8 Psychological Terms for Making Sense of This Traumatic Moment in U.S. Election History

Has such aberrant behavior ever so dominated a presidential campaign before?

It’s possible that no previous presidential candidate, at least in contemporary American history, has exhibited the range of aberrant, offensive and outrageous behaviors Donald Trump has. Belligerent, unstable and anything but presidential, Trump has turned much of the country into armchair psychotherapists. His behavior is so undisciplined and erratic, he’s even prompted licensed clinicians to break with orthodoxy—not to mention rules—to declare he suffers from a personality disorder.

Despite all this, Trump rose to the top of the Republican ticket, and as recently as September, posed a real and viable threat to Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. Even with his chances of a successful Hail Mary growing slimmer by the day, Trump seems poised to collect about 40 million votes, a sizeable segment of the voting populace. Those numbers should force those of us who oppose Trump to understand what motivates those who support him.

One contributing factor is how ideologically, economically and socially divided America is. Those factors are compounded by elevated—if not unprecedented—levels of anxiety, fear and trauma. Much of the country’s wealthiest and most highly educated citizens live along its coasts and in its major cities. Trump supporters not only live outside those areas, they feel as if they’re foreign in nearly every conceivable sociocultural way. This goes hand-in-hand with a number of other social ills: a raging opiate epidemic, persistent gun violence, the disappearance of manufacturing jobs. It’s no wonder America now finds itself coping with a troubling trend of middle-aged white, mostly working-class menand women prematurely succumbing to the wages of despair: drug abuse, alcoholism and suicide.

Trump has expertly exploited the pervasive pain, anger and marginalization of millions. From the outset—and far more than most of us realized 18 months ago—Trump recognized that politics is an emotional business, and that people’s political thoughts and allegiances are often shaped by fear, lack of knowledge and trauma. Trump’s overt expressions of racism, misogyny and homophobia have been ugly, naked appeals to those feelings.

Much of Trump’s campaign is fear based. For a variety of reasons, many people are fearful of many things, and their fears are egged on by a news media that thrives on creating anxiety. Advertising, political ads, news coverage and social media all send the constant message that people should be afraid, very afraid. The result is that many people are fearful of the wrong things, which makes our society ripe for militarism, spying and Trump’s own messaging. These fears often have little to do with the things people should really be afraid of. But the constant fear-mongering explains a lot of Trump’s appeal. As AlterNet said last year, “People cannot think clearly when they are afraid. Fear is the enemy of reason. It distorts emotions and perceptions, and often leads to poor decisions.”

The best way to make sense of the Trump campaign’s success is by examining its impact on millions of Americans’ mental states. When Donald Trump says some outlandish thing and then denies it in the same breath, how does that affect our perceived reality? If a presidential debate starts to feel like a sick twist on The Most Dangerous Game, how can we name and cope with the unsettling feelings we experience? Why does fact-checking mean absolutely nothing to a wide swath of the American populace? And perhaps the most obvious question of all: are we watching an illogical fool or a masterful psychopathic, narcissistic, master manipulator at work? Or perhaps both?

We’ve created this handy guide to identify the brain games we’ve witnessed over this seemingly eternal race. We begin with the psychopathic and narcissistic personality, which includes traits Trump so often exhibits. Then, we’ll look at some of the realities of life for so many Americans, which make them vulnerable to Trump’s appeals. We take apart the tactics and defense mechanisms used to cope with the economic and social changes that have changed the nature of life in America for so many.

Here’s your useful political glossary of psychological terms for the 2016 presidential election.

Psychopathology and Sociopathology

Though both fall under the designation of antisocial personality disorder, psychopathology and sociopathology differ in critical ways.

The general consensus is that psychopaths are born, while sociopaths are made. That is, while psychopaths are hardwired, sociopaths are products of their (often troubled) upbringings and environments.

While psychopaths and sociopaths share some traits—a disregard for laws and societal rules; lack of conscience; little concern for others’ well-being; frequent use of lies and deception; impulsivity—they present in highly different ways socially. Sociopaths, according to psychologist Scott A. Bonn, “are likely to be uneducated and live on the fringes of society, unable to hold down a steady job or stay in one place for very long.” People may categorize them as “disturbed,” and in some cases, they exist as the stereotypical “drifter.” They’re able to form social and emotional bonds, though with greater difficulty than most people.

Psychopaths don’t have deep, meaningful connections to others; they lack the empathy to do so. That said, they’re able to convincingly mimic those feelings, so that those around them might be oblivious to their disconnectedness. They often appear to be more charming and engaging than the average person, and often attain high levels of education and career success.

For the record, while Trump outranked Hitler when Oxford University ranked the candidates according to the standard Psychopathic Personality Inventory, he wasn’t the only one who scored high numbers. According to theUK’s Telegraph, the study placed Clinton somewhere “between Napoleon and Nero.”


Narcissism isn’t all bad; most of us possess some narcissistic traits that ensure we have healthy levels of self-confidence and positive self-images. The unhealthy kind of narcissism happens when self-assuredness grows out of control, resulting in grandiosity and what might be dubbed a superiority complex, serving to mask an otherwise astoundingly fragile ego.

“Narcissists feel superior to others,” Stanford University developmental psychologist Eddie Brummelman explained to Psychology Today, “but they are not necessarily satisfied with themselves as a person.”

For this reason, narcissists desire control to maintain their precarious sense of self, and the illusion of being the best. They may be bullies, making others feel small to make themselves feel big (or bigly). They’re self-absorbed, concerned with appearances, prone to overestimating their competency at any number of things, and often vicious in response to the tiniest perceived criticisms, which threaten their shaky self-image.

Anita Vangelisti, a UT Austin psychologist, told Psychology Today that “tactics in the narcissist’s toolbox include bragging, refocusing the topic of conversation, making exaggerated hand movements, talking loudly, and showing disinterest by ‘glazing over’ when others speak.” Psychologists Nicholas Holtzman and Michael Strube, also speaking to the site, have found that “subjects who scored higher in narcissism engaged in more disagreeable verbal behaviors, arguing and cursing more—and using more sexual language than their more modest counterparts.”

If this reminds of you of behavior you’ve seen on the campaign trail, you’re not alone. Several mental health clinicians interviewed by Vanity Fair expressed the same thoughts.

“Remarkably narcissistic,” said developmental psychologist Howard Gardner, a professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education, [about Donald Trump]. “Textbook narcissistic personality disorder,” echoed clinical psychologist Ben Michaelis. “He’s so classic that I’m archiving video clips of him to use in workshops because there’s no better example of his characteristics,” said clinical psychologist George Simon, who conducts lectures and seminars on manipulative behavior. “Otherwise, I would have had to hire actors and write vignettes. He’s like a dream come true.”

Narcissists also lack empathy, a trait Joe Biden pointed to when he noted that for years, Trump delighted in firing people on national TV.


This defense mechanism, first recognized by Sigmund Freud over 100 years ago, projection causes people to deny negative aspects of themselves and instead attribute them to others. Virtually everything Trump says, particularly during debates, is a projection.

When Trump—the man you can “bait with a tweet”—says Hillary Clinton does not have the temperament to be president, that’s sheer projection. Hetweets that Clinton is “pandering to the worst instincts in our society,” a classic example of projection. Telling his base that Clinton is “running a hate-filled and negative campaign with no policy, no solutions, and no new ideas,” is the ultimate projection. Then there are the one-word, catchphrase-style projections: Hillary is a crook, crazy, etc.

Wikipedia notes that projection “is more commonly found in the neurotic or psychotic personalities functioning at a primitive level as in narcissistic personality disorder.” As we know from this glossary, psychopathic and narcissistic personality traits seem to accurately capture Donald Trump’s personality disorders, and he has often often operated on a primitive level unprecedented in modern presidential campaigns.


For Trump voters, and millions of Americans of all political stripes, much of the fear and anxiety of this moment can be boiled down to one powerful psychological and emotional experience: displacement.

Displacement is defined as “the moving of something from its place or position.” In physics, displacement occurs when an object is submerged in water, causing an equal volume of water to be displaced to make room for it. Freud’s psychological definition of displacement suggests that when we cannot express fear or anger at a person or situation, our minds unconsciously transfer/reassign that anger to a safer target. For example, a worker who’s angry at his boss might displace his feelings by taking out his anger on his family. A teenager who experiences abuse by a parent might become a school bully, redirecting misplaced aggression toward fellow students.

The concept is particularly relevant in the context of our current reality. When millions of immigrants, legally documented and otherwise, flock to the U.S., some—often white Christians—perceive that these new arrivals take up space they believe is rightfully theirs. It’s easier to express rage, rancor or blame toward powerless others than to consider the complexities of issues that can feel out of one’s control. Many have embraced Trump’s anti-immigration stance and the fantasy of building a “big, beautiful, powerful wall.” Few have likely given real thought to what it would require to track down and forcibly remove 11 million people from the country, as Trump says he’ll do.

Arlie Hochschild, author of Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right writes that displacement among Trump supporters “reflects pain” rooted in the feeling that “you’ve done everything right and you’re still slipping back.”

The displacement defense “focuses blame on an ill-intentioned government,” Hochschild writes. “And it points to rescue: The Tea Party for some, and Donald Trump for others.”

Robert P.  Jones, the founding CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute and author of The End of White Christian America, explained in an AlterNet interview that “conservative white Christians, who could see themselves in [a] mythical depiction of 1950s America…are having a more difficult time seeing their place in a rapidly changing country.” For tens of millions of people, this displacement reflects feelings of loss—of culture, jobs, community, religion, economics, identity, and hope for the future. Jones says Trump has transformed these “self-described ‘value voters’” into “nostalgia voters,” casting their ballots less for any one candidate than for a return to a past in which their place in the social order was secure.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Trauma is the emotional response to a distressing life event. For many victims and survivors of trauma, such as sexual abuse, personal violence, war combat, natural disasters and beyond, remnants of the pain, anguish and suffering from the original incident remain within. Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a mental health condition that develops when bygone traumas continue to live on in the psyche. They can be triggered by any number of factors, causing the person to reexperience the feelings they had during the traumatizing event.

PTSD kickstarts our innate drives toward fight-or-flight, or even freeze. It is likely that both severe trauma and PTSD are under-reported and affect a much broader slice of the population. This article, in the British Journal of Psychiatry, showed that life events and divorce are likely to cause more symptoms of PTSD than recognized triggers such as car accidents or brushes with death.

Gabor Maté, a doctor and the author of In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts,suggests that most alcoholics and addicts endured childhood trauma. Drugs and alcohol, according to Maté, serve to dull the overwhelming emotional pain many addicts often feel. For any children who grow up in poverty, “the constant and sustained instability and stress of basic survival translates into a pervasive and unstinting trauma. The added issues of crime and violence in many low-income neighborhoods further traumatizes those who live in them…It makes sense that children living in constant low-grade terror, in homes and neighborhoods where the conditions can be similar to a war zone, complete with militarized police presences, would manifest the same conditions as soldiers who have endured combat or victims of war.”

Psychology Today notes that, “It has long been established that stress-related illnesses, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) trigger changes in brain structure, including differences in the volume of gray matter versus white matter, as well as the size and connectivity of the amygdala.” Long-term stress affects the brain by “decreas[ing] the number of stem cells that mature into neurons and might provide an explanation for how chronic stress also affects learning and memory.” It also raises the level of cortisol, dubbed the “stress hormone.” Researchers indicate this can lead to a “domino effect that hardwires pathways between the hippocampus and amygdala in a way that might create a vicious cycle by creating a brain that becomes predisposed to be in a constant state of fight-or-flight.”

It’s true that our electoral politics are often drive by fear. But as we’ve previously noted, “on the other hand, there are many millions of people who are afraid for very real reasons.”

These include bad policies and messed-up priorities resulting in half the country living on the economic margins or in poverty; widespread PTSD from our wars; and massive militarization of local police departments who use their equipment, gear and racist attitudes to treat citizens as if they were terrorists. These are real and valid fears. But they tend to be the ones politicians and the wealthy elites deny or ignore.


Long after a traumatic event has ceased, the imprint—of the fear, sadness or panic it caused—may remain buried within. A trigger is an action or event that causes survivors to return to their initial trauma, causing those feelings to resurface, sometimes as viscerally as the moment in which they were first felt.

Trump, who has campaigned on hate and misogyny, has triggered millions of survivors with the toxic masculinity and sexism he has continuously put out for the last 18 months. Though many were already deeply troubled by Trump’s anti-women rhetoric throughout the primaries—he has insulted women in every way and at every turn—his leaked boasts about sexually assaulting women caused many to reexperience their trauma. During the second presidential debate, as Trump skulked creepily across the stage, lurking behind Clinton in vaguely menacing ways, calls to a national sexual assault hotline increased by a third.

“Symptoms of PTSD result when a person has been frightened to the degree where they frequently have no words,” Gail Wynn, a sex therapist and professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA, said during an interview for a related piece. “They have no behavior, no response that they know of that they can use to stop whatever is happening, that is frightening them and terrorizing them. This is the body’s way of registering to an individual that whatever they’re experiencing is really beyond what the body can process. The body frequently goes back to those same symptoms and those same kinds of reactions with other experiences that may be similar to what they went through, or even where the same language might be used.”

Triggers set off responses that are beyond the control of those who experience them. They tend to take the form of fight-or-flight, or the survivor may freeze, immobilized by the overwhelming rush of feelings they’re experiencing. Survivors describe reactions from sleeplessness to flare-ups of chronic pain to uncontrollable crying. Many went offline or turned off their televisions when Trump and other related election stress became too much to bear.

Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is what we call the tension and anxiety that result from holding, and attempting to reconcile, two contradictory or conflicting ideas, thoughts or opinions. We all experience cognitive dissonance at some point; think of it as a kind of internalized, nagging discomfort over our own hypocrisy. Vegans who wear leather, or joggers who smoke cigarettes, could possibly experience cognitive dissonance. In the case of the election, patriot hawks supporting a five-time draft dodger; pious evangelicals voting for a thrice-married philanderer who publicly cheated on his first two wives; conservative moralists boosting a man who brags about grabbing women “by the pussy”; and long-time Kremlin critics rooting for the guy who can’t say enough good things about Putin could likely be afflicted with cognitive dissonance.

The ways we cope with cognitive dissonance include rationalizing the schisms in our thinking; for example, dismissing a candidate’s vivid description of sexual assault as mere locker-room talk. It might also include modifying our opinions to eliminate discrepancies in thinking. Case in point: a recent study by the Public Religion Research Institute found that just five years ago, only 30 percent of white evangelical Protestants and 36 percent of Republicans agreed that “an elected official can behave ethically [in public office] even if they have committed transgressions in their personal life.” In the age of Trump, that number has more than doubled to 72 percent among white evangelicals, and increased to 70 percent among Republicans overall—the largest gains among any demographic groups.

Dunning-Kruger Effect

A psychological phenomenon first identified in 1999 by Cornell University’s David Dunning and Justin Kruger, the effect describes the tendency of those who lack information on a subject or topic to erroneously overestimate their knowledge or skill in said area. In other words, to know how bad you are at something, you need to have some knowledge of what it takes to be good at it, without which, you’re likely to be overconfident about your competency. (Conversely, if you have a lot of knowledge about a certain thing, and a fairly good understanding of its complexity, you’re more likely to underestimate your abilities.) The principle might be regarded as the inverse proof of the famous Einstein truism, which states, “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” It also brings to mind the old adage, “A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.”

In a recent op-ed for Politico titled, “The Psychological Quirk That Explains Why You Love Donald Trump,” Dunning concluded that the effect extends to “political judgment”:

“In voters, lack of expertise would be lamentable but perhaps not so worrisome if people had some sense of how imperfect their civic knowledge is,” he writes. “If they did, they could repair it. But the Dunning-Kruger Effect suggests something different. It suggests that some voters, especially those facing significant distress in their life, might like some of what they hear from Trump, but they do not know enough to hold him accountable for the serious gaffes he makes. They fail to recognize those gaffes as missteps…[T]he key to the Dunning-Kruger Effect is not that unknowledgeable voters are uninformed; it is that they are often misinformed—their heads filled with false data, facts and theories that can lead to misguided conclusions held with tenacious confidence and extreme partisanship, perhaps some that make them nod in agreement with Trump at his rallies.”

Throw in a little confirmation bias—a cognitive bias that makes people interpret new information, including facts that directly contradict what they believe, in a way that confirms their preconceived ideas—and we’re off to the races.

The numbers bear this out. In study after study, researchers find that college-educated voters are statistically far more likely to vote for Clinton than for Trump. What’s more, Fox News watchers are the most misinformed of television news consumers, scoring even lower than those who consume no news at all, and Fox viewers mostly fall into the Trump camp.



The term gaslighting comes from the classic 1944 psychological thriller Gaslight, starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman as a married couple. Boyer plays an unscrupulous husband who secretly dims and brightens a gaslight, then denies any change has happened when his wife questions him about the shifting light levels. He follows up the gaslight trick with a number of other manipulations, all while maintaining that his spouse is imagining the changes around her. The maddening ruse has its intended effect, with Bergman’s character growing to doubt her own eyes, judgment, and ultimately, her sanity.

Psychotherapist and author Christine Louis de Canonville describes gaslightingas “a form of psychological abuse used by narcissists in order to instill in their victims an extreme sense of anxiety and confusion to the point where they no longer trust their own memory, perception or judgment.” Most often, gaslighting is used in romantic relationships by one partner trying to manipulate the thinking of the other. Think cheaters attempting to make their spouses doubt evidence of infidelity, controlling lovers who wield confusion and blame to crush their partners’ self-esteem, leaving dependence and over-reliance in its place. By pretty much every measure, Donald Trump is the king of gaslighting, a mind game he’s employed on a massive scale to disorient tens of millions of people in his quest for the presidency.

Trump has deftly used gaslighting throughout his campaign to avoiding responsibility for pretty much anything, employing topsy-turvy “logic” to instead place blame on everyone else. So, the media is out to get him, the election is rigged and debate moderators are unfair. New Republic‘s Brian Beutler highlights Trump’s attempted gaslighting of voters to deny his use of “birtherism and other forms of racist agitation to build a political base for himself” by pointing the finger at Hillary Clinton’s long-term adviser Sidney Blumenthal. Even electronics do not escape unscathed: Trump’s debate mic was purposely sabotaged, and a “lousy earpiece” is to blame for his refusal to disavow David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan.

Perhaps Trump’s most blatant use of gaslighting came just after the leak of the 2005 Access Hollywood video. Following the revelations, a number of women—at least 11 so far—have publicly stated, using detailed examples of Trump’s alleged sexual abuse, that Trump behaves in real life as he described on the tape. Trump’s response has been to dub all the women liars, accuse Clinton, a Mexicanbillionaire and a globalist conspiracy of trying to destroy him, and suggest thathe’ll sue them all. According to Paul Rosenberg, Trump’s reaction “was not surprising: a wholesale denial, accusing everyone else of lying, secrecy and bad faith, thus creating an alternate reality and claiming it to be true.” In other words, textbook gaslighting. Rosenberg cites psychotherapist and political analyst Leah McElrath, who writes that “Trump’s statement is an eerie replica of psychological manipulations made by abusers after episodes of abuse.”

Trump Anxiety

For millions of Americans and people around the world, the thought of having a race-baiting, sexual assault-promoting, xenophobic, policy-ignorant demagogue in the White House is a genuinely scary prospect, one frightening enough to keep them up at night. Back in April, the Washington Post spoke with numerous psychologists and massage therapists who reported seeing a new strain of fear and stress among their patients. They identified this as Trump Anxiety, a crippling psychological condition that has everything to do with potential for Trump to become president, and falls under the umbrella of Election Seasonal Affective Disorder. All of the factors described above—narcissism, gaslighting, projection, trauma and PTSD, etc.—contribute to Trump Anxiety.

“Usually it’s combined with other anxiety triggers that they may be having, and it can cause sleeplessness, restlessness, feeling powerless,” Kimberly Grocher, a psychotherapist in New York, told Slate’s Michelle Goldberg. “It can lead to feelings of depression.”

The pressure seems even more acute among those with histories of personal or familial trauma. Goldberg spoke to a therapist who said one patient, from a family of Holocaust survivors, told her “it feels to her like all the stories she heard from her grandparents.” Grocher, who is African American, says her patients of color have expressed fear about, “What’s going to happen in my community if this person is in office?”

The fear and anxiety surrounding Trump’s ascent haven’t only affected adults. A Southern Poverty Leadership Conference survey found “more than two-thirds of the teachers reported that students—mainly immigrants, children of immigrants and Muslims—have expressed concerns or fears about what might happen to them or their families after the election.”

In the end, many are finding that their fear has been heightened by the prospect of a Trump presidency, and the question of what will come next.

Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.