When someone feels aggrieved, that person is usually feeling betrayed and helpless and often responds with envy and anger. Trump voters often felt a sense of grievance about being left out and left behind – economically and culturally. This feeling generates envy and a need to blame others, in their case, liberals and people of color. It’s important to empathize with Americans who feel that the system has given them a raw deal and who identify, as a result, with similar messages they get from Trump.
Patriotism, the connection to transcendent notions of the nation state, can be used for political purposes. It draws from childhood needs for attachment and security. Conservatives in the U.S. have been more effective in this effort and have used images of the “demeaned Other”—racist and ethnocentric stereotypes and dog whistles—to satisfy the longing people have to belong to a community.
Poverty and harsh social environments make people physically and psychologically sick. Among the many reasons for this is that economic privation directly triggers our stress response system which causes harm to our brains and bodies and leads to maladaptive “solutions” like alcohol and drug addiction, depression and narcissism. Of special importance is the fact that inequality itself causes stress through producing enormous “status anxiety” in everyone but especially in those near the bottom of the hierarchy. Societies like ours that are so unequal produce higher than normal symptoms of social and emotional suffering. Inequality itself is a toxic affront to our bodies and our spirits.
The scenes at the southern border last year evoked grief and outrage across the political spectrum. But why were these stories so much more provocative than the equally tragic stories of children in poverty or living in families that routinely neglect them? The answer has to do with the universality of attachment needs. All of us harbor feelings of loss growing up and we vicariously protest against them in our reactions to border separations. In addition, the fundamental innocence of children evokes disavowed feelings of innocence in the rest of us.