There are moments in our lives that make us think about the end. I have two on my mind. First, sometime in my pre-teens, while racing my bicycle down the block with friends, pedaling way too fast, I slammed the bike straight into a car at an intersection, fell off, and hit the ground hard. Not much was bruised aside from my ego, but in that instant an alternate reality flashed before me. Later on, in my early 20s, while walking home in the winter, I tried to maneuver around a mattress blocking my path and instead slid on some ice, tripped over the mattress and hit my head hard on the concrete stairs in front of me. I heard a loud thud through my headphones and panicked. After texting a friend, who told me not to fall asleep, I rushed to the hospital for an MRI. Both times I was perfectly fine.
The actuality of death is felt at specific points: being involved in an accident or averting one, seeing the dead body of someone familiar, experiencing celebrity death collectively. Someday we’re going to die. And we all wonder what it’s like, in continuum. Naturally, I’ve weighed various permutations of how it might happen, and how people around me might go, largely viewing death as the body easing into a state of failure. I’ve been under anesthesia twice and twice it felt like nothing. You’re conscious and then you’re not, and then you return. My anxiety about flying is directly related to an intense fear of crashing and dying, despite knowing the odds. Death thoughts defy probability and yet, consistently, it doesn’t matter.
I can pinpoint Trump’s election as an event that made these dark thoughts more visceral. The running joke is that a Trump presidency means certain death, which even shows up in the way he speaks, routinely and vaguely spooking the public about “terrible” “things.” The cause for concern was immediate the day after the election—the results of which many processed like a funeral—when faced with a president whose desire to posture, among other things, consistently overrides better judgment.
My fear of adverse effects of Trump’s presidency, compounded by the general threat of aging and the reality of losing people, has made me strangely conscious of mortality, an addendum to the sting of dread ever-present for black people in this country. A legitimate concern subconsciously replays in my mind, and maybe yours, is that the policies Trump’s administration enact will lead to more people dying, short-term and long-term and, metaphorically, as pieces of us wither as well. Melodramatic national conversations about the End Times only deepen the feeling of dread.
As humans, we’re constantly at odds with the prospect of no future. That background noise in our brain has no doubt become louder, though not necessarily deafening. When I brought up the idea of Trump and death thoughts, my co-workers expressed similar anxiety. “I was trying to flirt with someone recently and I ended up talking about how we’re gonna get nuked,” one staffer recalled. Another suggested, “Trump feels more like we are all going to die imminently.” Stories about death and revolution feel strange, too. Embarrassingly, the end of Star Wars: Rogue One made me cry, as did the finale of Westworld, because it’s weird to see revolution play out like a dream.
After the election, various outlets wrote about pervasive “post-election stress” or “post-election blues,” which might as well now be a long-term ailment. There’s a reason Ava DuVernay says she’s “dreading” the moment Trump is sworn in, or that intelligence officials admitted to “dread” over Trump’s presidency. In a December 2016 article about national “unprecedented dread,” published in The Los Angeles Times, David Horsey writes:
“People are mourning because the fate of their country will now be in the hands of an intellectually uninterested, reckless, mendacious narcissist...No one—certainly no Republican—contemplated such a scenario when Reagan was elected, or when George H.W. Bush or his son took office. Nobody thought a victory by Sen. John McCain in 2008 or Mitt Romney in 2012 would have threatened democracy. This time that concern is widespread and far from irrational, given Trump’s words, actions and erratic, bullying temperament.”
The idea that Trump—a physical manifestation of fear in many ways, a symbol of destruction in others—is linked with thoughts of death makes absolute sense. Both he and death breed feelings of uncertainty and thoughts of the unexpected. Depending on your degree of belief in religion and the afterlife, and how comfortable you are with the unknown, your view of death will change. In a May 2016 Psychology Today article about death anxiety, clinical psychologist Stephen A. Diamond wrote:
Existentially speaking, death is a symbol par excellence of non-being or non-existence, and, therefore, death anxiety can be understood, in Kierkegaard’s words, as the “fear of nothingness.” Death is understood by many Americans as a dead end, not a doorway. For Westerners, in particular those that take a more secular, rationalistic, scientific view of the world, death is by far the greatest evil to befall us, our most feared and despised foe.
Diamond (who also wrote “Should Psychology Play Some Part in Presidential Politics?”) describes the fear of the unknown:
Death, despite what science tells us, remains the great unknown. And humans carry deep within them a powerful primal fear of the unknown. What happens after death? No one really knows. But the burgeoning public fascination with television programs on the supernatural, ghosts, spirits, demons and the demonic, and with individuals who claim to be able to communicate with and speak for the dead indicates our innate need to deny the finality of death and to try to make meaning of it.
An anonymous senior national security official echoed these sentiments but about Trump, in a November 2016 Washington Post piece. “We don’t know what he’s really like under all the talk,” said the official. “How will that play out over the next four years or even the next few months?...I’m half dreading, half holding my breath going to work today.”
Speaking to me by phone, Dr. Diamond brings up the work of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, as he did in the death anxiety article. “Fundamentally, the unknown is certainly a factor that provokes some anxiety and even dread. Kierkegaard, when he wrote about anxiety, he actually used the term ‘dread,’” says Diamond. “When you have someone in power who could potentially abuse their power, could potentially get angry and retaliate against somebody, another foreign entity, that brings the reality of the possibility of death to the surface. It tweaks it and makes it more real, more conscious in a way. Certainly, that may be part of what’s going on for some people in terms of the fear of war, getting into some kind of situation that could be catastrophic.”
The anxiety felt on Election Day has steadily evolved, as the theoretical fallout of Trump’s rhetoric spreads—and as he continues to send ill-advised tweets. On January 2, he tweeted: “North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won’t happen!” Never has a president had and used such a weapon as social media in this way, yet another uncertainty. (It doesn’t help that Trump has yet to confirm officials for the National Nuclear Security Administration, which handles the country’s nuclear arsenal and thus manages safety.)
Trump’s unpredictable nature is innately troubling, as psychologist Dan P. McAdams concluded in a June 2016 article for The Atlantic:
“Who, really, is Donald Trump? What’s behind the actor’s mask? I can discern little more than narcissistic motivations and a complementary personal narrative about winning at any cost. It is as if Trump has invested so much of himself in developing and refining his socially dominant role that he has nothing left over to create a meaningful story for his life, or for the nation. It is always Donald Trump playing Donald Trump, fighting to win, but never knowing why.”
There are many ways we could meet our demise, but the threat of nuclear warfare has crossed my mind many times, a set of doomsday thoughts that really isn’t anything new. Similar to today’s articles citing “dread,” the lede for a January 1946 article about atomic bombs in The New York Times did the same: “That black cloud on the horizon so much bigger than a man’s hand is called the atom bomb. The destructive powers of the storm it can loose upon us are so great that civilization, already racked by so many torments, trembles in apprehension. The world now knows a fretful and uneasy peace, but men still live in the shadow of fear and their sleep is haunted by dreadful dreams.” Just as fear of Zika or Ebola existed, so did fear of yellow fever, and just as fear of warfare looms, so did Cold War anxiety, the knowledge of which doesn’t provide much comfort.
To a large group of Americans, those who chose to elect Trump, he’s the antithesis of dread. It’s possible that their anxiety was cured by this changing of the guards. But to those who strongly oppose his views Trump is visibly deficient and uncertain even of himself and perhaps that is, at the core, what scares us in the way that bad parenting feels like a constant threat to our security. (The uncertainty of walking down the street with Trump holding my hand feels considerably less safe than walking with Barack Obama.) “It’s easy to feel totally disempowered in the same way that a child feels dealing with a parent like that,” says Diamond, when I ask about the idea of Trump as a bad parent. “Part of it is a kind of victimhood, feeling like a victim of all this. To some extent, one is a victim, let’s say, as a child when you’re born into a family with dysfunctional parents. Those people who didn’t vote for Donald Trump feel victimized because this is not their choice and now there’s nothing that they can do about it. That feeling of powerlessness, I think that’s a lot of the doom and gloom part of it. Just feeling like there’s no hope, feeling despair about the future.”
There are white people who have melodramatically worn their victimization, forgetting that in the midst of their despair, it’s the minorities who are most at risk under Trump’s presidency, and that many have worn such dread for some time. Diamond adds, “As a collective, the American people are responsible for putting him in office and we have to take some responsibility for that.”
What is the healthy line between dread and optimism? What good does being anxious do? Obsessing seems prudent, but also masochistic. I’ve scrutinized each of Trump’s appointments since he was elected, with each conservative figure he nominated possessing deeply destructive philosophies that appear to edge us closer to finality, be it through some effect of climate change, from antagonizing a world leader, having no access to abortion or just our leaders’ plain inefficacy. As Masha Gessen suggests, it’s our duty to reject the normalization of Trump and hold onto these feelings of dread. “The thing to do—and this is my recipe—is to continue panicking,” she told Samantha Bee. “To continue being the hysteric in the room, to say ‘this is not normal.’” Because that is the nature of pain and change.
Frequently considering death at large could feel better than obsessing about it in our personal lives, if equally irrational. There’s nothing to do either way but remain stubbornly optimistic, aware that life and death exist in tandem, and so it goes.
“The existential fact of life is that the possibility and inevitability of death is always present. We try not think about it, but it’s always rumbling underneath,” says Diamond. “I don’t know if it’s a matter of trying to go back into a state of denial about it. We need to really confront the facts of life and to learn how to live with them. To acknowledge the reality of death, to confront our own mortality in particular, can actually help you to appreciate being alive more. We don’t have time to waste in a sense. Life is something that can be taken from us anytime in a thousand different ways.”