The practice described as “trigger warning” gets some bad press, and, in many cases, deservedly so. When La Trobe University decided to issue a caution at student union meetings before discussion of potentially “triggering” topics including spiders and slippery food, Andrew Bolt’s column wrote itself. In efforts at inclusion, today’s progressive can tend toward the exclusion of actual progress. If you can elect not to talk about a horrible thing, then the possibilities of you addressing that horrible thing are limited. When the political becomes entirely personalised, you may end up with a steering committee full of nice well-to-do white guys, the only people insufficiently traumatised to discuss social trauma.

The liberal hypocrisy of the “trigger warning” aside, it does have its uses. Like a parental advisory message or a viewers’ caution issued on the news prior to footage from a war zone, it can save people pain. Its absence, for example, before the election of Donald Trump seems to be cause for a minor boom in the US mental health sector. If only Nate Silver had run the numbers differently and offered a psephologist’s trigger warning, there would not now be so many craving the couches that a broken US health system fails to provide.

[What Donald Trump learned from Australian border policy]

Reports of the distress US citizens feel are plenty. I’m sure this pain is real. Folks who can afford to do so are engaging therapists, and celebrities speak of their physical responses to this troubling event. As funny as it is to see a young and self-involved star claim that Trump was the cause of her weight loss, such stories do indicate a true and deep panic. The other day on Facebook, for example, I saw an otherwise rational associate ask others if their nights had been beset by nightmares featuring Trump. Within minutes, she received accounts of dreams sufficient to keep Dr Freud busy for a decade.

We can laugh at America’s counselling culture, now also our culture, but perhaps still see that the middle-class language of “healing” indicates an anxiety that is more widespread. Many Americans, especially people of colour, have reason to be genuinely fearful of a guy likely to produce policies from his own damaged superego.

But, perhaps it’s the fact of Trump’s own apparent lack of self-control that terrifies people across classes. In his failure to conceal his own views, he fails to conceal the character of America.

Trump, let it be plainly said, is a vile toilet of a man and I wish him nothing but critical plumbing problems. But the fact that he is flushing out some uncomfortable truths about the character of his own nation is fascinating, even as it is horrible. When he countered Bill O’Reilly’s description of Putin as a “killer” with, “You think our country is so innocent?”, he was telling the sort of truth for which even a Fox News audience might need a trigger warning. The US is a brutal interventionist power. It has interfered in elections, supported genuinely fascist leaders and, through war and sanctions, taken the lives of millions in the Kissinger tradition. You’re just not supposed to talk about it.

[The Turnbull-Trump phone call transcript]

Iran’s Supreme Leader puts it best, “Trump is showing America’s true face”. If you want to understand this widespread US neurosis, don’t look to snowflake celebrities on the Trump weight-loss plan, but instead to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Donald Trump is a repulsive man, but he is not an aberration in the terms of many of his decisions. His repeated failure in office to conceal the motivations for his actions reveal, in particular, the foreign policy principles that have led the US hegemon for decades.

We can say with some confidence that Trump had little knowledge of international relations before becoming President. This stuff is very new to him, and he’s clearly excited by his Pentagon briefings. Like a first-year student who has just discovered the difference between the realist and liberal schools of thought, he can’t stop talking about the interesting stuff he just learned!  It’s like, “so we’ve been helping kill Yemenis for a while now, and I should maybe just keep doing that?” I surmise that he’s repeating in public a version of what he’s just heard from his teachers in the military.

Trump is neither clever nor chic enough to have quickly become an effective hypocrite. He may gain the skill over time and learn to Obama-ise his language; a little bit less “kill the dangerous Muslims!” and a bit more “this is an important moment of American leadership”. At this instant, however, he is unable to tell the difference between the liberal justification for intervention and the realist, self-interested one. And this is because, often, there is no real difference. It takes a few years at school to justify the death of a Yemeni in apparently moral terms.

You can mourn Obama. You can think of him as a gentle leader whose fondness for drones was completely rational. Those who live in the regions under attack, however, might not care if the justification for the death of a child was liberal or brutal realist. And now many US citizens are faced with a “true face” also yet to learn the difference between those kinds of death. No wonder they need to see a shrink.

Again, Trump is vile etc. The way that he has so quickly diminished rational public speech and accelerated racist attack within his own nation is sickening. But the way in which he has shown the US itself to have a patient history of violence is what, I think, accounts in large part for the terror many citizens feel.

Until the guy learns to apologise for murder in the way previous administrations have done, liberal Americans will keep having nightmares. There should have been a trigger warning. Someone should have told us all to turn away if we did not care to see a true account of America’s brutal foreign policy. Then we could leave the leaders to resume their work of inflicting trauma on the world in peace.

Peter Fray

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