The Healthiest Way to Channel Your Trump Rage
It's natural to feel monstrously pissed off right now. What you do with that feeling makes all the difference.
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There's a great line in The Outlaw Josey Wales when Clint Eastwood tells his about-to-be-besieged friends that the only way to save themselves is to get "plumb mad-dog mean."
I'm going to guess most of you reading this aren't especially mean in real life. But if you're like me, and you're watching the countdown to inauguration with more dread for our future than you've ever felt in your life, you're probably feeling pretty fucking bad.
I could barely sleep for the first few nights after the election. I'd start to doze off, and then I'd remember that the president-elect promised to take away my family's health insurance as his first order of business. And, worse, a lot of people I know and love voted for him in hopes he'd do exactly that.
The days haven't been much better than the nights, with constant reminders of the new president's conflicts of interest; his unprecedented alliance with the president of Russia, whose hackers data-raped the Democratic Party; and his cabinet appointees who oppose the very existence of the agencies he wants them to run.
I knew I was in bad place. A life of simmering rage doesn't help me, and it certainly doesn't stop him. So I turned to an expert for advice.
Mark Reuter, a psychologist in Tinton Falls, New Jersey, is the most comforting, compassionate person I know. He's also my wife's uncle, which has given me a few chances over the years to sneak in free therapy sessions during family gatherings.
But any hope I have for a simple way to deal with my election-onset anger is quickly dashed. He's just as flummoxed as the rest of us. Same with his colleagues, as he learned when a recent get-together with fellow therapists turned into a support group. "I said I'm contributing to Planned Parenthood and the ACLU, and my wife is going to the Women's March in Washington," he says. "But it feels like pissing in the wind."
The problem is that there's simply no playbook for a moment like this. "You're constantly reminded that reasonable, rational discourse doesn't have any effect," he laments. "Someone like Kellyanne Conway can twist reality into falsehoods and falsehoods into reality. We've lost track of what real truth is and what real values are."
Interestingly, there's one branch of psychology that deals with this sort of behavior on a regular basis, and Reuter has a friend who specializes in the most contentious part of it.
Donald Saposnek has spent a lifetime mediating child-custody disputes—more than 5,000 of them, he tells me—enough to write a textbook on the subject. His goal, in almost every situation, is to make sure the children aren't permanently scarred by their parents' divorce, no matter how nasty it gets.
The worst of the worst is the high-conflict divorce. That's when one or both parents engage in personal attacks; elevate ordinary disagreements to crises; portray themselves as heroic truth-tellers and the other parent as a horrible person who should have no role in their children's lives; recruit "negative advocates" like lawyers and marriage counselors to escalate the hostilities; and make it clear they'll settle for nothing short of total victory, however they define it.
In the year leading up to the 2012 election, Saposnek and a colleague, lawyer Bill Eddy, noticed that politics was starting to resemble high-conflict divorce. It was increasingly dominated by people who thrive on confrontation, and who refuse to cooperate with anyone who doesn't share their extreme views. They live in a binary, all-or-nothing world.
They wrote a book called Splitting America: How Politicians, Super PACs, and the New Media Mirror High-Conflict Divorce, with the goal of warning America about the destructive path we were on. They'd seen firsthand how the ex-wife or husband from hell can ruin the lives of not just their former spouses, but their children as well.
And then they watched as every single thing they warned us against came back "on steroids" in 2016.
"I'm just amazed at what's happening," he says. "I've been trying to understand what's going on from psychology principals that I practice every day, and feeling personally overwhelmed."
If a guy who wrote a book on conflict resolution feels overwhelmed, what hope is there for the rest of us? Do we let the Wookiee win? Do we crawl into a bunker and wait for the shelling to stop?
No, of course not. Conceding our country to Trump would be like a mother leaving her children in the sole custody of someone she knew would abuse and abandon them. In fact, in Splitting America—which, again, came out before the 2012 election—he and his coauthor used Trump to illustrate the ultimate nightmare of a parent in a child-custody case.
"In psychology, narcissism is one of the easiest places to find high-conflict behavior," he says. "And then Trump comes along, and it's the crystallization of that concept."
Saposnek sees the path forward as two distinct tracks:
First, we can't disengage. "Narcissists only respond to someone they perceive as having more power than them," he says. In divorce it's the judge. In a democracy, it's us. "I think protests and pushback, as soon as possible, are essential to contain him. It's the only difference we can make. There's more power in groups."
But there's an important caveat: We can't counter high-conflict, winner-take-all politics with more of the same. It traumatizes children in custody battles, and in politics it would destroy the civil society we're trying to preserve.
There is one tiny sliver of hope that Saposnek takes from his career in mediation: "When one party gets a high-powered attorney and they win everything they can possibly win, they very often regret it, because the kids turn on them as soon as they're able," he says.
Which, applied to politics, suggests that the shock of Trump's hostile takeover of our government will soon be followed by the whiplash of winner's remorse for those who helped him do it.
That's where we have our best opportunity to not just recover our own sanity, but to patch up relationships with family, friends, and neighbors.
Both Saposnek and Reuter emphasize a common theme when talking about one-on-one interactions.
"It's about clarifying what your individual values are, and how they extrapolate on the broader level to the country," Saposnek says. "Listening to the other person's point of view, really listening, and not just practicing your retort. It's the opposite of what a lawyer does. If he asks a question, he already knows the answer. But you don't know the answer. Curiosity is a really important skill."
Reuter echoes the importance of talking about values, but with a warning: We need to get out of our own ideological bubble before we can find common ground. It's not about conceding to them. It's about seeing the world beyond our own ideological filters.
"Being right is like an addiction," he warns. "It keeps on going. It becomes a systemic way of organizing yourself. You build your life around it."
That's where our work begins. For our own health, and for the health of the country, we have to engage with a world that includes people we disagree with, rather than marginalizing or demonizing them. Engaging on this human level also has a tactical benefit, since it prevents us from playing a winner-take-all game we can't possibly win. They're simply better at it than we are.
But what do we do with all that residual anger in the meantime?
Let's return to The Outlaw Josey Wales. Here's what Clint Eastwood's character says right after "plumb mad-dog mean":
"If you lose your head, then you neither live nor win. That's just the way it is."
We have to keep our heads. At this point, it may be all we have left.