Trumpwatching: harmless sport or unhealthy obsession?

The US president is a ubiquitous media presence who turns ordinary citizens into news junkies. Some Trumpwatchers look back on a year dominated by the Donald

Donald Trump: “Rather than focusing on his bizarre behaviours, we should look at the corrective mechanisms at our disposal.” Photograph: Kevin Dietsch/Pool/Getty

Donald Trump: “Rather than focusing on his bizarre behaviours, we should look at the corrective mechanisms at our disposal.” Photograph: Kevin Dietsch/Pool/Getty

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Trumpwatching has become one of the world’s favourite spectator sports. “Sport” isn’t even the right word. Obsession may be a better one. Publishers had to print an extra one million copies of Michael Wolff’s new book, Fire and Fury, after it sold out on its first day.

Thanks to Wolff and others, our knowledge of Donald Trump is unparalleled in the history of global political leaders. We know what he does with his mornings – stays in bed and watches Fox news, reportedly. We know about his fear of stairs and people touching his toothbrush. We know that he loves McDonald’s because he is afraid of being poisoned.

On any given day, Trump can be found dominating headlines from Ankara to Zimbabwe. This is not a figure of speech: to take last Tuesday as an example, Turkey’s Daily Sabah ran an op-ed about his Middle East policy, while the Zimbabwe Herald was reporting on his plans for the US weapons industry. 

Trump has turned many people who previously took only a passing interest in current affairs into news junkies, leading to his recent not-entirely outlandish boast that he has single-handedly saved the US media.

Psychologists coined a term to describe what they were seeing in their clinics: post-election stress disorder

But is obsessive Trumpwatching good for us? The evidence would suggest not.

One year ago, as Donald Trump was being inaugurated in Washington, Americans were reporting their highest stress levels in 10 years, in the American Psychological Association’s annual stress survey of 3,400 people. Two-thirds were stressed about the future; half were stressed about the political climate. Those who used social media were most worried of all.

Psychologists coined a term to describe what they were seeing in their clinics: “post-election stress disorder”. As the year wore on, those stress levels only intensified. In another survey in November, 59 per cent said they considered this “the lowest point in US history.”

In Ireland, there are no reports of increases in Trump-related stress disorders, nor signs of collective trauma. Keith Gaynor, a senior clinical psychologist at St John of God’s hospital in Dublin, says of the “couple of hundred” patients he saw over the past year, not one cited Trump “as a primary issue in their mental health problems”.

In the main, Gaynor thinks “Irish people are watching it a bit like the Kardashians. It’s a political soap opera – entertaining or enraging or humorous.”

That said, we are clearly not immune to the Trump effect. He has infiltrated public discourse and private consciousness here as much as anywhere. Trump tweets something; seconds later it is being retweeted around the world with exhortations to “read this and get very scared” or to “stay outraged”.

And for every person who obsesses over the US president, there is another who feels the need to expunge him from their lives. For the latter group, there are apps and Chrome browser extensions allowing users to filter out all Trump-related activity. The news website Quartz allows users to “snooze” all mentions of Trump.

The experience may leave them exhausted, but they are terrified that if they look away for a second, he’ll climb out of his cot, find the matches and set the house on fire

Among the keenest watchers, though, are people who monitor him closely from an academic, professional or amateur interest, perhaps because they have an interest in a specific area they may now see as under threat – the environment, immigration, the rights of women or LGBT+ people.

Then there are those for whom he has a Kardashian-style entertainment appeal.

Finally, there are those who seem to be caught up in a kind of magical thinking, watching him with the hypervigilance of new parents because it gives them the illusion of control. The experience may leave them anxious and exhausted, but they are terrified that if they look away for a second, he’ll climb out of his cot, find the matches and set the house on fire.

And every day, such people’s fears are rewarded with a fresh barrage of gut-churning news: Trump is bragging that his red button is bigger than North Korea’s! Trump’s tweet is an “existential threat to humanity”, warns arms expert! Stephen Hawking says Trump is pushing earth’s climate over the brink!

Donald Trump: “Rather than focusing on his bizarre behaviours, we should look at the corrective mechanisms at our disposal.” Photograph: Yuri Gripas/Reuters
Photograph: Yuri Gripas/Reuters

Psychologist and author Maureen Gaffney says it’s more difficult for people to make a conscious decision to switch off from news about Trump than it was to switch off from, for example, news in general during the financial crisis, because of the unpredictability he fosters.

“What we are wired to do is to pay attention to anything that is unpredictable. Trump is not only unpredictable, he cleverly and consciously uses that unpredictability to get attention and to secure power over people.”

In that sense, monitoring Trump is quite a normal, or adaptive, behaviour. “It’s adaptive to pay attention to him, because he does pose a threat to us.”

It becomes a maladaptive behaviour when we start having an emotional investment in it, when we find ourselves in a state of excitement over Trump’s latest tweet. “The long-term consequence of that is really creating or strengthening the conditions that brought us Trump in the first place – that world of instant sensation from social media; the advent of reality TV; that whole siloed hyper-individualistic way of paying attention only to things that confirm your own assumptions. Those created the conditions for Trump. It might be a tired cliche to talk about that now, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.”

So while it’s normal and understandable for us to feel compelled to monitor Trump, “the more we treat him like a reality show, the more we’re reinforcing the culture that created him”.

It is difficult to have a conversation about Trump’s impact on the mental health of the wider public without considering the questions frequently raised in the media about his own mental health.

This issue has caused a schism among professionals, between those who seem to consider it an ethical duty to diagnose him as unfit for office and those who, like Gaffney and Gaynor, consider any such diagnosis unethical.

“There are strong ethical guidelines that we shouldn’t diagnose someone we haven’t met – that’s for the protection of the profession and any individual in public life,” says Gaynor.

Speculation about whether the president has narcissistic personality disorder can only add to the stigma of those who do suffer mental-health problems

Speculation about whether the US president suffers from various disorders – narcissistic personality disorder is often mentioned, for instance – can only add to the stigma of those who do suffer mental health problems, says Gaynor.

Gaffney’s advice is that, if you find yourself in a state of excitement about Trump’s latest pronouncement, it may be time to switch off and focus on something more constructive. She cautions against allowing ourselves to become cynical about politics or the democratic institutions.

“Rather than focusing on his manifold and bizarre behaviours, we’d be much better looking at the corrective mechanisms we have at our disposal. All we can rely on now are the free press, the courts, the democratic institutions and the investigations that are going on, and that might bring this extraordinarily bizarre presidency to an end.”

Below, some of those following Trump closely here and in the US share their experiences of a year on Trumpwatch.

Suzanne Miller: ‘I moved to Kerry’

Suzanne Miller: has tried to block out all Trump-related news
Suzanne Miller: has tried to block out all Trump-related news

Suzanne Miller is a 61-year-old retired educational specialist from Los Angeles. A US Democrat, and Irish citizen, she felt forced to up sticks and move from the US to Kerry in August, for her “psychological sanity”.

“The threat from Trump was very apparent, even in the early days of the campaign,” she says.

“I am a lesbian and we knew that Trump was saying that he was going to start limiting our rights. I taught in a school in LA with 99 per cent Hispanic population. Children would come in crying, scared that they or a parent or grandparent was going to be sent away.”

During the campaign, Miller began to suffer symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, she says, triggered by “the daily barrage of statements from Trump, the incessant lying, the rise of hate crimes against Jewish graves, Muslim victims, gays and lesbians and the total chaos and violence that reflected Trump’s rallies.”

After the election, she says, “it dawned on me that I needed to retire a year early and move to Ireland for my psychological sanity.”

Since then, she has tried to block out all Trump-related news. “It has taken many weeks of reminding myself, when I see the news, that it does not concern me now, that I am safe here.”

She is weaning herself off “the adrenaline of every crisis and only have three times during the day that I check in on Twitter. When I start to feel uneasy, I turn to reading or Netflix instead.”

Michael Pope: ‘Trump has delivered’

Michael Pope is a 50-year-old IT engineer who lives in Florida. He supported Trump for president because he would have supported “any Republican candidate” over Hillary Clinton.

Since the inauguration, though, he feels very positive about what Trump has achieved in office. He has delivered on jobs, tax reform, judicial reform, Pope says. But, he says, “I think that perhaps the most important thing he has done is break through the barriers of politically correct speech.”

Pope avoids television news and is not on Twitter, but keeps up with Trump through the print media, despite his jaded view of journalists. He characterises the public fascination with Trump as evidence that he is a “master of persuasiveness”.

The reactions of those who dislike Trump have been “over-the-top and really unhinged. I think the Democrats tried to frame Trump as a new Hitler, and this idea has driven a lot of people into a very strange state of mind.”

He feels the world is safer now than under Obama, and though Trump’s style of communication is not his style, he believes it is effective. “The things that are brought up as evidence of insensitivity or prejudice are really examples of confirmation bias on the part of those who bring them up. To someone predisposed to believe Trump is a terrible person, every word he says will be scrutinised for examples of confirm that belief.”

Stephanie Naess: ‘I dread every day’

Stephanie Naess is a 48-year-old account executive living in Hawaii. She says Trump’s election has “exposed the underbelly of what lives and breathes in America: greed, racism, sexism. The ugliest side of our country suddenly reared its head, and marched proudly down the street.”

Since he took office, she has woken every day with an “overwhelming anxiety and sense of dread”. The news makes her “extremely anxious and angry”, but she believes we have a responsibility to stay informed.

“I cannot stomach following him on Twitter, as I feel he uses it to attack anyone who doesn’t agree with him, to inflame tensions with other world leaders and to congratulate himself on things that aren’t even his doing.”

Overall, her mood one year on is one of “stressed optimism”. She feels positive about the awakening political activism she sees in the younger generation, and the likelihood that Trump may be impeached.

But she is most stressed about the rising tensions with North Korea. “It’s unfathomable that we now have warning sirens for nuclear attacks [IN HAWAII)]which are tested once a month. With 15 minutes to impact, I won’t even have time to drive to be with my children before the strike. How has it come to this?”

John McGuirk: ‘He’s a social media president’

John McGuirk is a 33-year-old vice-president of corporate communications and a political conservative. He opposed Trump before he was elected, and “I am appalled by him now, but I think he honestly reflects a lot in the human character”.

“He’s insecure and boastful, vengeful and vain, and yet totally without shame. Other presidents have upended an economic consensus, like Reagan or Roosevelt, or a foreign policy consensus, like Nixon or Obama. Trump has upended a cultural consensus. I think that’s why he terrifies people.”

McGuirk follows Trump on Twitter, but avoids reading about him in the news media, because of the way it “treats him like the first horseman of the apocalypse, a buffoon, a joke”.  

One year on, “on the important stuff he’s been quietly good. But his behaviour is doing great damage to the authority of the office he holds.”

Trump’s “attitude to women, for example, is so repulsive as to repel any decent person. It’s disgusting, but I think he’s gotten to a point where his supporters think any criticism of him on that front is hypocritical.”

Trump wasn’t responsible for cheapening public discourse because “it has been in the toilet for some time anyway. In many ways, he’s the first social media president. He’s 4chan, Reddit, and Twitter rolled up into one being and given a voice.”

Saffa Musleh: ‘It hurts and saddens me’

Saffa Musleh is an Irish life coach and learning and development specialist. She was born in Dubai to Palestinian immigrants, and now lives in Co Wicklow. She is an avid follower of US politics and, during the presidential campaign, “started noticing how upset I was getting. It was the concept of disrespect and deceit being accepted and even applauded.

“People kept telling me that I was taking it too seriously, that Trump was a showman and [it would] revert to normal once the election is over. I remember my partner stopping me from watching the news around October 2016, because I was just not handling it. Everything Trump did or said was aggravating me.”

The Trump presidency has, she says, changed her view of the States and its residents. “It brought to the light that there is more to America than what we see in the media, there is a deep part of it that never got the attention the more educated and sophisticated America got.” She characterises that as “xenophobia, racism, sexism, utter disregard of the facts and a troubling tribe mentality”.

Our collective interest in Trump is not so much “fascination” as the fact that it is “human nature to follow a joke till the punchline. We’re waiting for the nightmare to end, and the movie credits to roll.”

It is hard for her not to take it personally. “It hurts and saddens me when I hear Irish people on Irish radio stations talking about their support of Trump. I had been attacked by far right movements in Ireland, and kept reassuring myself that these are the minority, that we are not people who hate or promote hatred. It is getting harder to maintain that belief.”

Michael Rush: ‘Too much focus on Trump’

Michael Rush: media’s fixation with Trump is heightening “a growing sense of societal anxiety and unease”
Michael Rush: media’s fixation with Trump is heightening “a growing sense of societal anxiety and unease”

Michael Rush is a lecturer in Comparative Social Policy at UCD. He watches Trump with a mostly academic interest, attributable to his research into fatherhood and the patriarchy. “I would group Trump alongside Erdogan and Putin as examples of a strong patriarchal leadership style,” he says.

He believes the media’s fixation with Trump is heightening “a growing sense of societal anxiety and unease” and is concerned by what he sees as “conservative patriarchal ethno-nationalist regimes being normalised rather than challenged in the British media”, particularly.

He would prefer to see less focus on post-Brexit Britain and Trump, and more focus on more positive examples of leadership. He cites the leadership of Katrín Jacobsdóttir in Iceland and Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand, “young women prime ministers of the left who offer an alternative world view and social choice”.

We should, he says, look to them for hope and a different style of leadership in “dangerous times”.

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