Donald Trump has now been president of the United States for 1.5 years. It goes without saying that this has been a challenging time for people in the United States and around the world in a wideranging variety of ways. This piece focuses on the challenges the Trump presidency has created for families and the consequent challenge raised for family scientists and family therapists. Unfortunately, family policy is only one of many problems that have emerged, but one that affects people the most and one with enormous repercussions.
Clearly, this is the worst of times for families in the United States. The worst of times? How to say that in a country that has confronted world wars and cataclysmic economic depressions. Yet, there is a demoralization afoot beyond the times of crisis when the challenges were external. It is a foundational tenet of family systems theory that what occurs in one system level impacts other system levels (Carr, 2016). This is among the reasons family therapists have always paid considerable attention to the larger system; it permeates everywhere. Let us recite some of the ways that the Trump years have clearly negatively impacted families.
Most of all, Donald Trump and his administration have been the prime movers bolstering a spirit of division and denigration over cooperation, mutual support, and respect. This provides a crescendo to a trend that has been moving in this direction for a generation, but Trump has initiated what has become a systemic runaway that has sprinted in this direction. This onslaught of bad behavior in the wake of this division also stands out in marked contrast to the calm and wisdom brought to governing by Barack Obama, even in the most provocative situations. The point here is not about the direction of specific decisions, but about ways the language is used, reasoning applied, and affects generated and stoked. Trump has brought a venal, confrontative language to everything and implored his followers to be similarly disrespectful and bullying.
We know a good deal about the processes that help people feel anchored from family science. Attachment can be secure or insecure (Sandberg, Bradford, & Brown, 2017); other people can be mentalized or not (Asen & Fonagy, 2017); reinforcements and exchanges can be stable and unstable (Fischer, Baucom, & Cohen, 2016); conversation can be life enhancing or coercive and destructive (Sutherland, LaMarre, Rice, Hardt, & Le Couteur, 2017). Trump elicits and promotes insecure attachment even in those close to him, modeling a chaotic bullying way to others that engenders more obvious bad behavior by others. Furthermore, we currently have a very large segment of the news-entertainment world centered on this bad behavior, as they seek ratings in a world in which auto accidents and World Wrestling Federation-inspired arguing are intrinsically more interesting to many people than the presentation of facts or reasoned dialog. With 24/7 news cycles, Trump fills our time with a prime example of how not to be, endlessly commented on by critics with retorts from admirers. He also personally and in his role as president manifests the worst aspects of the use of new technology and social media, ways of using social media which many family scholars have long expressed concerns about (Fraenkel & Wilson, 2000). One wonders the effect on young people raised with this as their example, especially if they are unfortunate enough to have parents in the 30–40% of people in the United States who support Trump.
Beyond this, we then have the specific regressive policies. The Trump administration’s policies affecting families have been a disaster. Perhaps most evident are the policies focused on immigration, both in terms of the United States’ openness to immigrants and how it treats those who illegally try to enter the country. This began as a focus broadly among Republicans to roll back the extent of immigration. It quickly devolved under Trump into demonizing immigrants, as well as potential immigrants, and creating family policies for those who try to immigrate that we know are harmful. Trump has reached back into the collective unconscious of many to stoke old prejudices. The administration has moved forward policies such as separating children from parents when people are found to have immigrated illegally, again here violating well-demonstrated principles of family science, in this case about parent–child attachment (Diamond, Russon, & Levy, 2016). Such inhumane behavior ignores the solid base in social science for how an enlightened nation might deal with such issues. Our colleagues who work with immigrant families regularly now report very high rates of anxiety, depression, and traumatic stress in these immigrants that go well beyond what is typical in the difficult experiences of those who immigrate without proper papers (Parra-Cardona et al., 2016). Given these policies, even those who immigrate legally often become subject to these harmful tactics. For generations, those in oppressed countries envisioned there was somewhere to which they might escape, even if that was a long shot. Today, America no longer beckons, it chides.
Closely related here is the active further generation of racism and prejudice. The United States has always been challenged when it comes to issues of race and class, but over the decades there was progress. Trump’s focus on immigration is not color blind. It focuses on those from certain countries where people are likely to be darker in skin tone, and Latinx or Muslim, and he readily names many times over those people who he derogates. This prejudice extends well beyond immigration to noteworthy occasions where he has embraced those who state intolerance as their credo. The product is that those in minority families in the United States are exposed to further marginalization, both directly from the president and less directly from those who have now been given permission to be openly derogative in the community.
In healthcare, Trump has led a regressive movement to roll back the health coverage of millions of Americans. When Congress would not go along with repeal of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), Trump used the president’s executive authority to significantly undermine the success of the program in enrollment and financial stability. This leaves millions with no healthcare or inadequate coverage. In mental healthcare, Trump has similarly moved to reduce responsiveness to mental health problems. Furthermore, in his personal tweets and statements, he has shown a cruelty to those who have impairments and disabilities that are unprecedented for someone in his position. And the rule-governed, civil behavior modeled over the years in dealing with mental disorders has substantially eroded in the wake of Trump’s modeling.
The United States faces a great problem in economic inequality, yet the Trump policies have sought to widen that inequality. Actions taken against those below the poverty level have been particularly draconian. When monies are saved, those monies almost always now come from diminishing programs to help those who are poor. Again, here family science tells us that endless problems ensue when family financial stress is too great, yet this evidence is ignored.
Gun violence is a plague in the United States, yet one which Trump and the National Rifle Association have actively spread. Even in the wake of multiple mass murders, Trump shows no concern about the availability of such methods of mass destruction and works to actively block legislation that might rein in access to such weapons. The result is that there certainly will be more such killings that will continue unabated.
There is no program to improve the environment. Much of his influence here again lies in moving to undo gains made in earlier administrations. In so doing, it will take decades to restore even the limited regulation of the environment that had developed. Here, the United States stands alone as the rest of the world moves to a greater appreciation of humanity’s impact on the environment.
Education, as we know it, also is under siege. Although there is substantial evidence that education has massive benefits, both in economics and social welfare, Trump’s policies actively undermine the United States’ public-school system. Further, to the extent that education can be helpful in leveling multigenerational differences in families’ financial wellbeing, this administration’s policies have actively worked to ensure that differences in education will increase across those in different social strata.
Human and reproductive rights also are under attack. Whatever one thinks about the debate about abortion, the ready availability of birth control provides a solution that would limit the need for abortion. Yet, the Trump administration does what it can to interfere with that availability. And given the opportunity, they surely would roll back the right to seek an abortion, much as is now evident in the difficulty obtaining this service in many states in the United States. More generally, Trump’s personal way of interfacing with women and his policies related to gender again push an unprecedented regression of sexism in our time.
And the rights of diverse family forms are under attack as well. The recent recognition of gay marriage faces serious challenges. Ironically, Donald Trump himself is the exemplar of a certain kind of lived, 21st century family life, with three wives, children from each marriage, and endless other liaisons. Following his behavior, one would think he would be the great advocate in the spirit of Hugh Hefner for benign mutual acceptance and polyamory (albeit with a highly gendered version of those behaviors). Instead, we have the example of a lived life of impulsive narcissistic choices, combined with a message that is highly judgmental about behaviors of others. It is no accident that Donald Trump personally lived in the zone of high-conflict divorce for substantial amounts of time in his adult life. He has brought the worst tactics of difficult divorce to being the chief executive (Emery & Dinescu, 2016).
This returns us to our starting point. Donald Trump shows us a life in which he pays little attention to family values and to the thoughts, emotions, and behavior patterns that have been shown to be helpful to successful family life. His personal ways and policies work in a recursive, systemic loop where personal and policy mutually move away from what we know serve family health and resilience. Thus, we have a model to the world of dishonesty, lack of empathy, and John Gottman’s four horsemen of problematic relating: contempt, criticism, stonewalling, and defensiveness (Gottman & Gottman, 2015). This model unfortunately has repercussions directly in its effects and indirectly in its influence on others who feel they are given permission to engage in primal, destructive behavior. Thus, there are both policy and personal ramifications of the Trump presidency for everyone. Furthermore, it is a time in which Trump-like totalitarian leaders have come to dominate other countries, such as Turkey, Hungary, and Russia. It is a scary time for human rights and the rule of law.
Family therapy and family scholarship have a strong and long-standing tradition of sustaining a foundation in social justice (D’Arrigo-Patrick, Hoff, Knudson-Martin, & Tuttle, 2017; Doherty, 2013; McGoldrick & Hardy, 2008; Sluzki, 2017; Watts-Jones, 2010). Family scholars are now beginning to study the impact of Trump policies on families, documenting the short- and long-term effects.1 Hopefully, such scholarship will ultimately impact on public policy. Organizations such as the American Family Therapy Academy have taken active stances in opposition to Trump policies and developed partnerships with local organizations to try to mitigate the effects of policies such as the stance toward immi- gration. In the clinical setting, family therapists now frequently encounter families struggling in relation to one or more of Trump administration policies. In particular, they have been helpful in the recent onslaught on immigrant families in offering some small degree of support to mitigate the damage. Another now too frequent therapist experience is to find families, couples, and individuals strongly affected and traumatized by the unleashing of these regressive forces modeled by the behavior of the chief executive. Never have so many clients brought politics into the therapy session. Then there are those very special splintering families, where there are those for and those against Trump. There probably is no parallel in my 70-year lifetime where division over politics has meant so much to so many.
Our editorial advisor Bill Doherty holds meetings to bring Trump followers and those against Trump together in conversation. Perhaps these efforts may have some impact. Perhaps the next election will make a difference. Certainly, it is a time for a call to action to find ways of being that are the antithesis of Trump, marshalling reason, science, emotion, and political action against the Trump policies as well as finding whatever ways there are to mitigate their negative effects.
Still, for now, it is the worst of times and the worst of times.
1 I would venture if these policies were presented as a social experiment evaluated in a randomized clinical trial that clinical trial would have been stopped long ago given the obvious deleterious impact in so many ways on so many people.
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*Editor, Family Process, and The Family Insitute at Northwestern, Evanston, IL.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Jay L. Lebow, Family Institute at North- western, 618 Library Place, Evanston, IL 60201. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Family Process, Vol. 57, No. 3, 2018 © 2018 Family Process Institute