In one obvious way, Citizen Therapists for Democracy is a response to the election of Donald Trump and the immediate threat to public mental health and American democracy. But in another way it was an idea waiting to be born. What’s different now is the sense of urgency among therapists to go beyond business as usual. Here is the origin story of Citizen Therapists for Democracy, in the words of founder Bill Doherty, with parts adapted from his January 2017 Psychotherapy Networker article “Psychotherapy’s Pilgrimage: Shaping the Consciousness of Our Time.”
Like many therapists, I (Bill) experienced Trump’s election as a kick in the stomach for the field of psychotherapy. In his public persona, he’s the antithesis of what we promote in our work. At a cultural level, he’s the embodiment of the empty Consumer Self. The election laid bare the dysfunction of so many of our institutions and the frayed status of our social fabric. But in a perversely ironic way, the movement that Trump set in motion is forcing the therapy community to examine our own cultural role and our underlying vision of the healthy connection between self and society.
Trump’s ascendancy revealed that a large group of people feel that their society is moving on without them, that they’re not valued anymore, that there’s nothing left for them. They’re deeply alienated, and some feel temporarily more powerful by expressing or excusing expressions of racism and xenophobia and sexism. But Trump---with his rock-star persona (whatever you may think of his “music”), his ability to connect emotionally with people, his achievement of wealth in the consumer culture, his projection of at least the appearance of raw power---has brought them together into a movement, given them a common purpose, forming them into a focused community, with---in their eyes---a real moral and ethical point, which is to “Make America Great Again,” or at least, “Make America The Way It Used To Be Again,” when they themselves counted for something.
It’s clear that multiculturalism in the therapy field has missed this white, working-class group, who are particularly vulnerable because their fall from grace has been so precipitous. Unlike truly poor people and people of color (who’ve always been outliers in American society), the Trump people did count: they were part of respectable, respected, hard-working communities, which saw themselves as America’s backbone. So Trump tells them they still count, that they’ve been betrayed, that they’re part of a great all-American community, dedicated to a great cause, and should rise again. While it’s hard to tolerate a lot of what they say and do when they’re angry and activated by Trump, there’s real pain there, with a belief in a higher purpose. Nostalgia is homesickness, grief for what’s been lost---or, as many seem to believe, stolen, in a world of globalization, immigration, and affirmative action for every group but their own, with the federal government the chief perpetrator and punisher. The kindling was ready for Trump to strike the match, and similar movements are occurring in many of the world’s democracies.
So you could argue that, inadvertently, Trump has issued a challenge to the therapy field, pointed to a new direction therapists need to take. His ascendency is a bugle call that therapists must begin to take seriously, so as to move beyond focusing narrowly on individual mental health problems when the larger social glue is weakening.
At this time of fragmentation and division, we need to recognize that we’re in the glue business. We know something about helping people connect, about how to form a healthy “we” out of self and other. We also know something about how to depolarize conflict. But first we need to find our conviction and passionate intensity as a profession, our belief that we have something to offer to our culture, something that embodies wisdom about what it means to be a citizen of a larger world than our friends and families—a purposeful life that both personal and civic. We need an image of the relational and community self to counteract today’s hyper-individualism, which, because the individual alone is impotent in a mass society, easily falls prey to the tribal loyalties seen in the Trump movement and its siblings in other countries.
I’ve been on a citizen therapist journey since the mid-1990s through my work in the Citizen Professional Center at the University of Minnesota. I’ve been mentored by democratic theorist and activist Harry Boyte, who helped steep me in a tradition goes back to Jane Addams, John Dewey, and Martin Luther King. (King asked Harry to organized low-income Whites during the civil rights era.) Feminist therapists and other social-justice therapists like Ken Hardy have been pushing the public envelope of psychotherapy for decades, so it’s not really new. Maybe what is new is the democracy theme, which assumes that everyone has a stake in the public domain, can be affected the public stress (Trump supporters included), and can be part of the solution through personal action (such as talking about issues in their social network) and collective action (by joining with others to work on change).
The realm of public concerns of clients in today’s world is likely to be far ranging if we invite them to share what’s on their minds and in their hearts. These concerns could include local public schools, community safety, the lack of insurance support for mental health treatment, local police practices, threats to the planet, or the influence of the internet and social media on children. Note that these can cut across traditional liberal and conservative lines, but I predict that one of the main public stresses that therapists will be dealing with now is the Trump presidency: how will we deal with the Trump effect on our clients, and how will we address the larger threat to the public mental health and our democracy? Clearly, we have work to do.
That’s the bigger background story. The immediate context began when Trump became a likely Republican candidate for President. I couldn’t sit still, especially after touring Europe and discovering how therapists remained silent during the rise of Fascism during the 1930s. So I wrote a Citizen Therapist Manifesto Against Trumpism, which attracted over 3,800 signatories, many of whom joined an active Facebook group. We got a lot of media attention where we tried to influence the public dialogue. I saw how distressed and passionate so many of my fellow therapists were.
Then came the election. After being prodded and challenged by my therapist daughter not to aim low or think small (as therapists, including me, have often done), I decided to launch something big and call it Citizen Therapists for Democracy, which I envision as an international association of therapists developing and spreading transformative ways to practice therapy with a public dimension, rebuilding democratic capacity in communities, and resisting antidemocratic ideologies and practices wherever the arise. It’s for therapists who want to find ways to bridge the divide between the personal and the public dimensions of life in the therapy room and the community.
I am confident that we will build something important for our field, our clients, and the larger world. In my 40 plus years in the field, I’ve never seen therapists so fired up and ready to try something new to make a bigger difference. Our world needs what therapists have to offer. We’re connectors, glue makers. We understand the complexity of the human spirit. We know that embracing differences is difficult but life enhancing. If we raise our sights and devote ourselves to learning new “public skills” for the office and community, our profession can contribute to a flourishing democracy, where people can be agents of their own lives and builders of the commonwealth.