GREENWOOD, S.C. — The past three years have not been easy for the political fortunes or the emotional health of America’s Democrats. To the extent they feel optimistic about anything, they have been waiting for the 2020 election in the way inhabitants of a storm-ravaged city might look toward the end of hurricane season — as an opportunity to restore order not just to their fractured physical world, but to their battered psyches.
Why, then, even with the potential catharsis of impeachment proceedings against President Trump underway, do so many feel so awful?
“My big fear is that we are not coalescing around one candidate, and I don’t know in the end if there’s enough people who will come out and vote,” said Mac Macnair, a Democrat who lives in a deep-red county in rural Georgia. “Four years is as long as I can go, but eight years — we won’t even have an America left.”
Ms. Macnair, a former teacher in her late 50s, was in Greenwood a few weeks ago to listen to her preferred candidate, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., speak in a college gym. She was excited to hear what he had to say. But she was still fretting about the state of the party, and the state of the nation, at the end of 2019.
On the one hand, of course, there is Mr. Trump, who set up camp in the deep corners of the American psyche three years ago and has remained there ever since, a larger-than-life-presence for supporters and detractors alike, the invisible guest whose existence can ruin a holiday meal as quickly as your cousin can utter the word “Ukraine.”
On the other hand there is the vast field of bickering Democratic candidates, so many candidates that it can be hard to keep them straight, so many candidates that they seem at risk of canceling each other out and failing at the one job they are theoretically meant to do: win the election. Meanwhile, impeachment itself serves as nothing more than a Rorschach test of worry set to Robert’s Rules of Order.
“If they’re not going to get along, they need to keep quiet,” said Beverly Hall, 63, another Biden supporter at the Greenwood event. But beyond being happy about her candidate, she has watched and read a lot about the election, she said, and she does not feel great.
“This guy who’s on the commercials — Jim, what’s his name?” she said, referring to Tom Steyer. “I like what he’s saying. I like the issues he’s bringing up. But why are you spending $3 million on TV when you could be giving the money to Joe?”
Some people are suffering from general political angst. Others have specific qualms: a concern that their favorite candidate lacks that essential quality, electability; a worry that fellow Democrats will become disillusioned if their chosen candidate fails to get the nomination and will vote for a third-party candidate, or for Mr. Trump, or for no one at all — the “Bernie or Nobody” scenario.
A sampling of interviews with Democrats in different parts of the country reveals that worry comes in many forms.
From Jobetta Hedelman-Beaver, 39, of Kennewick, Wash.: “I’m anxious about Trump. I’m super-anxious about him. I blame him for my high blood pressure.”
From Katie Matlin, 40, in Northbrook, Ill.: “My husband has major anxiety around the election. We actually cannot watch news coverage in our house because any news about Donald Trump triggers his anxiety.”
From the actor Robert De Niro, appearing on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert”: “It’s like living in an abusive household. You don’t know what’s going to happen next, what crazy thing is going to happen next, what’s going to make you say, ‘What the hell is going on?’”
From David Kaye, 37, in Milwaukee: “During previous elections, I’d have a giant spreadsheet and follow every candidate. But it’s not fun anymore. It’s still just as important, but it triggers my anxiety, and sometimes it triggers panic attacks. I’m not following out of interest or a sense of fun, but out of a sense of not wanting our civilization to fall.”
How is this anxiety manifesting itself for Democratic voters as they look toward 2020?
Let us count the ways.
Fear of Candidate Overload
There are 15 Democrats vying for the party’s nomination. That is a lot, even considering that 13 others, most recently Kamala Harris, have dropped out of the race. The late-in-the-game entry of two additional possibilities — Michael R. Bloomberg of New York and Deval Patrick of Massachusetts — smacks to some of Hail Mary desperation at a point when the party should have gotten its act together by now.
“There are too many candidates, and too long a process,” said Susan Ramos, 55, a resident of Greenwood. “They need to put their resources behind one candidate and consolidate their power. ”
Toya Davis, 56, who also lives in Greenwood and is a onetime Republican who became a Democrat when Barack Obama was running for president, said that excessive numbers of Democratic candidates were cluttering the field and diluting the project.
“I wish half of them would just drop out,” she said.
Fear That the Democrats Won’t Rally Around Anyone
Ms. Macnair said that she felt particularly concerned by what she hears from younger Democrats. She mentioned a 30-year-old acquaintance who lives in Iowa and is a passionate supporter of Bernie Sanders.
“He said that young people wouldn’t vote for a Democratic candidate unless it’s Bernie,” she said, “and that he can’t figure out why any young person would vote for Biden.”
That sort of talk makes Ms. Davis hyperventilate as she recalls previous presidential elections and the spoiling presence of candidates like Ralph Nader and Jill Stein. She mentioned Ross Perot, and how he muddied the waters as an independent and then a third-party candidate in the 1990s.
“It makes me very, very nervous,” she said.
Fear That Good News for the President is Bad News for the Democrats
The stock market is roaring. Unemployment is at a record low. The economy added 266,000 new jobs in November. Though these things are objectively good, of course, they are less good if you are a Democrat and you don’t want the current president to get credit for anything that might help him get re-elected.
Take Mr. Trump’s announcement in October that U.S. Special Forces had killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State movement. That could be considered positive news for the president, some Democratic voters conceded in interviews, except that Mr. Trump presented the news in such an unpleasant way, they said, embellishing his narrative with unsubstantiated details about Mr. al-Baghdadi’s last moments.
“Trump had to make a 50-minute speech about how wonderful he is,” said Jane Worm, 77, of Dubuque County, Iowa.
In Durham, N.H., Barbara Feldman, 68, said she was worried that Mr. Trump would capitalize on the incident to bolster his popularity.
“I do worry about his base, and his support, unless the young people get out and vote,” she said.
Fear of … Politics
For the last three years, therapists have reported an increase in patients who say that almost anything having to do with politics is making them uneasy, angry and hopeless, a condition that Jennifer C. Panning, a psychologist in Evanston, Ill., has christened “Trump anxiety disorder.”
In a survey of 3,617 American adults released in November, the American Psychological Association found that 56 percent said that the 2020 election was a “significant stressor” — as opposed to 52 percent before the 2016 election.
“It depends on what side of the aisle you’re on, but for many people there’s the question, ‘What is going on with this country that someone can get away with so much?’” said Dr. Mary Alvord, a therapist in Maryland who teaches psychiatry and behavioral medicine at the George Washington University School of Medicine.
In Athens, Ga., Dr. J. Kip Matthews, a therapist who sees both conservative and liberal patients, said that the mean-spiritedness, tribalism and uncertainty of the political discussion was causing anxiety on all sides. “It forces you to think, ‘Do I hang on to my values and beliefs, or do I change them?’” he said. “Change is very stressful for people, and more often than not you just double down on what your original beliefs were.”
Dr. Barry A. Farber, a therapist and professor of psychology and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College, last year compiled a series of papers called “Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right: Politics and Psychotherapy.” (The title was inspired by a 40-ish male patient who told Dr. Farber that he was disgusted both by the Republicans, for their mean behavior and “callousness,” and by the Democrats, for their “endless political correctness” and “absurd naïveté.”) In the papers, fellow therapists described how politics has become a dominant theme in their sessions with patients, stirring up old traumas and new terrors.
“There’s something about the ongoing saga of President Trump that hasn’t gone away,” Dr. Farber said. “This isn’t an event so much as an ongoing occurrence, something that feels life-changing, something that has changed the country in ways that has implications for the way that people live.”
Supporters of the president, Dr. Farber wrote in an introduction to the compilation, are suffused by a “Why can’t all those liberals just accept that fact that he won?” resentment toward Mr. Trump’s critics. As for liberal Democrats, who make up the majority of his own and his colleagues’ patients, they have gone through a fairly consistent trajectory: shock at Mr. Trump’s election; a period of waiting to see what would happen; and then the realization that, as he said, “this wasn’t going away.”
Anxiety as Motivator
Dr. Alvord, whose parents fled Russia as children in the 1930s and who grew up in Queens, not far from Donald Trump, said that she, too, had been unsettled by the events of the last three years.
But she said that the “black cloud” of depression that descended on so many of her patients after the election has given way to something else.
“I hear people saying, ‘I don’t want to hear the president speak because it unnerves me so much,’” she said. “But the good thing about anxiety is that it can have an activating and motivating part to it. I lead people to a discussion of, what can you do.”
One thing it has done for Ms. Macnair, the Georgia resident: it has made her more sensitive to the concerns of her neighbors, rural Republicans who fly Trump banners alongside the American flags outside their houses. She would like her fellow Democrats to nominate a moderate candidate, she said, so that Republicans won’t feel as alienated from or terrified of that person as Democrats feel about Mr. Trump.
“Frankly, it breaks my heart and crushes my soul that people are so divided in this country,” she said. “I try so hard to find common ground on issues we can find common ground on.”
Sydney Ember contributed reporting.