languishing is that she is making such poor choices in her leaders, then foolishly following their very bad examples until she’s running amuck with trauma driven behaviors. Torching your own neighborhood grocery store, attacking your own city’s police, blocking traffic through your local highways, and treating your fellow countrymen like your enemies on a battlefield are all behaviors which only feel attractive to traumatized minds. When we are not grappling with intense internal angst, we don’t see any value in trashing our own neighborhoods and undermining the same police officers who we want to come rushing to our aid in times of crisis.

A traumatized mind is like a volcano with pressure building up inside of it that needs to vent off some steam to avoid an eruption. By modeling destructive behaviors from the White House, Trump has encouraged traumatized Americans to follow his example by viciously attacking anyone who happens to annoy them in a given moment, while simply refusing to acknowledge any truths that they dislike. Unfortunately this kind of trend is a lot easier to start than it is to stop. Once traumatized minds feel free to do as they please, they will naturally resist pressure to rein themselves back in again. This is why we see so many Americans rioting over the idea of Trump not getting into office again. Now that he’s given them permission to act like little terrorists, they don’t want to get stuck with a leader who might start dishing out consequences for bad behavior again.

Historically, Americans who voted for a losing candidate might have grumbled a while, but they didn’t start beating each other up or rioting while armed with heavy artillery. The panicked response we are seeing from both Trump and some of his followers as doubts grow about his securing another round in the White House demonstrates how strongly some people feel they need the status quo to continue. But here’s the thing about severe trauma: it has a way of pushing us into no win situations. Take this lunacy about Trump trying to stop the vote count before the results are in. What kind of sense does that make? The only way he can be declared a winner is if the count is completed, yet we find him demanding that the last few critical states stop. The next thing we know, we have armed Trump protestors gathering outside the counting facilities trying to look all mean and threatening. It’s as if no one is grasping the absurdity of what they are doing, and yet this is what trauma does to us.

We don’t even have the results yet, but Trump’s panicked behavior tells us who he thinks is going to win. In the weeks leading up to election day, he’s been declaring that anyone who votes against him is a deviant, and that any result that doesn’t favor him by a wide margin is going to be an obvious fraud. As a trauma counselor, his behavior makes perfect sense to me. I knew he’d start to become unraveled if he was forced to face a public rejection of this magnitude, and as I see him making an even bigger mess for himself, I genuinely feel sorry for the man. I remember watching a press conference with him not long ago when he said, “I ought to get to stay president forever.” Indeed, that would be the ideal situation for a mind that feels immense pressure to maintain a false persona of the perfect, triumphant, better-than-human Trump. And yet real peace for a man in his condition would be to reach a point where he could once again learn to accept and value himself for who he actually is, instead of demanding that he reach some impossible bar of global achievement.

The future is looking grim for Trump. America puts a cap on her presidents, and whether or not he wins this election, Trump will get ousted from the White House at some point. Because he’s burned so many bridges and made so many unnecessary enemies during his time in office, he’ll no doubt be in for a lot of attacks–this time without the protective shelter of the Secret Service. The best we can hope for is that somewhere in the midst of all of the stress, he reaches a point where he is willing to abandon his current coping methods and finally deal with his root fears. A man is never too old to have a positive breakthrough, and plenty of men in worse mental states than Trump have been able to find the core healing they needed to become comfortable in their own skins. I really do hope that Trump ends up finding that kind of internal peace. When I watch him speaking to the public, I often catch glimpses of a kind and gentle man hiding inside. The same will be true for all of these hate spewing Americans marching up and down public streets with their absurdly oversized guns. Under every hostile exterior, there is a beautiful human waiting to be set free.