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Anger and Self-Radicalization in the Times of Trump

Twitter and the Great Divide

Social Media Under Trump Divides as Much as It Unites

Before 2016, I had very little knowledge of, or interest in, US politics. I’m a middle-aged Canadian woman, and I’ve always lived in Ontario. I’d barely ever expressed an interest in the politics of my own country, let alone those of the US. In my personal experience on political matters before 2016, talking politics was related to screaming matches and racially-charged banter between my father and whomever else would debate him, and it turned me away from politics at a very early age.

I began to take more of an interest in American politics when Barack Obama won the Presidency in 2008. Over the course of his eight years, I grew to respect and admire Obama not only as a leader, public speaker, and motivator, but as a man, husband, and father. I began to have new hope for a racially-divided, gun-loving country that would twice elect an eloquent, charismatic black man to the office of President. Other than that, though, US politics had little effect on me or my life as a Canadian woman.

Hillary Clinton and of course, Donald Trump, changed all of that for me. My keen interest was in watching a country decide between an often maligned, powerful woman who spent a lifetime serving her constituents and her country, and a somehow revered and powerful man who spent a lifetime serving himself at the expense of others. It was both fascinating and frustrating, and my discerning interest quickly developed into an obsession.

At that time, in the interest of trying to understand a country that would propel a man like Donald Trump into a position of possibly becoming the most powerful man in the world, I did two things I'd never done before—I joined Twitter, and I subscribed to CNN. Those two coinciding decisions helped feed my obsession, and my crash course in American political history, civil rights and civil liberties had begun.

I remember how thrilled I was when Hillary became the Democratic nominee early in June of 2016. Six weeks later when Trump secured the Republican nomination, I was shocked. I remember how naive I was back then, when I was first learning about American politics, and thinking there was no way that the Republican party would follow through and secure Trump's nomination.

This was back in the days when there was hope the Republican establishment would hold Trump's divisiveness and chaotic rhetoric in check. This was back in the days when Republican Senator Lindsey Graham tweeted things like, “Donald Trump is not a conservative Republican. He's an opportunist. He's not fit to be President of the United States.(6:25 AM – 17 Feb 2016)

During that summer of 2016 leading up to the general election, as the debates heated up between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, I looked forward to the back-and-forth between them. You couldn’t have asked for two more completely different people to discuss the political issues of the day. Although a part of me feared the worst, I allowed myself to be amused by it all. Trump's true colors would be exposed… he would go down in flames… and a woman would become President. Trump would retreat into the darkness as cockroaches do, and all would go back to normal.

I was determined to remain optimistic, if only cautiously so. Between the news of Bill Cosby's alleged predatory behavior in December 2015 and his resulting mistrial, and the six-month sentencing of the Stanford Rapist in June 2016, a terrible, unsettling thought began to loom in the back of my mind. “There's no way that Trump can actually win, is there?” And this is when my obsession with Twitter and watching cable news began to grow into an all-consuming, dangerous addiction.

By the time election night arrived on November 8 of 2016, I was fully ensconced in the world of American politics. My days largely revolved around spending early mornings watching CNN and scrolling Twitter, simply to get as much information as I could before I had to start my day with my family and go to work. I was unknowingly intent on feeding into my anger and frustration, and it became a vicious cycle that I couldn’t bring to a stop. I was growing more anxious and angrier by the day. It was the start of my downfall, my rock bottom. I allowed my anger to turn into hatred, then to develop into self-radicalization, simply because I had no adequate outlet for it or experience dealing with it.

I try not to internalize the emotional gamut I put myself through watching the returns come in on election night. I was downright giddy that a woman was going to become the US President. When Trump won Florida, you could start to sense the worry, and to revisit that nagging feeling that he had a chance to win. It was the most surreal, numbing, unbelievable feeling of shock and disbelief. I didn't sleep much that night. A lot of us didn't sleep much that night. I couldn't function, and my head was spinning. It was like all your worst fears coming true at the same time.

At the height of my obsession in the spring and summer of 2017, I was on Twitter constantly and I was averaging five to six hours a day watching CNN and MSNBC. And that’s being conservative in my assessment. My husband would probably say it was more like seven to eight, especially on days when I wasn’t working. I was clearly obsessed.

I didn't realize until much later, almost too late, that I was choosing to start my day, every day, by filling myself with all that negativity. When I joined Twitter in the summer of 2016 to keep tabs on Trump and what he was doing, I never would have foreseen that it would become the tool that would help lead me down that slow path into self-radicalization. It was a year strife with frustration, a year spent facing my demons, and a year wasted filling my emotional void with all things negative and very little positive. I gained, on average, about a pound and a half a month.

As time passed, I found that I was becoming overwhelmed by basic tasks. I was overly emotional all the time, and I realized that my outbursts of uncontrolled crying were, in fact, panic attacks. Driving on the highway became a herculean task on its own. I avoided trips home to visit family because the weekend trips were too exhausting and difficult, and the prospect of political debates with my father were just too much to handle. I was short on patience, and I felt completely lethargic all the time.

On important news days when it seemed that Trump was going to finally get his comeuppance, days like when Sally Yates was testifying before Congress, or on July 19, 2017 when James Comey testified, work became unimportant. I was only working part-time then, but I needed to witness, in real time, Trump’s downfall. But then, nothing would happen, and my frustration would grow. It was deflating. It became clear that if anything was ever going to happen, if Trump was ever going to pay a price for his misdeeds, that it was a long way off in the future.

The more anger and frustration I felt, the more reliant on Twitter I became. I was obsessed with gaining more followers, and with finding people to follow who were like-minded. Resisters, anti-Trumpsters, anyone who saw what I did and saw the danger of this horrid man. I needed to feel like I wasn’t crazy and alone in my feelings, and every new follower I gained, every new resister that I followed, helped ease my angst.

Trump was all I was talking and thinking about, to the detriment of my loving husband and daughter. Unfortunately for them, it was my sole focus and interest at that time. There was no room in my heart and mind for anything else.

More than once, I was in such an emotional state that I had to quit my addictions. I would unsubscribe from CNN and MSNBC. I would deactivate my Twitter account. I would take a sabbatical from Facebook. I couldn’t have any direct exposure to the news or social media. I would go cold turkey, but it would never last for long.

Eventually I would get back on the crazy train, vowing to not let myself become addicted again. As addicts often do, I convinced myself that I could feed myself just a little bit of Trump news and be okay. I wouldn’t let myself become a full-blown radical again. Of course, I was wrong; addicts can be so delusional. Going cold turkey has only ever worked once for me, and that was the day I decided to quit using cocaine and smoking crack. Somehow, those addictions were easy to break in comparison.

If a politically-clueless Canadian girl like me could feel so emotionally impacted by the outcome of a US Presidential election that saw Hillary defeated by Trump, I can only imagine what so many Americans were going through, both women and men. Regardless of race, gender, social status or sexual orientation, my solidarity is with anyone even remotely living on the left side of the scale of decency and justice.

I have learned one valuable, soul-saving thing through this whole Twitter experience though, and that is this—I am not alone. From my animosity towards Trump and the danger I am convinced he poses to the safety of our planet, to the harassing and abusive behavior I have endured throughout my life out of fear, I am not alone. We can take back our personal power, each one of us, in some small way. Maybe we can’t change the world as individuals, but we can change ourselves, change our thoughts and actions, and change our perspectives. We can bring about change in that way, collectively. We must all work together, united, for true change to happen. I hope we are up for the task.

We may not be as loud or politically powerful as those living on the right, but our strength is in our numbers, our sense of decency, and in the size of our hearts. We are united by our commonality, our unified vision of fairness, and our desire for equality for our children’s futures. The growing resistance and outspoken vocalization by the left provides a calming comfort in this troubling political climate, and without like-minded folks to follow on Twitter, my hope would have been defeated long before now. I am thankful for every one of the great people I follow on Twitter, and for every one of them who follows me back. I would like to thank each of them individually for the sanity they provide. It would be a much darker place without them.

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