BY Lynne Tillman in Opinion | 01 JUN 16
Featured in
Issue 180

American Horror Show

Trump, trigger alerts and trauma

BY Lynne Tillman in Opinion | 01 JUN 16

Rational Europeans can’t fathom what’s happening in the US. Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, these legit mobsters propose terrifying laws and an ideology (if Trump actually has a system of beliefs; Cruz wants a theocracy) similar to the Far Right in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, the UK. Like Trump, some might want to keep all Muslims out of their countries. 

British friends ask: Americans don’t want health insurance, what’s wrong with them? It’s hard to explain anything about the US. I do the best I can: it’s about the American myth of independence; distrust of their own government built into the Constitution, separation of powers, states’ rights. Still, totally crazy. 

Trump rally in Buffalo, 2016. Courtesy: the artist; photograph by Mark Sommerfeld

Many of us can’t believe Trump: a bizarre, unacceptable reality. When he started his campaign, he sounded like a guest host on Saturday Night Live. Funny, wack. Then he and it weren’t. In a field of noddle nobodies, a Republican party dominated by the lunatic Tea Party, Trump became an ‘attractive’ maverick. It’s like living inside a sick joke. 

At Trump rallies, he demands that protesters get thrown out, and says they should be roughed up, outside. He has reporters corralled in pens, some have been manhandled. Followers make Nazi salutes. Hard not to imagine: coming soon, brown-shirt attire required. 

Trump is not a gun, though he might want to be called ‘a pistol’. Metaphorically, his supporters reach for him for protection, their Big Daddy, a product and symptom of our violent culture. White people, mostly men, who haven’t finished high school – at one rally Trump shouted: ‘I love the uneducated!’ – adore this ‘bomb ’em to hell’ guy. He’s loaded (pun intended), so he doesn’t give a shit about the establishment. Though, according to a linguist who studied all of the candidates’ speech patterns, Trump is the most insecure speaker of all, which makes sense. He reiterates how much he’s loved: he’s a winner, he’ll win big; then, he loses (under attack from the vile Cruz, maybe more horrific) and ignores it. Trump may be pathetic but he’s a hero to people who feel they’re losers, unlovable and dispossessed. To his fearful male followers, Trump guarantees ‘there’s no problem’ with the size of his – their – penis. This American horror show: coming to the world? 

Alongside this American madness, there’s another, in a different register – the rise of  ‘trigger alerts’. In the academy, students can declare that some stories, novels, essays might be too emotionally disturbing for them to read. They should be warned or not required to read it. And, still more, college professors are being asked to act like therapists – when they aren’t, have no training and might do more harm than good.  To support my writing of fiction, I teach; many writers do. It’s often fun, rewarding, except when I hear myself repeating the same stuff again and again, and want to leap out of a window. But, recently, in a writing workshop, something new happened. A female student admonished me: Before you assign a reading, you should give the class a ‘trigger warning’. I have a sense of humour, which comes in handy because life or reality can be harshly ridiculous. Momentarily, it failed me.


‘Some people could get upset,’ she said. 

I had assigned a Flannery O’Connor story, I think it was. It was an upsetting story, O’Connor stories are, and they’re beautifully written. A lot of literature is upsetting, I went on. I can’t think of a great work that isn’t in some way. I waxed on, while she looked at me. Life is upsetting. I threw in the murders in Shakespeare’s Macbeth (c. 1606)

Futility descended, though I figured some students would agree with me. Still, why were ‘trigger warnings’ acceptable? I kept talking and told the workshop: I assign significant stories, philosophical ones, brilliant writing that houses important thoughts and raises disturbing questions, even when they might be funny. Like Franz Kafka’s ‘A Hunger Artist’ (1922), whose carnival act was to starve himself for the public. And, melancholy ones, like Virginia Woolf’s short, profound meditation, ‘The Death of a Moth’ (1942), which always makes me weep. I hear myself talking against trigger warnings, conscious that Trump and Cruz are traumas-in-waiting, and that my country started a disastrous, pre-emptive war in Iraq; and that, outside of this classroom, there’s devastation, millions all over the globe forced to flee their homes, being killed, terrorists blowing them­selves up, murdering others, black citizens killed by US cops, lead in schools’ drinking water in New York City, Newark and Flint, climate change destroying the habitats of polar bears. Trigger warnings about stories? One more sick joke. 

Lynne Tillman is a writer. Her most recent title is Mothercare (Soft Skull Press, 2022). In 2025, Soft Skull Press is publishing a book of her selected stories titled Thrilled to Death.