Trump and Trauma
by Peter Pitzele
For the past few days the phrases “wretched refuse” and “yearning to breathe free” have been circling in my brain. The words come from Emma Lazarus’ sonnet “The New Colossus,” which celebrate the meaning of the Statue of Liberty. The entire set of lines in which my nagging phrases are embedded goes:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
At the same time, I have been listening to shocked and sickened friends, listening to what seemed to me in tone and content, in “style” if you will, a kind of emotional language that, like Lazarus’ lines, keeps nagging at me. What am I hearing?
Today the riddle seemed to find an answer: The ‘huddled masses,” the “wretched refuse,” the homeless” and “the tempest-tossed” refer, of course, to many of the immigrants who came to America all through the last century and on into this. One common denominator for many is that they came fleeing terror, destruction, civil war, the threats of imprisonment, of pogrom, extinction, starvation, etc. Many of these refugees who have come to America, as well as their children and grandchildren, bear the wounds of tyranny. Or, to put it differently, they come here having been traumatized by various forms of persecution, by having the breath squeezed out of them by homelessness, repression, and danger.
I see trauma as one of the founding conditions of America and for its succeeding generations. For those who have come in trauma searching for a country in which to heal (to “breathe free”), the prospect of Donald Trump could trigger something like PTSD, flashbacks, chills, sickness, terror, and a whole range of terrible reality distortions that threaten sanity.
This insight—Trump as trigger for the dis-orderings of horror and trauma, for the rekindling of the nightmare of history—helps me reach a greater degree of empathy for those whose alarm and outrage might otherwise seem excessive, especially in the light of the fact that the man has yet to take office. At certain levels of intensity, fear or rage at his character and behavior have paralyzed action or made it difficult for people to rest or find continuity in their normal lives. In such instances, I can imagine traumas ranging from the personal and domestic to the ethnic and the racial are being relived. There is a way that Trump as a figure—thug, molester, bully, demagogue—is making certain Americans crazy. For some, might that madness arise from the nightmarish fact that he is the face of menace, the purveyor of those very terrors that “the huddled masses,” the “wretched,” have come to this shore to escape?
As elders, we are particularly challenged in this moment to model responses—from right caring to right action—to the blinding forces of fear that are loosed among us and among the generations that will follow.
Peter Pitzele, Ph.D. (born in 1941) is best known as the pioneer and developer of Bibliodrama, an experiential methodology in which the resources of improvisational theater are applied to biblical narratives from both the first and second testaments. He has taught widely in this country and in Europe.