Maybe the Clinton supporters will come to realise that while it is acceptable to disagree and grieve, it is not acceptable to abuse and riot when outcomes don’t match their expectations.
Unlike many people who are emotionally invested in the politics of the United States, I am a neutral observer. I have not studied, lived or worked there to feel any connect with the country. My passing interest is limited to its possible impact on India. Nonetheless, watching the election process from the sidelines has been a fascinating experience as a mental health professional. What has riveted me in particular is the behaviour of the Clinton supporters, especially in the aftermath of the landslide verdict in favour of Donald Trump.
As I struggled to understand what was going on, I went back to the basics of my own profession. When I work with clients, I often use the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) model. The premise of this approach is that our thoughts, emotions and behaviours are interconnected. Our thoughts about a situation, rather than the situation itself, affect how we feel. This in turn affects our behaviour. By changing our interpretation of events we can change our responses. I loosely applied the CBT framework to assess the post result behaviour of Clinton supporters, and spilt the process into four steps.
Step 1: Understand How Clinton Supporters Think
When I watched the interactions of this group, it became apparent that many people were genuinely afraid of what a Trump Presidency might mean for their country and community. They were convinced he was racist, sexist, divisive and bigoted, among other things. This led them to believe he would be an unsuitable candidate to run their diverse and multicultural nation. Conversely, they saw Hillary Clinton as progressive, egalitarian, and a champion of women. They believed she would rescue them from looming disaster.
The American mainstream media played a significant role in creating this thinking. Instead of reporting diverse perspectives in a neutral way, they magnified and fanned people’s doomsday fears. Worse still, they lulled the electorate with questionable poll data to convince them that Clinton would win.
Step 2: Understand People’s Emotions
When the results came in, and the reality of a Trump Presidency began to sink in, there was an emotional meltdown. It is normal to experience pain, fear, panic, anger and other strong emotions during any loss. To many, this sense of loss was magnified as it felt like their world had ended. All the values they believed in and fought for seemed to lie in tatters. The words people used to articulate their feelings were telling. Gutted. Overwhelmed. Devastated. Terrified. All of these were deep and dark expressions of anguish.
These emotions were compounded by shock as they had genuinely believed that their candidate would win. Not only did they feel let down by their compatriots who had voted for Trump, they felt betrayed by the media, who they realised had lied to them all along.
Step 3: Note The Behavioural Response To The Loss
The initial reaction of many people was shock, disbelief and tears. Then came the anger and destruction. People rioted, burnt flags, smashed cars and destroyed property in places like Portland. On the streets and in the virtual world, people abused Trump supporters. Many expressed assassination fantasies, including a journalist working for The Guardian (UK). Others, including high profile historians and media people, posted nude images of Trump’s wife from her modelling days. Students at many universities held protests and skipped class to mourn the loss.
Step 4: Deciphering The Responses
As I mentioned earlier, our behaviour is derived from our thoughts and feelings. Strong opinions and emotions often result in strong reactions. But here is the catch. How we respond in any given situation is a matter of choice. It is not automatic. Nor is it inevitable. For instance, if someone abuses you online, you can react with verbal abuse, block the person or ignore it. Your response is a choice you make, independent of the trigger or stimulus.
If we extend this argument, it is clear that while the grief and anguish of Clinton supporters was valid, many methods of expressing it were not. People chose poor responses, which in turn highlighted a few disturbing traits. These include self-deception, lack of resilience and a sense of entitlement. Thus, advocates of democracy thought nothing of railing against a democratic verdict, “feminists” believed it was acceptable to slut-shame Trump’s wife, and so on. Younger Clinton supporters seemed unable to handle disappointment and responded by sulking, missing school and throwing tantrums. Implicit in their behaviour was a sense of entitlement- a view that the world owed them something, and that things must always go their way.
These responses are problematic at many levels. Self-deception stops people from introspecting and accepting responsibility. It makes them hold others to high standards that they are unwilling to hold themselves. The lack of resilience and fair play is even more problematic as it impacts how people deal with stress and hardship, or engage with the world. Think about it. How will people who refuse to accept an electoral verdict navigate interpersonal relationships or take complex decisions at work? Who will fix things for a generation that deals with setbacks with petulance? How can individuals thrive when they are afraid of failure?
These are some issues that need to be addressed for the long-term health of a society. In the short term, at the very least, the meltdown should be a catalyst for people to self-reflect. Maybe they will come to realise that while it is acceptable to disagree and grieve, it is not acceptable to abuse and riot when outcomes don’t match their expectations. Perhaps there will be the understanding that “my way or the highway” is the antithesis of democracy. Perhaps there will be a space where dissent and decorum are not mutually exclusive.
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