Free Therapy # 84: What Trump and His Followers Say About All of Us

By Michael Vadon (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Michael Vadon (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

-Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn

If this was a more rational, psychologically healthy moment in the lineage of human evolution, Steve Hayes, not Donald Trump, would be the household name we instantly recognize. Dr. Hayes is a psychologist whose towering and yet unheralded achievements have permanently altered our field and culture in ways we are only beginning to comprehend. It is our mutual misfortune that too few know or understand this.

As the principle co-founder of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Hayes is a singularly important pioneer in what is known as third-wave behaviorism. ACT is a mindfulness-based cognitive therapy that leads to psychological flexibility, the features of which involve expansive awareness in the present moment; an open acceptance of reality as it is, even when it hurts; an ability to watch our thoughts; and a non-judgmental willingness “to change or persist in behavior when doing so serves valued ends.”

Thanks to Hayes and ACT, millions of us are learning how to serenely allow our painful internal experiences to be what they are while we move toward what we deeply care about and value.

According to Psychology Today, Hayes is the author of 38 books and over 530 scientific articles and “has shown in his research how language and thought leads to human suffering.”

And in a recent Huffington Post piece, he took a look at “the Trump phenomenon” and the ease with which some of us might feel superior “by calling Trump and his supporters racists and worst.”

While Hayes cites surveys that reveal “that Trump supporters are higher in almost every form of prejudice,” he cautions us to not take comfort in that fact. Prejudice is not the private province of Trump and his fanatic following but is hard-wired into the basic operating system of the human brain.

Through ACT, we train ourselves to mind our minds. We are interested in mindfully noticing how quickly our brains form judgments of other people (and ourselves). Thanks largely to unconscious, cultural conditioning, it takes less than a second after seeing someone before we reach a conclusion about them.

And it isn’t just that we are constantly making snap judgments of one another. We are acting on them. These mental assessments require only a few hundred milliseconds but it’s enough to predict what we will do and say. We are all biased and our secret prejudices control and direct us more than we might want to admit.

Hayes writes, “As a person of Jewish heritage by the maternal line, whose great aunts and uncles died in ovens, I can say it this way: if you stare at the mirror long enough you can find traces of a man with a funny little mustache looking back at you.”

Hayes cites a recent study from his lab that helps explain “the Trump phenomenon and the breadth of prejudice it points toward.” Hayes and his team of researchers discovered something they called generalized prejudice, “a kind of authoritarian distancing.” Many of us have felt this at one time or another. We feel different from and simultaneously threatened by a particular person or group of people and we’re motivated to physically or emotionally “get away” from them.

Like it or not, all of us divide the world up into two camps, those with whom we identify and the group of alien “others,” who we conceptualize as not being fully human. They are not real people. When we label them as belonging to an unsavory group, it is easier to see them as things or objects that do not deserve our warmth, care or compassion.

Some will insist they do not do this. They may claim they don’t hate anyone except for “the haters.” They tolerate “everyone,” except for those who are not tolerant of everyone. Regardless of who we put into the “other” tribe, we all do it.

By contrast, we all have the same criteria for who we allow in or welcome to our club. “Our people” are the ones we enjoy being around. We understand them and are comfortable taking their perspective. We can imagine what it is like to be them – we feel for them – and (this is the key component), we “are willing to not run away psychologically when what (we) find there is emotionally hard.”

Hayes states these three essential ingredients “predict our enjoyment of others.” Think about the people you like, identify with or feel connected to and chances are you will find perspective taking, empathy, and psychological flexibility in your emotional toolbox.

We belong to them and they belong to us. We are together. But what happens if we cannot take someone else’s perspective or feel their pain? We stigmatize them. We otherize them. We reject and ostracize them.

Think of the police and the Black Lives Matter movement. It is complex but many of us will choose one side and stigmatize the other. Or what about Israel and Palestine? Pro-life or pro-choice? Pro-gun or pro-gun-control? Liberal or conservative? And of course, Trump and the various groups he invites us to fear and hate. We all pick a side in these contests.

If we cannot take another’s perspective and feel their pain, we are more likely to “mentally run away” from them when they show up with their humanity and their complicated tale of woe.

The key feature of ACT, Hayes reminds us is psychological flexibility. If we are to be different in a helpful way, we can’t be hypocrites. Two thousand years ago, Jesus pointed out how easy it is to fixate on the speck in the eye of another while ignoring the beam of wood in our own.

We can’t opt out or cop out as we stigmatize a group as the cause of our discomfort. Instead, we are called to “consciously turn toward pain and suffering in an open and self-compassionate way, so that we can turn toward meaning and purpose.”

How many of us can do this? How many of us are willing to try? How many of us cling to our rejection of Trump as proof we are morally superior to the man described as “a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist, birther and bully who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims – 1.6 billion members of an entire religion – from entering the U.S.”

Hayes suggests that we are overwhelmed by the modern world and that this stress helps create the climate for “us and them” to thrive. We are a nation that prides itself on its commitment to Christian values, but don’t expect Trump or any other candidate for president to talk about cheek-turning or loving our enemies.

There are demons in the world, we are repeatedly warned, and we are the angels who have a responsibility to defeat and destroy them. The problem is, we each have a different perspective on what is true and real and therefore, our demons’ and angels’ lists are all vastly different.

What is going on here? Could Hayes be right? What if the problem wasn’t reality but how our minds create their own version of reality?

Our media systems encourage this distorted, adversarial side-taking. Psychological rigidity, not flexibility, is what sells papers and drives up ratings. Generalized prejudice is affirmed. Liberals are coaxed to castigate conservatives and conservatives feel compelled to condemn liberals. It is no wonder the media loves Trump. He speaks their language.

We are truth-seekers. We need to feel we understand this world and that the opinions we form are correct. The fact that there are millions of people who disagree with us is a bit disconcerting. There must be something “wrong” with them, right? It is not surprising we feel threatened by those we view as holding fundamentally different values from us. Their existence makes us feel insecure and so “they” are the problem.

Unless we are willing to change our automatic, reflexive, fear-based response to the world we share, we are likely to preserve and maintain the extreme political polarization that typifies the public conversation and validates violence.

Martin Luther King wrote, “Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. It is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather than to convert.”

Hayes states, “If we can learn to say self-compassionate ‘yes’ to the internal sense of danger, sadness, and fear we feel just watching our many screens, we can then carry these difficult emotions in a compassionate direction. If we cannot, we just feel overwhelmed and say ‘hell NO!’

“If humankind does not find a way to help people acquire a modern mind for this modern world we have created together, with its wars, and refugees, and little bodies on the beach shown in real time, expect more Trumps.”

And more Trump-haters.

Douglas Craig
Doug Craig graduated from college in Ohio with a journalism degree and got married during the Carter administration. He graduated from graduate school with a doctorate in Psychology, got divorced, moved to Redding, re-married and started his private practice during the Reagan administration. He had his kids during the first Bush administration. Since then he has done nothing noteworthy besides write a little poetry, survive a motorcycle crash, buy and sell an electric car, raise his kids, manage to stay married and maintain his practice for almost 30 years. He believes in magic and is a Dawes fan.
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18 Responses

  1. Doug – Another powerful and must-read piece. Thank you.

  2. Hollyn Chase says:

    An intelligent and rational response to a situation that seems to bring out the worst in many of us. I hope this is widely read.

  3. sue k says:

    So timely; so wonderful — again!!!!!

    A piece to really take in and to send on to others.

    Thank you for your wisdom/direction.

  4. Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

    That was a great read, Doug.

    I don’t qualify as a person who seeks out the company of same-thinkers—I’ve never liked echo-chambers.  (Louis C.K. does a funny bit about people hanging out in coffeehouses saying cool things like, “Oooh, me too!  That’s what I think, too!”  Yeah, not for me—I don’t care to attend the cocktail party where we all talk about how we abhor Donald Trump.)   I enjoy—almost prefer—the company of “others.”

    My problem is that Dad raised me to be a devil’s advocate, and part of my enjoyment of the company of others flows from relentlessly poking at them regarding their cherished beliefs—I like slaying people’s sacred cows, or at least setting them on fire and p***ing them out.  I tell myself I’m doing people a favor by challenging their entrenched  beliefs, and maybe that’s true, but mostly it’s a rationalization.  And when it comes off as mean and arrogant, that’s probably because it IS mean and arrogant.  Even when I’m responding to a provocation, it’s not a healthy or productive practice.  Something I need to work on, for sure.

    • EasternCounty says:

      As much as I enjoy your comments, it’s well that we don’t attend the same gatherings because it appears if someone says, “A daisy is white and yellow,” you might respond, “It’s ivory and gold,” which becomes tiresome.

  5. Frank Treadway says:

    There’s apathy, which does not  resonate when I hear Mr. T, there’s empathy which I can’t drum up for this verbose person; there’s only one thing left, sympathy, even his own daughters apparently can’t vote for him.

  6. cheyenne says:

    Dale Carnegie had the best quote for winning an argument.  Walk away, it truly befuddles an argutive person to have no one to argue with.

  7. TM says:

    Frank, his own daughters couldn’t vote for him because they were not registered Republicans, not because they don’t support their father.

  8. Joanne Lobeski-Snyder says:

    I don’t care what other people think as long as their actions don’t harm others….and in particular other people based on race, national origin, skin color,  sex or sexual preference.  I would never befriend or elect a person with a documented record of racism or sexism.   The U.S. is a new country.  People from older, more experience countries are appalled by this current media-driven election circus.  I am too.   When I vote I will follow the Hippocratic Oath to  “either help or do not harm the patient (country)”

  9. CoachBob says:

    I can take this article (?) and point it directly at the so-called Trump haters. Interesting, about banning Muslims, the complete absence of what Trump really said on the issue. Jeeze, Doc, you outta go join one of the protest groups with the professionally printed signs outside his next gathering. But, hey, you gots the big degree from the big univeresity…so you must be right. You do have your followers (kinda like that guy in the mirror with the little mustache)

  10. Barbara Rice Barbara Rice says:

    Kindly keep comments on the subject of the article and not on your opinion of the writer.

  11. Joanne Snyder Joanne Snyder says:

    I forgot to say thank you Doug for a great article.  I don’t always agree with you.  You do an extraordinary job sharing your thoughts with the readers of anewscafe and I respect you for your thoughtfulness and honesty.

  12. Hal Johnson Hal Johnson says:

    Great read. Thank you.

  13. K. Beck says:

    “Our [corporate owned] media systems encourage this distorted, adversarial side-taking.”

    Divide and conquer. If they keep us fighting amongst ourselves, they win.


  14. Virginia says:

    Never in all my many years have I seen such vitriol against one person by and from both sides and any in-between as there are against Mr. Trump.

    Personally I know many who are Trump supporters. They are intelligent and not bias people.  Too many generalities.

    Why all the  prejudice against Mr. Trump  and bu whoever they are seem to be so afraid is the question, but some people on either side can be prejudice about almost anything, including parsnips

    • Hal Johnson Hal Johnson says:

      After Trump made his dismissive comments about John McCain’s military service, focusing on his time as a P.O.W., he showed me that he has no class whatsoever. He’s given further evidence of that as his campaign ensued. I cannot imagine that “man” as commander-in-chief.

      • Breakfast Guy says:

        I agree when it comes to Trump. However, Cruz appears somewhat worse, overall. Neither are really electable and that’s rather unfortunate for the GOP. Oh My!  Well… there are reasons for everything, I understand.

  15. Doug Craig says:

    I appreciate everyone who read this piece and for those who took the time to comment.  I am especially grateful to those who “got it” and understand the importance of seeing the self in the other and the other in the self.  We all have the capacity to stand back and judge others.  As we separate ourselves, we can feel superior and justified in devaluing other people for their political beliefs, skin color, socioeconomic status, weight, religion or a million other things.  Or we can practice compassion.  We can seek conciliation and inclusion.  As a therapist for the last 35 years, I am well aware of how we can heal our relationships with one another.  When we listen and find truth in one another’s words, even when we disagree, we create a safe and trusting place for all.  The current political climate is fueled by separation, objectification, hatred and prejudice.  It brings out the worst in people.  Each of us is tempted to react with our own anger-filled arguments.  But just as this does not work in our marriages and families, it does not work in our communities or in the larger society.  Occasionally, in history a Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela comes along to show us a better way of relating.  They lived the Christian message of loving their enemies.  Steve Hayes and ACT have now provided us with the science of why this works.  We can take the time to really understand the perspective of another person or we can label, blame and hate them.  We can personalize or we can empathize.  And we can remain present with one another even when it is hard to do so.  Or we can just keep demonizing one another.  We don’t have to be right or win as we seek to solve our many social, economic and political problems.  However, we must value, appreciate and validate one another in the process if we are to avoid more acrimony and dissension.  What we do to others we ultimately do to ourselves.

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