MAGA burnout and the health risks of a second Trump term

When President Biden reportedly calls Trump a “sick fu*k” he is correct in a way that he likely does not intend – and one that has a much more profound meaning than some harsh truth-telling and “salty” talk about a vile political rival. Trumpism, the MAGA movement and the larger neofascist project – and today’s right-wing and “conservative” movement more broadly – have had a demonstrably profound negative impact(s) on the literal health of the American people.

As Politico recently reported, Biden is less than “presidential” when he discusses Trump in private. Biden’s candor is good and necessary – and there needs to be much more of it in public if he is to win re-election. But it is not just that Trump is a “sick fu*k (Trump the man is of little importance; he is a type of signifier and symbol). What he represents and has enabled across American society is a type of collective pathology.

For example, a range of experts recently told the Atlantic’s Jennifer Senior that Trump’s return to power will unleash an “epidemic” of killer stress and other negative health outcomes on a massive scale:

What will happen to the American psyche if he wins again?” she asked rhetorically. “What will happen if we have to live in fight-or-flight mode for four more years, and possibly far beyond? Our bodies are not designed to handle chronic stress. Neuroscientists have a term for the tipping-point moment when we capitulate to it—allostatic overload—and the result is almost always sickness in one form or another, whether it’s a mood disorder, substance abuse, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, or ulcers.”

Neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky explained to Senior how Trump and other such demagogues impact our collective health: “Increase your blood pressure for a few minutes to evade a lion—a good thing … increase your blood pressure every time you’re in the vicinity of the alpha male—you begin to get cardiovascular disease.”

In the same essay at the Atlantic, Senior also highlighted how stress and an inability to think and focus would greatly worsen under a second Trump regime:  

Another major component of our allostatic overload, notes Gloria Mark, the author of Attention Span, would be “technostress,” in this case brought on by the obsessive checking of—and interruptions from, and passing around of—news, which Trump made with destructive rapidity. Human brains are not designed to handle such a helter-skelter onslaught; effective multitasking, according to Mark, is in fact a complete myth (there’s always a cost to our productivity). Yet we are once again facing a news cycle that will shove our attention—as well as our output, our nerves, our sanity—through a Cuisinart.

One might reasonably ask how many Americans will truly care about the constant churn of chaos, given how many of us still walk around in a fog of political apathy. Quite a few, apparently. The American Psychological Association’s annual stress survey, conducted by the Harris Poll, found that 68 percent of Americans reported that the 2020 election was a significant source of strain. Kevin B. Smith, a political-science professor at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, found that about 40 percent of American adults identified politics as “a significant source of stress in their lives,” based on YouGov surveys he commissioned in 2017 and 2020. Even more remarkably, Smith found that about 5 percent reported having had suicidal thoughts because of our politics.

In a deeply personal op-ed at CNN, Dr. Rob Davidson explains what will happen to the American people if Trump returns to office and follows through on his promise to end the American Care Act (“Obamacare”):

Until 2010, when the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was signed into law, many of my patients were uninsured, which meant that serious illnesses often went untreated. That’s why, of all the alarming changes former President Donald Trump has threatened if he returns to America’s highest office, none scares me more than his pledge to do away with Obamacare.

In the rural country in Michigan where I’ve practiced medicine for more than 20 years, many of the patients I see are barely getting by financially. The most impoverished among them used to scrimp to pay for preventative care visits at the doctor’s office. They would struggle to pay for the prescription drugs they needed for even common and treatable ailments.

If the cost of an inhaler or insulin did not fit their budget that month, they might end up in the emergency room with completely preventable complications. Those same cash-strapped patients would often find themselves saddled with a massive bill because of that visit to the ER.

That finally started to change with the passage of the ACA, a life-changing bill that more patients I treat have enrolled in with each year since its enactment. Many can better manage their chronic disease because the ACA prohibits insurance corporations from denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions. A good number of my patients could end up uninsured again if Trump, as threatened, gets rid of the Affordable Care Act. That would have potentially devastating consequences.

Dr. Davidson continues: 

I worry about a return to the days when so many more of my patients delay or even forgo potentially lifesaving care because they lack health insurance to pay for it. One patient whom I treated prior to the enactment of the ACA sat home for five days with chest pain instead of seeking immediate medical treatment because he didn’t have insurance. By the time I saw him, we learned that a heart attack had left him with one-third of his normal coronary function.

Had he had health coverage that would have allowed him to come in when his pain started, the blockage that led to his condition might have been relieved and he might have retained normal heart function. With the ACA, I see patients every day in similarly dire health situations who are able to get the treatment they need because they qualify for expanded Medicaid, or at least significant subsidies that allow low- and middle-income working families to buy quality health coverage at affordable costs….

Undoing the ACA would set American health care back a generation or more and make our shared goal of a more affordable, more accessible and more patient-centered health care system even less attainable.

In a recent op-ed at the Chicago Tribune, SaraKay Smullens, who is a clinical social worker, issues this warning about what she describes as “societal burnout” in the Age of Trump:

Are you waking up with a lump in your throat that never used to be there? Is there an ache in your chest — best described as heartache — relatively new to you? Do you look at your children, fearing for their future and well-being? Do your eyes fill with tears, but you are not sure why?

If so, I join you. We are experiencing societal burnout. We are overburdened by a perfect storm of threatening societal challenges and a fiercely divided electorate. We are overwhelmed by moral distress due to those in positions of power and influence who, rather than address grave challenges, skillfully work to pit citizens against each other, intensify fear and anxieties, and undermine the rule of law to gain control and power.

In 1974, psychologist Herbert Freudenberger was the first to identify the burnout syndrome: Due to excessive demands on energy, strength and resources, a person becomes overwhelmed, exhausted and “inoperative.” Although they did not use the term burnout in their groundbreaking 1970 book “Future Shock,” Alvin and Heidi Toffler predicted that the breathtaking pace of our technological revolution would bring unsettling change, challenge and increased crime. They warned that the illiterate of the future would no longer be those who can’t read or write but rather those unable to keep up with the demands of rapid change.

To cope, the Tofflers stressed preparing for the future with insight and creativity, implicitly calling on leaders to bring us together rather than exacerbate division.

That we as a society have failed in this effort became shockingly clear before the 2016 presidential election when client after client told me that America had forgotten them. This anger and frustration played an enormous role in the victory of Donald Trump, who was, and continues to be, seen as an ally of those who feel discarded and invisible…

Smullens adds:

Many such “adults” become bullies and dictators. In democracies, they may assume positions of power and dominance in professional settings, on boards, and in elected or appointed office. Those without confidence or character cling to the perks their positions of power offer. Some may cling to pure fantasy: They wish to turn the clock back to a time that can never return. Still others, longing for a quality of parenting they never received, become fiercely devoted followers.

Eliminating societal burnout requires recognition of the essential link between personal development and trustworthy leadership, necessary in democracies for the survival of all we hold dear.

At the core of all trustworthy leadership is the ability to love. Dignity makes it possible.

Past behavior, especially with pathological individuals, groups, and movements, is an excellent if not near certain predictor of future behavior. As such, with Trump and Trumpism and the larger neofascist movement here in America and around the world, what comes next will almost always be worse. Abusers almost never stop until they are made to.

The first Trump regime was responsible for (at least) hundreds of thousands of avoidable deaths from the COVID pandemic. Many experts believe that the number is actually much higher, and that Trump and the other members of his regime are guilty of democide. It is estimated that ending the Affordable Care Act will lead to the deaths of (at least) 68,0000 Americans each year and shorten the lives of many more from untreated chronic illnesses and preventable diseases.

Trump promises to continue to take away women’s reproductive rights and freedoms if he returns to power. It is estimated that 64,000 women have already been forced to give birth after being raped in the two years since the right-wing justices on the Supreme Court overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade decision. When access to abortions and other reproductive rights are made illegal or otherwise not readily accessible the deaths of women and girls will increase. In fact, this suffering and death is intentional, functioning as a type of patriarchal deterrent and punishment against women’s agency, women’s freedom, and social equality.

Hate crimes and other forms of right-wing political violence increased at historic rates during the first Trump regime. Violent crime across a number of categories also increased during Trump’s time in office. 

The Trump regime and the larger neofascist movement’s plans for a de facto dictatorship as described in the Agenda 47, Project 2025, the Red Caesar scenario, and other documents will involve martial law, occupying America’s nonwhite cities with the military and other federal forces, the creation of mass detention centers and concentration camps, mass deportations of illegal aliens and other “undesirables” i.e. “enemies” of the Trump regime, the further militarization of the US border, a massive expansion of the surveillance society, and other violations of civil rights and the Constitution. If these plans are put in place, there is the potential for the deaths of tens of thousands if not more many more people in the United States.

A large number of Americans will also die if a second Trump regime succeeds in further demolishing the social safety net and giving corporations, which instinctively and by design value profits over human life, even more power to operate with impunity. A second Trump regime will also push the world even closer to irreversible global climate disaster and ecocide.

“Red state” America has much higher rates of poor health outcomes and deaths from gun violence, and the so-called “deaths of despair”, and from a range of other preventable causes as compared to Democratic Party-led “blue state” parts of the country. Trump and the other Republican fascists and “conservatives” want to impose the misery of red state American and its “freedom” on to the rest of the country.  

For a majority of Americans, a second Trump regime will be a retraumatizing and life-shortening event. The American people weathered Trump’s first regime and the horrors it unleashed. It is very likely, if not certain, that many of those same people will not be able to endure a second one and what will come next.

“The personal is the political” is a cliché because it is so true.

The campaign commercials, talking points, and speeches almost write themselves. It is now up to President Biden and his representatives to show the American people where the bodies are buried if they want to defeat Trump, his MAGA followers, and the larger neofascist movement and white right.

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