Following the surprise result of the 2016 American presidential election, several psychologists noticed a peculiar trend. The data suggested that states which never recovered from the Great Recession of 2008, but instead suffered from mass unemployment, deep cuts to social and health care, and economic upheaval, unexpectedly voted for Donald Trump. Especially counties with a sudden spike in suicide and the mortality rate of young and middle-aged men, largely connected to an increasing reliance on cheap and dangerous opioids, alcohol, and narcotics.
Psychologists found that the effects of public-spending cuts (or “austerity’) had triggered post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a mental and emotional disorder that can develop after a person is exposed to a traumatic event, like sexual assault, warfare, traffic collisions, or other threats on a person’s life such as loss of status, economic dislocation, or health inequality-not being able to afford treatment for chronic pain. The trauma caused by these events moreover can lead to suicide or self-harm, or make people go in search of “explanations” for their feelings.
People who are suffering, emotionally and physically, also will go in search of “recognition” for their feelings. One of the greatest political assets of populist leaders (especially demagogues) spanning both left and right, has been their ability to visit economically depressed regions to harness the pain and anger many people feel. Led by unlikely figures, they perform a powerful function, when they give voice to pain that is otherwise muted.
This is exactly what Donald Trump did. He took the chronic pain and disempowerment of millions and turned it into hatred.