This is what psychologist Sue Grand calls the type of psychological disturbance spreading across America and the world right now. It’s happened before, of course, and has been called by other names like “social hysteria,” and “group delirium.” However named, such episodes are examples of acute mass psychoses typified by heightened emotionality, impulsivity, and extroversion, such as we all witnessed on January 6th during the riot at our nation’s capital.
America used to assign such behavior to undeveloped or primitive societies, believing itself too sophisticated and highly evolved to be subject to various sorts of magical thinking or madness, but the image of a nearly naked, tattooed man wearing horns and hooting from the dais in the chambers of the House of Representatives while a enraged mob chanting “hang Mike Pence” trashed the building, effectively put that myth to bed.
Sociologists suggest such episodes are triggered by too rapid cultural change: sudden transformations of social hierarchies, newly emergent sexual or gender-related trends, and accelerated technological innovation and its consequent occupational dislocations. All these are happening right now, without doubt, plus fear and uncertainty unleashed by the global Covid pandemic. In these circumstances, psychologically vulnerable people are prone to rumors, conspiracy theories, scapegoating, and all sorts of delusional ideas in their attempts to establish causality and impose order upon what feels like chaos. How else can we explain House Member Margery Taylor Green blaming Jewish Space Lasers or public gatherings of crowds of people who honestly believe that JFK is still alive and will soon return?
Is it something about society that creates this unstable condition, or does the unstable condition create society? It’s a difficult question to answer, kind of a “chicken or egg” situation. Trump’s madness seems to have spread all on its own, like an infection, and has changed not just the Republican Party, but an entire swath of American society. Undoubtedly, social conditions affected the young Donald Trump: a cruel father, a cold mother, the death of his brother. How is it possible that his mental disturbance has so vastly influenced our country, however?
Some speculate that our modern, industrialized, and highly urbanized society is driving us crazy. Psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist notes studies that indicate “mental health is better in rural than non-rural populations and deteriorates in tandem with population density.” That does not explain, however, why the generally more rural “Red” states are where Trump’s malignant dissociative contagion has spread most effectively.
Modernism, and its progeny post-modernism, has undoubtedly affected mental health. Modern scientific thought and its reductionist tendency to fragment reality into parts and tie each part to causality, has itself disrupted human confidence in unity of being. We obsessively search for who and what to blame. Post-modern thought further disrupted our mental composure by bringing into question confidence in thought itself. Add to these the acceleration of technological change and the rapid rate at which ideas, occupations and objects become obsolete and a perfect storm of psychic instability is created.
History tells us that these episodes of social hysteria run their course. Until they do, however, life can get pretty hairy as the craziness unfolds. For those of us who are able, maintaining composure requires a combination of prudence and acceptance. It’s prudent to stay informed by relying upon responsible sources, as is steering clear of obvious madness, this while accepting we’re in an episode of acute mass psychoses.