Psychologists Explain Why People Keep Having Trump Nightmares

Whether you worship him as your God-Emperor or hate his guts, it should come as no surprise that a lot of Americans and large swaths of the world are freaking out about America's new president. After the flurry of controversial decisions crammed into his first week in office, exacerbated by a diminishing relationship with the free press, there's growing concern that Trump can and will do irreparable damage to the planet, international relationships, and individual humans' lives.

Anxiety brought about by the Trump presidency has been a frequent topic of conversation in therapist offices around the country since November 9. But what does one do when their waking fears follow them into hours of rest?

From even the early days of his candidacy, people have been reporting a variety of nightmares featuring Donald Trump, with the reality star politician doing everything from attempting to assault them in the manner he described to Billy Bush to simply filling in as their Uber Driver.

Simone Turkington, a woman in Los Angeles who recently dreamed of Trump stalking her around the Magic Castle (a private magician's club of which she is a member) before sexually assaulting her, feels that this sort of dream is a manifestation of her concern over the new president's corruptive power. "If I were to assign meaning to it," she told me, "I would say I would fear he's infiltrating the things I hold dear."  

It's not just Americans who are seeing Trump in their sleep. Andrew Lea, who lives in Leeds, England, reported a scary Trump dream of his own because, as he put it, "the guy is a nightmare worldwide."

I spoke with some medical professionals to try and discern if we're all just being melodramatic babies and crying dumb, liberal tears in our sleep or if something more psychologically concrete is at play here.

Dr. Sue Kolod, a psychologist and psychoanalyst in New York City, told me that Trump dreams are "multi-determined," or coming from a multitude or sources. In particular, these Trump dreams are a mixture of the external factors surrounding the dreamers all day, often called the "day residue," and the dreamer's internal factors like wishes, fears, and conflicts.

"I think we have an unusual and possibly unprecedented situation right now," says Kolod, "where the boundary between what's going on outside and inside the dreamer is getting blurred. One of the things I've heard more recently than I can ever remember is a patient saying, 'I feel like I'm in a nightmare, and I can't wake up.'"

According to Kolod, the majority of her patients complaining of Trump dreams self-identify as belonging to groups unlikely to be directly impacted by worrisome policies enacted by the Trump administration. Though they are less vulnerable, Kolod says these patients may be grappling with moral dilemmas about how far they may be willing or forced to go to stand up for those they consider oppressed at the expense of their own time, money, and comfort. 

Conversely, Kolod indicates that these dreams could indicate feelings of guilt over the dreamers' safe status and potential unwillingness to make sacrifices for causes they know to be important.

"They're experiencing a moral dilemma," says Kolod. "Like how far would I be willing to compromise myself to stay out of anything that I find scary that's happening to other people? How much would I be willing to do something I find morally abhorrent or disgusting in order to protect myself?"

On the other side of the country, in Oakland, California, Dr. Michael B. Donner, a psychoanalyst and clinical and forensic psychologist, thinks many of these Trump dreams have a practical therapeutic purpose for the dreamers.
 
"Freud said that 'dreams protect the sleep' and what he means by that," continues Donner, "is if you can dream about something, you don't have to be awake."

Freudian psychology regards dreams as a sort of coping mechanism for the conscious mind. The school of thought posits that, when we spend our waking hours bottling up anxiety over certain issues, our dreams act as a release valve for those worries while we're subconscious so that the anxiety doesn't compound over time.

Donner makes it clear that these dreams are not necessarily overblown hysteria, especially in the case of first- or second-generation Americans who have grown up hearing stories of tyrannical homeland regimes from family members who escaped for America. For them, fears of what's to come from a Trump administration may be founded on firsthand or secondhand experiences with comparable regimes abroad.

"Trump may represent the general scary frightening figure, like the monster under the bed," he explained. "Trump is coming to symbolize all their fears. One could imagine people from families of immigrants who have come from countries where there's been a genocide, whether it be the Jewish Holocaust or any number of traumatic experiences, are carrying the stories of the previous generations. Something like a Trump presidency is bound to stir up echoes of the past."

Donner points out that this type of fear can be just as "real" on the other side of the political spectrum, offering empathy to those on the right who earnestly believed that Obama was "coming for their guns."

"If you're exposed to those things over and over, it stirs you up and makes you afraid. So, if you have anxiety in your background that something like this could happen—the federal government is coming for you, the Northerners are going to attack the South—those intergenerational fears do stick."

It stands to reason that the Trump team will inspire a few more nightmares in the remaining years of the presidency. Hopefully none will visit you, but, if you do happen find yourself waking up in a cold sweat screaming "MAGA," maybe you'll take some comfort in the professionals here telling you that Trump nightmares are not an irrational reaction to what is happening to your life and the world.