The Presidential Debate Was Triggering For Me, But That’s What Trump Supporters Want
I turned off the presidential debate after 20 minutes, then I felt anxiety pour over me in a way I hadn’t felt since COVID-19 began unraveling society back in March. I sat on the floor, trying to prevent myself from hyperventilating as I controlled my breathing and calmed myself down, I felt my throat choke up and my face fight back tears. I let them loose and cried, for about ten minutes, just cried.
I know it seems like an overreaction to a debate. It did to me too. Once I gained composure, I did what my Reiki healer, the Rev. Joanne Angel Barry Colon, taught me to do. I meditated. I called upon my higher self to find out what caused me to break down like that and worked to heal it.
I had been triggered. That word that anti-PC folks and right wingers like to mock people for. Triggering seems like a joke to most people – the result of someone who isn’t strong enough emotionally or mentally to handle attacks or criticism, overreacting to an event or words in an overwrought way – but triggering is a real phenomenon where unhealed trauma and pain is reignited by someone’s actions or words. It can happen to anyone. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, for example, is a form of “triggering.”
The first 20 minutes of the debate last night – the rude, taunting behavior of Donald Trump, Joe Biden’s struggle for composure and moderator Chris Wallace’s exasperation in trying to control the situation, brought back traumatic memories for me. What I was witnessing wasn’t a debate – it was a livestream of a bully being a bully. I was back in grade school again.
My higher self called up a situation when I was in the sixth grade. I had to give an oral report, which I loathed to do. I was nervous about it for days. I had considered faking sick to get out of it, but I knew I’d only be delaying the inevitable. I had to go up there and give the report eventually.
So I put on my school uniform, went to class and when called on, got up and began my report. Every few sentences, Anthony, Mike and Frank, three bullies who regularly tormented me, would interrupt me by calling me names, making fart noises or mocking my voice. I remember standing there feeling so defeated; not about being heckled necessarily, rather the fact that the rest of class, even people whom I thought were my friends, laughed along or even joined in. I felt as if every laugh only made the three of them more resolute in mocking me more. My teacher sat at her desk and passively told the boys to stop, but in a way that seemed to imply she was just saying it because she had to, not because she meant it. There were no consequences except another sternly-worded rebuke with no follow up.
As I struggled through my presentation, I thought about my options. I could go up to each of the them and punch them in the face, but that would get me in trouble and inspire backlash. I could run out of the room, but that would make me look weak and the teacher would make me come back and carry on anyway. I did the only thing I could do in that moment – ignore it and carry on and hope I don’t snap. I didn’t do nearly as well as I could have and ended up getting a B on the project (Pro Tip: Bullying hurts kids’ academic performance).
I was brought back to that moment watching Biden put up with Donald Trump’s heckling during the debate. There were no good options for Biden either. He couldn’t clock Trump in the face. He couldn’t walk off the stage. Chris Wallace wasn’t enforcing the rules. I’m not sure he had any way to. The closest Biden got to standing up to him was when he told Trump to “shut up,” which was a cathartic moment for many of us, but also exactly the reaction Trump wanted.
And that’s exactly what makes all this so hard. I wasn’t going to write anything about this and I hesitated to use the world “triggered,” because I know there are Trump supporters out there reading this who are laughing right now. I know they’re mocking me for this. They’re reading this and thinking “haha cry harder lib” and enjoying my pain.
They’re broken people. I don’t know what broke them or how they got like that, but they are broken people. I sincerely hope they get the help they need and they find some peace in their life, because their brokenness is now affecting millions of Americans negatively. When I think of the damage they have inflicted on our society because of how broken they are and how they’re unable to see it or feel it, it sometimes fills me with rage, but it mostly just fills me with sadness. It didn’t have to be like this. It’s comforting sometimes to realize that everything about them is projection. They are the real snowflakes, the real triggered people. But that really only makes it worse. They’re even more broken than me, except unlike me, they don’t recognize it and try to heal it; they channel it in damaging, dangerous ways, and we’re all paying for that.
Bully Culture is a social problem that I feel like we only pay lip service to. We recognize the problem, we diagnose where it exists, but we don’t actually dig for a real solution, instead opting for whatever solution sounds the most like the ending of a Hollywood move. “Stand up for yourself,” “Fight back” “Don’t let it go to you” are all nice storybook endings for dealing with bullies, but when you’re a nerdy, slightly effeminate, chubby kid in a Queens, New York parochial school in the 1990s, none of that works. Throwing Frank down a flight of stairs once didn’t work. I got detention, which I had to serve WITH him and the detention room turned into a UFC octagon real fast. Standing up for myself to Anthony when he threw a baseball at my crotch didn’t work. He threatened to bring a switchblade to school and slice my neck open. I lived in fear for weeks that he would. He didn’t, but probably because as a precaution, his backpack and pockets were checked everyday at the urging of my mother. What if she didn’t have the influence in the school that she did? Would I have been murdered in the schoolyard by a bully who couldn’t handle being stood up to?
I once sat in the principal’s office, being told that everything I did to stand up to bullies was wrong. A good Christian man doesn’t throw a punch, a good Christian man doesn’t tell a bully he’s “stupid” or he’s “just mad because his parents don’t love him;” all stuff I said back to bullies. I couldn’t get an answer from anyone on what the “right” way to stand up to bullies was. I honestly don’t know how I survived all those years now. I was at times suicidal and thought about running away to relatives in Colorado and Illinois several times. It’s a testament to how much stronger I am than I realize that I got through it.
Anthony, Frank and Mike did eventually stop bullying me. In the final months of eighth grade, Mike actually became much more friendly. Until last night I didn’t consider why, but then it hit me. After telling me one time I should become a priest “because no person would ever want to marry a troll,” a classmate of mine, Jamie, stood up and looked him in the face.
“Mike,” she said. “Do you ever wipe your ass because it smells like you don’t.”
He never bothered me again. (Mike had bad hygiene and was very self-confident about it)
In my first year of high school, I didn’t make friends fast, but when I did, I had a rather large group of (mostly female) friends. Jonathan thought it was a sign that I might also secretly be a girl, which, of course, is a bad thing to a lot of insecure men. For several months in Freshman year, he tried to torment me, using homophobic and transphobic slurs against me. It was only after Grace, then Linda, then his own sister Cristina, told him to “grow up,” “get a life,” “stop being a jerk” that he finally stopped. His bullying wasn’t getting him attention, he wasn’t getting support from classmates. He was being starved of the fuel he needed to bully.
And that’s the lesson I learned: Standing there in front of my class; with Jamie in eighth grade and with Grace, Linda and Cristina in high school. The only way to beat a bully is to starve him or her of the attention he or she seeks, and the support and power they crave. Sometimes standing up to them does that, because it exposes the bully as weak and unable to intimidate, and people aren’t drawn to someone who doesn’t seem to have power. More often, however, the power for a bully to do what he or she does lies in the hands of not the bullied, but third parties – us. It is up to US to defend and protect the victims of bullying, and to make it clear to a bully that his or her behavior will only make him or her more isolated, not more popular.
Trump has his power, he’s the president, and he has his support; thousands still risk death to see him bully people at rallies. It’s why Don Bongino called Trump an “apex predator” on Fox News last night. Keeping up the façade the minds of voters that Trump is strong, powerful and in charge will hopefully keep his steady supply of fuel in place. Like my classmates laughing and encouraging the bullying taunts in junior high school, Trump supporters voting for him and attending his rallies keeps the bullying tactics alive. Biden couldn’t have done anything and can’t do anything to stop the bullies, except win the election and win it big.
Winning a landslide election, dealing him and his supporters downballot around defeat after defeat, embarrassing loss after embarrassing loss, that is what will end this nightmare and destroy the bully culture we have allowed to ferment in this country.
And we must make it clear, to the people who support him, to the people who cheer him on, that this is unacceptable, even if it ends friendships, relationships and tears apart workplaces and families. We must make it clear that if what they want is attention, this is not the way to get it.
We need to do better.