today’s politics is undermining mental health

Unless we tackle the cultural and mental health issues fueling populist train wrecks across the West, any political victory against them will only be temporary.
beast over the garden wall
Illustration from Over The Garden Wall

After an election that felt like the political equivalent of passing a kidney stone, tens of millions of Americans across the country are out in the streets celebrating the end of the Donald Trump presidency while allies across the world cheer them on. Voting an incumbent president out of office is no easy feat, especially when the incumbent is willing to watch his own citizens die and throw every legal and questionable trick in the book to prevent them from voting. It’s doubly hard with a minoritarian political system where geography, not voters, often determines who sits in the White House, so it’s no wonder Americans are so relieved and overjoyed as it felt like a dark shadow was lifted and the country suddenly came back to life.

The past four years were hellish for those who don’t define the nation’s success as spiting your fellow citizens solely for the sake of spiting them, so a release was long overdue. Trump’s rage tweets received no coverage. Journalists vented about the torrents of racial, homophobic, and threatening abuse unleashed on them by the far right. Former Trump allies couldn’t distance themselves from him fast enough, suddenly finding a backbone as the election was called in favor of former Vice President Joe Biden. As the aspiring authoritarian refused to concede, a Secret Service agent quipped about the agents’ proficiency in handling squatters. You might even be tempted to say that the American body politic rejected Trump like a parasite.

But you’d be very wrong. Trumpism is wounded and in retreat, but it, and its various iterations will be back soon enough. In fact, when you consider the polls leading up to Election Day, the nationalist right overperformed. It’s very possible that systemic vote suppression, COVID, and the general chaos engulfing the country for four years played their roles, but Trump managed to maintain his rock-solid support. If the pandemic never happened, or he managed to muster a decent response to COVID instead of taking a virus as an affront to his ego and sabotaging every effort to slow its spread, he could’ve very easily won reelection, thanks to the rotting albatross around America’s neck known as the Electoral College.

why populism’s promises always fail

We’ve managed to get a reprieve for maybe six months or a year, but the far right will be back with a vengeance across the West unless we tackle the issues that feed it. Some of them, like racism, bigotry, and fear of demographic changes, are cultural issues that require generations to properly overcome. Others, however, are a lot more basic and stem from today’s isolation, erosion of empathy, destruction of the middle class by automation and political neglect by a retrograde gerontocracy, and social media’s amplification of paranoid conspiracy theories in destructive, albeit lucrative, feedback loops. And now, we also have to deal with the burnout from handling the aforementioned global pandemic.

Add the very real cognitive tax imposed on us by widespread financial instability, and it’s no wonder our mental health is shot and we’re much more susceptible to fearmongering and outrageous conspiracies which seek to explain the complex landscape of modern life in very simple us vs. them terms, perfect for far right nationalists’ platforms that seek to demonize, divide, and enrage people into voting for them. For a far-right populist, nations ready to tear themselves apart, where citizens see each other not as a society but as bitter enemies in the middle of an existential conflict, are ideal breeding grounds for their graft. As long as they keep us at each other’s’ throats, they can avoid accountability and do whatever they want.

In other words, our pain is their gain, and the more uncomfortable we are, the more empty promises they can make to make that pain go away. It’s very likely they and their followers score highly on all the psychological traits of the dark tetrad since they not only seem to enjoy watching their fellow citizens suffer, they consider hurting others the very point of voting. And yet, even in absolute victory, the sun never shines in the lands of the right. Their inability and unwillingness to grasp the nature of the changes they see and fear, translates into an inability to do anything other than lash out and find new scapegoats. The end result is a fruitless cycle of misery, woe, rage, and kleptocratic, useless leadership.

how do politics become pathology?

After a certain point, all this recursive exasperation and resentment collapses in on itself like an imploding star, creating grand conspiracy theories claiming existential threats where none can even exist, and starting to sound less like political views and more like paranoid schizophrenia. Everyone everywhere is out to get them. Political opponents’ words are actually secret codes concealing a sinister agenda of cannibalism, occultism, pedophilia, and racial genocide. No one in the media can be trusted, and only far right propaganda channels, and obscure YouTubers and pseudonymous Facebook and Twitter accounts sharing 4chan and 8chan screenshots can be relied on to tell you the truth.

Maybe this sounds harsh, but you have to ask the question of mental health and stability of a population that votes for politicians who undermine wildly popular, beneficial, and lucrative projects their own voters eagerly approved, and seems hell bent on self-destruction, trying to take as many others with them as they can. And this isn’t even figurative or hyperbolic as an epidemic of suicides sweeps across rural North America while the very people most likely to fall victim to it demand that the world’s wealthiest superpower force its citizens to live the exact isolationist lifestyle with no social contract that’s quite literally killing them. On top of all this, they make empathy for them harder by hurling nothing but abuse at the rest of society.

The media’s obsession with repeating their umpteenth regurgitation of paranoid Bircherite taking points in one of the innumerable small-town diners from which you can spot the rusty hulk of the factory which was responsible for said small town’s prosperity makes things even worse. By sucking out all the oxygen in the room for discussing other topics, comparing their lives to those of their political polar opposites, and considering their ideology and actions in proper context, national discussions become a farce best fit for reality shows featuring not news and analysis, but screaming pundits hoping to become stars of a viral video clip. The tough conversations we desperately need get denied for the sake of ratings.

But at this point we don’t have a choice but to tackle the problems fueling this mental health and political crisis in the West head on. We can’t keep dancing around the issues and engage in tribalist tit for tats because we’re going to end up with a Trumpian figure every other four to eight years, deadlocked governments where populist parties happy to create more victims of modernization into cult disciples negotiate in bad faith, and make progress in fits and starts against a background of constant rage, terrorism, and histrionic protests that undermine any efforts to deal with real disasters. Today’s turmoil wasn’t an inevitable consequence. It was a choice being exploited by terrible people to hurt others. And we have to put an end to it.

# politics // future / mental health / populism


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