What’s Gone Wrong with the American Mind?

Cover Image for What’s Gone Wrong with the American Mind?
Bryant Welch, JD, PhD
Bryant Welch, JD, PhD

What is going on in America?

The American mind itself is in peril, and it has been for the last few decades. The now decades long deterioration in mental functioning that I and others have been writing about has been ignored, and its snowballing effects have only gathered steam.

Our reckless indifference to the environment is nothing compared to our ignorance of what is happening inside our very minds themselves. Donald Trump has not been the cause of this. He is merely opportunistic. The causes preceded him. But the widespread support for his behavior illuminates how chillingly late the hour is for the American mind.

We have understandably made a national pastime of describing Donald Trump’s mind. In truth, however, there is only one thing we need to recognize and appreciate about Trump. The human mind moves on a continuum between self-awareness and self-absorption. The Donald personifies the latter. Everything he does is in the service of an inner internal state of pleasure he experiences within himself. Be it a cheeseburger, a “porn star,” bullying a person with a disability, or pursing his lips in Neanderthal style, he is a walking celebration of human existence when dipped fully in the sauce of primitive, very primitive, self-indulgences. Reality be damned.

Trump’s gift to the American mind is that he is offering this very same exalted inner experience to us. And many among us, because of their own deteriorated, sagging psychological state, are loving it and very grateful to him for it. It appears to them to be the best plate they have been offered in years.

At present, Trump has forty percent of the electorate that is holding frighteningly steady in their support of him despite the parade of the horribles that has been his Presidency: our direct awareness of the porn-star with whom he had sex, his turning the post of national security adviser over to a Russian agent, and his torture of immigrant children by tearing them away from their parents. Fie on goodness, fie? The forty percent is battle tested and sworn. If they have not left yet, they are not going anywhere.

To be re-elected, with forty percent of the electorate already solidly behind him, something no other candidate can claim, Trump needs to convince just one in six of the remaining people in America to hate Elizabeth Warren, Corey Booker, Kamala Harris, or Joe Biden, whoever the Democrats ultimately nominate, more than they hate Donald Trump. For the now very, very experienced Republican attack machine that will not be a very daunting task.

And to make it all even easier, Trump will be courting some increasingly enfeebled minds. The human mind, for all its marvelous features, is limited. For millions of Americans reality testing, being aware of reality itself, is now too challenging and causing them to succumb to more primitive, wish-based and temporarily pleasurable self-indulgent mental functioning that Donald Trump offers and encourages with his every action and every swagger.

Why is this? The pace of change in America, including disruptions in stable human connectedness the mind needs for stable functioning, is pushing our adaptive capacity faster than we can assimilate. The pervasive effects of under-recognized psychological trauma undercuts our energy processing capacity and leaves us chronically fearful of what is to befall us next. And political manipulation, targeted to particularly vulnerable areas of psychological functioning such as paranoia, sexual identity, and envy/greed states have all combined to make us psychologically unable to confront the very real problems confronting our country. Instead, our enfeebled, traumatized and badly manipulated minds stand mouth agape waiting to be led astray by any demagogue unprincipled enough and skillful enough to exploit it.

Our minds are failing us and we are failing our minds. It does not have to be this way. Both clinical experience and neuroscience are showing that there is much we can do to stabilize the mind. What we are now appreciating about the regenerative powers of an aware mind is extraordinarily hopeful. But the first thing we have to do is be AWARE of the problem. We need to recognize the problem and focus on it with the same intensity we focused on the Manhattan Project in WWII. The situation now is every bit as dire and possibly more so.

Bryant Welch is a clinical psychologist and attorney from Sausalito, CA and author of his new 2018 edition of State of Confusion: Political Manipulation and the Assault on the American Mind currently available on Amazon.