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Divided Americans: ‘We have to find a way to live together’

U of M professor and marriage counselor Bill Doherty on bridging the Divided States of America.

Bill Doherty: "I have only a certain amount of outrage a day I will allow myself, without being consumed by it."
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh

As a family therapist who specializes in divorce and couples counseling, University of Minnesota professor Bill Doherty may be singularly qualified to weigh in on the Divided States of America at the dawn of a Donald Trump presidency. In July, Doherty launched his online think tank Citizen Therapists Against Trumpism, whose Facebook group has more than 1,800 subscribers and has drawn attention from the Nation, the New York Times, the Huffington Post, CNN and more.  

As Americans everywhere try to figure out how to deal personally and politically with the prospect of a 2017 President Donald Trump, Doherty continues to do deep dives into what makes the populace tick and why we find ourselves where we find ourselves. MinnPost sat down with Doherty at a coffee shop across the street from his St. Paul campus office to talk about the times we find ourselves in.

MinnPost: What correlation do you see between the country and divorcing couples now?

Bill Doherty: What I know from dealing with couples is that they’re not going to improve if they have a problem unless each person acknowledges some contribution to the polarization, to the demoralization. It’s never just one person, it’s both. So with this polarization, I try to understand the other side, and you keep working until you get it. But we hardly ever get there. The other thing is that the identity politics that has been part of the liberal left has led to polarization, and we have to get past that. So the new organization I’m starting for therapists is going to be called Citizen Therapists for Democracy, because part of democracy is naming and calling out anti-democratic ideologies and practices. But the other part of it is creating opportunities for grass-roots democracies to be revived.

MP: What are your plans for Citizen Therapists Against Trumpism?

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BD: That will be folded soon. The new organization will be up and running by inauguration day. There are 18,000 [members] in the Facebook group for Citizen Therapists Against Trumpism, and that will go on, unmonitored, for people who want to talk about Trump, and that’s fine, but this new organization will be broader. I wish that other professions would organize similarly, to do a deep dive about what their profession can contribute right now. I know journalism is going through a lot of soul-searching.

MP: That’s one word for it. I know I’m much more aware of my blind spots these days.

BD: We have to find a way to live together.  And part of what I’m doing is I have only a certain amount of outrage a day I will allow myself, without being consumed by it. So I’m going to reserve it for the worst stuff, I’m not going to use it for every Trump appointment or every tweet. I’m not going to go, “Isn’t that awful, isn’t that disgusting” about everything he does, because if I do, he controls us. He controls the media. I will note it, but I will save my moral indignation for later because that is an important human emotion, but if it’s 60 percent of my day, that hurts me and does no good and it gives him more power to poke our emotions.

MP: For my readers and myself, I’m looking for guidance in this strange new landIt’s so volatile and so toxic for the soul and human spirit at the moment, and you’ve been delving into this splitting of the country and, if such a thing has ever even existed or can exist now, healing. On a real level, I want to talk about Citizen Therapists Against Trumpism, and survival skills for this unprecedented malaise. What have you been chewing on since November 8?

BD: I’ll tell you what I’m doing this weekend. I’m flying to Ohio to co-facilitate a weekend between 10 Trump supporters and 10 Hillary supporters who live in a small town outside of Cincinnati as part of a project called The Better Angels Project, which started in New York City a couple years ago by a colleague of mine to try and depolarize America, and it’s needed even more now. 

We’re in a time when we have to combine, I think, resistance to this ideology, philosophy, way of undermining democracy that I’m calling Trumpism, which of course is a worldwide phenomenon now in Europe and India and places like that. So we have to call out and resist, but at the same time try to restore basic elements of democracy. I think of democracy as a collective agency, a collective ability to come together across differences and solve problems and figure out how to do a life together. That, for me, is what democracy is and then electoral democracy is one particular aspect of it, and the big threat at the moment is to democracy

So there are a lot of people who have supported Donald Trump’s anti-democratic way of leadership. I don’t know if they understood it or knew all the implications of it, but that’s really what it is.

MP: As a soulful person who has studied this stuff, how do we go forward as individuals in this creeping nondemocracy? People are waking up every day with that question. Do you have anything close to answers?

BD: We’re used to dealing with personal stress, but this is a public stress. In a simple way – this is the psychologist and therapist in me – there are stressors and there are two ways we know how to cope with that. One is what’s called “passive coping” or what I call “buffering coping.” How do I buffer myself from this? My wife has been feeling it, and is not reading certain things. She reads the headline, but not the article, and a lot of us during the election were doing CNN and MSNBC every day, and you can limit the access and decide in your marriage or with your best friend, that if you’re talking 80 percent of your conversation is concerned with what Trump is doing, you can decide to limit that, or have “Trump-free zones” or “Trump-free time.” It’s a way to maintain your equilibrium and you don’t let Trump and what he stands for invade your personal life. You limit the incursion.

The other way of coping is “active coping,” and that tends to be, for a lot of people, necessary, and that is doing something that actively pushes back, resists, and does something to express your values. And that’s what these safety pins have been all about. 

MP: It doesn’t seem like nearly enough.

BD: One of the things I’ve been doing to cope is I’m reading whatever I can to try and understand Trump supporters, so that I have a more coherent way of understanding it that is not just based on “they’re yahoos or ignoramuses or bigots.” I think that there are some political operatives that you could characterize that way, but not 62 million people. Those are some of the things I’ve done, along with my leadership work, and that’s something people can do. The extent to which people take action, they feel better.

MP: In the days after the election I very much felt like a chump, the way this reality TV show had played out and I’d been sucked into the political cycle and having it mean so much to my life, when in fact it doesn’t. Does it? Of course. But I have had to stay up here and above this in order to not have my very spirit dragged down. Is that a legitimate way to be?

BD: It’s a form of coping. It’s a way of saying, “I’m not going to let this take over my life. I’m not going to exaggerate the personal effect” — because that’s what some people do. I led a workshop last week for 30 parents on how to talk to kids about Trump and his supporters, and there was a parent there who talked about how she doesn’t feel personally safe. She’s an upper-middle-class professional woman, white, and this is not about personal safety. It really isn’t, but if she allows herself to feel this way she’s going to be consumed. 

So it is a way to cope. There’s a threat, and we have to try to assess the threat, realistically. For some of us, the threat is greater to the country and to our children’s and grandchildren’s future than it is to us. I’m not very much threatened by this. For instance, Trump is not going to throw me in jail for what I’m doing. I mean, there are certain limits. I believe that will not happen. I assess that threat as very, very small. I assess the threat as not a realistic one for me. If I was an undocumented immigrant, that would be a different threat.

MP: The collective whole, though, and the oneness that is humanity — we feel all of that for the immigrant, and so the threat truly is against us.

BD: Yes, yes, it is us. That’s right, and what I think is ineffective as a citizen is just to say, “It’s got nothing to do with me.” I understand that someone might have to go there because they’re overwhelmed, but I think that’s a way of coping that I don’t think is good for the country, and I think it’s a denial. 

MP: As a psychologist, you must see all sorts of manifestations of human behavior coming to the fore with this looming Trump presidency.

BD: Yes, and I’m hearing a lot from people who are having interpersonal problems because of this, from being disinvited to Thanksgiving dinners and more. It’s been really widespread. I mean, 9/11 was nothing like this. It pales in comparison, because 9/11 divided us over time, but at the time we’d been attacked and we were mostly in the same emotional state and a coming together. Now there’s this polarization, and it’s amazing how it’s affecting families.

The last true political diversity in America is in extended families. It’s not in neighborhoods, it’s not in communities, it’s not even in work settings, because people tend to have blue and red work settings, but you go enough links out of your family, and you get people who think very differently about politics. And they come together and how do you manage it?

MP: For me it has been dispiriting to get this widespread glimpse into humanity and to see the truth of our neighbors, and what suckers we all are. That has been depressing.

BD: It depends on what you see as the truth. I agree that there are depressing aspects of it, but that’s what I mean by trying to understand where Trump supporters, many of them, are coming from. There was a book that was very helpful to me during the campaign and even more helpful now that Trump won, called “Strangers in Their Own Land” by Arlie Hochschild, a prominent sociologist whose work I’ve read for years. She spent five years going back and forth between two heavily polluted counties in Louisiana that had massive job loss and were hubs of the Tea Party. And her goal was to try and understand how they could hate the Environmental Protection Agency and be supportive of the petroleum industry.

MP: There’s a brainwashing that goes on.

BD: Well, she went through the various explanations that outsiders give and that’s one. But her goal was to try and understand what she calls their “deep story” as they experience it. And she finally, after two years, came up with a metaphor that they all said about, “Yeah, you got it.” And here was the metaphor: These folks have been standing in line for the American Dream for a long time and the American Dream is receding out there, things have been really hard, and other people less deserving haven’t been in line as long and they’re being put in line ahead of them by the federal government. So it’s immigrants, blacks, women if you’re a man, the whole affirmative action thing, and the federal government is advocating for these other people and the American Dream is even further out.

And their [distrust] for the American government is just … She asked people “What percentage of the American workforce do you think work for the federal government?” She looked up the numbers. It’s one and a half percent, two and a half percent if you add the military. The average answer was 40 percent. People thought that 40 percent of the American workforce work for the government. So you have all of this misinformation about the government, and you have this tremendous sense of unfairness, particularly from the white working class, about these people cutting in line who are being sponsored in line by the federal government. And then Trump comes along and says, “I’m with you. You’ve been getting screwed. Those guys are doing it.”

She went to a Trump rally and she wrote it almost like a novel. It was this feeling of, “Well all these other people have a movement. The black civil rights movement, the American Indians, and the federal government is all behind them and they’re stopping us and making life harder for us.” And along comes somebody who is a success story in America who is saying, “Follow me and I’ll restore your dignity.” Of course, that’s not everybody. My job, as a couples therapist, is to try and understand each person’s perspective. If I can’t get that, I can’t help them.

MP: I’ve been astounded at the lengths people all across the spectrum have allowed themselves to be governed by this election, by the federal government. Does that enter into your work at all? Meaning, it’s incredible, as sentient beings moving through this world, how much worth we give all of this. Is this it? Is this our lot? Our existence? Proletariats have done it since the beginning of time, and I understand that, but I’m left thinking that for the foreseeable future we’re left to hand-wring over our government and that’s it? To survive and keep my head on straight I have to fly above it, and I’m sure it’s a defense mechanism, but … I need help, doc.

BD: I recommend listening to Rush Limbaugh 10 minutes a day as a spiritual practice for progressives. Here is where the empathy comes in. A couple weeks ago I heard Limbaugh say, “Obama and his people, these liberals, they don’t believe you know how to run your own life. They think you’re stupid. They think you’re yahoos. They think they know better, and in fact what they want to do is make your decisions for you. They want to have all these regulations because they think you’re too stupid and you don’t know how to handle your freedoms.”

MP: Where is the critical thinking that goes, “Rush Limbaugh is telling me this?” I don’t look down on anyone, but when I see ignorance and hate I will call it what it is.

BD: A lot of these people are not haters. But did they feel a tremendous loss of the world that they’d grown up in, and a loss of opportunity for them in the country? Huge. And when there’s a big group of people feeling that loss, what we humans do is look for who caused it. And then if someone comes along with a simple explanation, it’s very potent. But we shouldn’t psychologize it. This is a sociological phenomenon. A group, a tribal [phenomenon], and to psychologize it is to single out individuals as “haters” and that’s when we start to disdain our fellow citizens and feel morally and intellectually superior and we play into the same dynamic, and they sense it.

MP: I’ve tried and been determined to stay open-minded and open-hearted through all this, but the pervasive group-think shuts me down.

BD: We are powerfully social creatures. We are tribal, in order to survive. We evolved in clans – anthropologists say 100 to 150 [members make up a clan] – that’s what our genes are set up to really trust. Hard to trust in a mass society, and we sort of keep learning to do it.

But we’re not really set up for that, and we’re easily demagogued and the Other out there is perceived as a threat — the Other is getting in line in front of us, and I don’t think liberals take that into account as much, because liberals favor individualism, and when it comes to political things, most liberals line up behind 95 percent of the same policies and live in that tribe.

MP: Where’s the hope in all this?

BD: This gives me hope: I just came from South High, where I’m the coach for a project with young black male high school students who are working to improve their relationships with teachers. They’re interviewing teachers and asking them, “How can we improve our relationship with you as young black men so we can be more academically successful?” It’s part of the same idea. These are difficult relationships, because the teachers come with implicit bias and all that stuff, but they bought the idea that if you want to change the relationship, you go first – instead of sitting back and saying, “You get over your implicit bias.”

So they laid out the values they want to bring to the relationships with teachers, and ask the teachers, “How can we better live up to this?” and the teachers go, “Oh my god.” You know, it’s difficult, but it can work. 

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the number of subscribers on Citizen Therapists Against Trumpism’s Facebook page.