American society spawns trauma and this trauma expresses itself in a variety of self-destructive pathologies, including the erosion of democracy and rise of neo-fascism.
Corporate capitalism, defined by the cult of the self and the ruthless exploitation of the natural world and all forms of life for profit, thrives on the fostering of chronic psychological and physical disorders. The diseases and pathologies of despair — alienation, high blood pressure, diabetes, anxiety, depression, morbid obesity, mass shootings (now almost two per day on average), domestic and sexual violence, drug overdoses (over 100,000 per year) and suicide (49,000 deaths in 2022) — are the consequences of a deeply traumatized society.
The core traits of psychopaths — superficial charm, grandiosity and self-importance, a need for constant stimulation, a penchant for lying, deception, manipulation and the inability to feel remorse or guilt — are celebrated. The virtues of empathy, compassion and self-sacrifice, are belittled, neglected and crushed. The professions that sustain community, such as teaching, manual labor, the arts, journalism and nursing, are underpaid and overworked. The professions that exploit, such as those in high finance, Big Pharma, Big Oil and information technology, are lavished with prestige, money and power.
“The fact that millions of people share the same vices does not make these vices virtues, the fact that they share so many errors does not make the errors to be truths, and the fact that millions of people share the same forms of mental pathology does not make these people sane,” Eric Fromm writes in The Sane Society.
The classic works on trauma by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, Dr. Gabor Maté and Dr. Judith Herman state bluntly that what is accepted as normal behavior in a corporate society is at war with basic human needs and our psychological and physical health. Huge segments of the American public, especially the tens of millions of people who have been discarded and marginalized, endure chronic trauma. Barbara Ehrenreich in “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America” describes the life of the working poor as one long “emergency.” This trauma is as destructive to us personally as it is socially and politically. It leaves us in a state of dysphoria where confusion, agitation, emptiness and loneliness define our lives. Whole segments of American society, especially the poor, have been rendered superfluous and invisible. As Dr. van der Kolk writes, “trauma is when we are not seen and known.”
“Our culture teaches us to focus on our personal uniqueness, but at a deeper level we barely exist as individual organisms,” Dr. van der Kolk notes.
Trauma numbs our capacity to feel. It fractures our self. It disconnects us from our bodies. It keeps us in a state of hyperarousal. It makes us confuse our desires, often artificially implanted by the consumer society, with our needs. Traumatized people view the world around them as hostile and dangerous. They lack a positive image of themselves and lose the capacity to trust. Many replace intimacy and love with sexual sadism, which is how we became a pornified culture. Trauma creates what the psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton calls a “counterfeit” world defined by phantom enemies, lies and dark conspiracies. It negates a sense of purpose and a life of meaning.
Trauma, Dr. Herman writes, “impels people both to withdraw from close relationships and to seek them desperately.” It induces feelings of shame, guilt, and inferiority, she writes, “as well as the need to avoid reminders of the trauma that occurs in daily life. Trauma severely compromises the capacity for intimacy. Trauma can dramatically reduce focus to extremely limited goals, often a matter of hours or days.”
“If trauma entails a disconnection from the self, then it makes sense to say that we are being collectively flooded with influences that both exploit and reinforce trauma,” Dr. Maté writes. “Work pressures, multitasking, social media, news updates, multiplicities of entertainment sources — these all induce us to become lost in thoughts, frantic activities, gadgets, meaningless conversations. We are caught up in pursuits of all kinds that draw us on, not because they are necessary or inspiring or uplifting, or because they enrich or add meaning to our lives, but simply because they obliterate the present.”
Trauma also drives many to flee into the arms of those who are orchestrating the abuse.
Systematic and repetitive trauma, whether by a single abuser or a political system, destroys personal autonomy. The perpetrator becomes omnipotent. Resistance is accepted as futile. “The goal of the perpetrator is to instill in his victim not only fear of death but also gratitude for being allowed to live,” Dr. Herman writes. This trauma lays the foundation for the most insidious characteristic of all tyrannies, large and small. Total control. Prolonged trauma reduces its victims to a state of psychological infantilism. It conditions them to plead for their own enslavement.
“We are not content with negative obedience, not even with the most abject submission,” George Orwell wrote of the ruling “Inner Party” in his novel “1984.” “When finally you surrender to us, it must be of your own free will. We do not destroy the heretic because he resists us; so long as he resists us we never destroy him. We convert him, we capture his inner mind, we reshape him. We burn all evil and all illusion out of him; we bring him over to our side, not in appearance, but genuinely, heart and soul.”
Christian fascism, the subject of my book “American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America,” preys on this trauma. It replicates systems of control common to all tyrannies, including cults. Christian fascists skillfully break down adherents, severing them from their families and communities. They manipulate their shame, despair, feelings of worthlessness and guilt – the byproducts of their trauma – to demand total obedience to the church leadership, who are almost always white and male. These leaders, supposedly spokespeople for God, cannot be questioned or criticized. The connecting tissue among the disparate militia groups, QAnon conspiracy theorists, anti-abortion activists, right-wing patriot organizations, Second Amendment advocates, neo-Confederates and Trump supporters that stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 is not only this Christian fascism but trauma.
“Totalitarian governments demand confession and political conversion of their victims,” Dr. Herman writes. “Slaveholders demand gratitude from their slaves. Religious cults demand ritualized sacrifices as a sign of submission to the divine will of the leader. Perpetrators of domestic battery demand that their victims prove complete obedience and loyalty by sacrificing all other relationships. Sex offenders demand that their victims find sexual fulfillment in submission. Total control over another person is the power dynamic at the heart of pornography. The erotic appeal of this fantasy to millions of terrifyingly normal men fosters an immense industry in which women and children are abused, not in fantasy but in reality.”
Donald Trump is a perpetrator and savior. He personifies the callous indifference of patriarchy, wealth, privilege and power towards the vulnerable, as well as the promise that once his cultish followers surrender to him they will be protected. He inspires in equal measure fear and solace.
“People who embrace the small tyrannies are much more susceptible to embracing the large ones,” Dr. Herman told me. “When you have a political party that embraces the subordination of women, the subordination of people of color, the subordination of gender non-conforming people, and the subordination of non-Christians, then it’s not a party that embraces democracy. It’s a party that is looking for a fascist leader and is going to find one.”
In Dr. van der Kolk’s “The Body Keeps Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma,” he opens with stark statistics compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing that “one in five Americans was sexually molested as a child; one in four was beaten by a parent to the point of a mark being left on their body; and one in three couples engages in physical violence. A quarter of us grew up with alcoholic relatives, and one out of eight witnessed their mother being beaten or hit.”
The endemic trauma in American society, which is getting worse under the onslaught of the gig economy, pronounced social inequality, indiscriminate police violence, the climate crisis and the seizure of the political process and most institutions by corporations and the ruling oligarchs, is our most serious public health crisis. It has grave individual, social and political consequences.
“If trauma is truly a social problem,” Dr. Herman in “Truth and Repair: How Trauma Survivors Envision Justice” writes, “then recovery cannot simply be a private individual matter. The wounds of trauma are not merely those caused by the perception of violence and exploitation. The actions or inactions of bystanders, all those who are complicit in or who prefer not to know about the abuse or who blame the victims, often cause deeper wounds.” “Full healing,” she adds, “because it originates in a fundamental injustice, requires a full hearing within the community to repair through some measure of justice the trauma survivors have endured.”
“Recovery has to take place in relationships,” Dr. Herman said in my interview. “When people feel reconnected to their communities and re-accepted in their communities, then the shame is relieved and the isolation is relieved, and that really creates the platform for healing.”
The key is community. Not virtual communities. But communities where we can reconnect and see in our wounds the wounds of others. It requires access, without onerous medical bills, to mental health professionals. It requires dismantling the corporate structures of oppression. It demands a new ethic, one that values empathy and self-sacrifice. We must reject the cynicism, indifference and cult of the self that all tyrannies inculcate in those they dominate to keep them passive. We must reach out to our neighbors, especially those in distress and those who are demonized. We must uncouple from consumer society and turn away from the allure of our cultural narcissism.
The moral philosopher Bernard Williams argues that resentment and indignation are as important as empathy and connection to solidify social bonds. It is not only our own dignity we must protect, but the dignity of others. These “shared sentiments” he writes “bind people together in a community of feeling.” Acts of resistance around these “shared sentiments,” this “community of feeling,” establish ourselves as distinct, autonomous beings. We may not defeat these tyrannies, but by battling against them we free ourselves from the grip of the small and large tyrannies that deform American society.
Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent for fifteen years for The New York Times, where he served as the Middle East Bureau Chief and Balkan Bureau Chief for the paper. He previously worked overseas for The Dallas Morning News, The Christian Science Monitor, and NPR. He is the host of show The Chris Hedges Report.
Featured image: Welcome In – by Mr. Fish