The United States is currently undergoing a collective psychological regression in which ideological divisions have devolved into acts of hatred, such as the kidnapping plot against Michigan’s Governor Gretchen Whitmer , armed militias taking law and order into their own hands, and riots in Portland and other major cities that have resulted in loss of life and property damage. In the Trump era, families with differing political viewpoints have fissured. And the era of social media and disinformation campaigns have amplified these divisions. This civil war of ideology is bursting at the seams, not unlike the Civil War 150 years ago, in which America was divided along the issues of slavery and the economy. Fears of violent protests from both the left and the right loom over tomorrow’s election.
The psychological mechanism of “splitting”in the early stages of cognitive development, and in individuals with borderline personality disorder, in which “good” and “bad” forces cannot co-exist, is indicative of the current state of the American body politic. Those of us who believe that Trump’s presidency is emblematic of the worst in human nature including racism, xenophobia, white supremacy, and a blatant disregard for science in the form of climate change denial and health guidelines during a global pandemic, stand in opposition to those who support him. Many liberals believe that 4 more years of Trump would spell the end of democracy, and that both behavioral and political norms have been eroded profoundly by his presidency. The MAGA crowd, and the GOP in general, with the exception of those who regret their vote for Trump in 2016, believe that a Biden presidency presages a radical turn to socialism, in which illegal immigration will run rampant, taxes will increase dramatically, and Roe V. Wade be upheld. These two world views appear irreconcilable in 2020.
In the current state of the nation’s collective psyche, the division between “us” and “them” is a manifestation of primitive defenses in which each group must exclude the other for their own survival. The threat posed by the coronavirus, and the subsequent loss of normalcy, jobs, school and social rituals exacerbate these divisions and the deepening entrenchment in one’s belief system. This collective psychic trauma manifests as annihilation anxiety in which the ego cannot self-regulate, and psychopathological tendencies are activated. This psychic energy expresses itself in myriad forms: as a loss of a sense of self, depression, anxiety, anger and sadness. The anger explodes in public riots, in the privacy of one’s home in the rising cases of domestic violence or towards oneself in suicidal ideation.
Our society, and the human race, will survive this election and the pandemic, as we have survived plagues, world wars, ice ages and elections throughout history. The pressure of a highly polarized society will surely lead to transformation, but we may have to witness more violence, rebellion, breakdown of societal norms, and disruption to our former sense of normal before we witness an emergent new reality.