Interview by Ivor Kruljac
Donald Trump is out of the White House. But what does his victory in 2016 and riots after his defeat mean? What is the mentality of the USA – a nation whose election decisions, whether we like it or not have unimaginable consequences for the entire world?
Dr. Mala Matacin is a born American. If the name doesn’t ring American enough, it’s because her father is from Preko on the island of Ugljan and grandfather on her mother’s side was from Gromača, a village near Dubrovnik. From September 2019 to March 2020, she was on an academic sabbatical in Croatia where she still has a family and is very enthusiastic about re-visiting post-pandemic. Apart from being on a quest for her family’s roots, she spent her time meeting with academics and students at several universities and learning from activists. One of the highlights of her time here was being able to attend and participate in the annual „Night March“ on International Woman’s Day in Zagreb. When it’s safe to travel, she hopes to bring students to Croatia for a short-term study abroad program.
Still, what’s more important for this particular interview, Matacin has a PhD in Social Psychology with a post-doctorate training in Behavioral and Preventive Medicine. She is teaching at the College of Arts and Sciences, University of Hartford in the State of Connecticut. Her research is focused on women’s health (primarily in the issues of body image and stress), women’s leadership, and the relationship between images and social change. Matacin also has an interest in gender issues and she started and teaches a course „Women, Weight, and Worry” which according to the official Hartford University website is a „popular University honors course“. She also teaches a freshman year’s course “Beauty, Body Image, and Feminism”. She has designed two new University courses—one focused on systems of oppression and the other focused on photography and activism. Recently, she has been chosen as a lecturer for a new University course on “Race and Protest in America”. Additionally, dr. Matacin is the founder and faculty advisor for “Women for Change”, a campus organization focused on gender and other equity issues. She has received multiple awards for her work (“Outstanding Teacher Award” in 1999, “Excellence in Service to Students” in 2010 by Sigma Alpha Pi, the National Society for Leadership and Success, “Innovation in Teaching and Learning Award” in 2018, the “Roy E. Larsen Award for Excellence in Teaching and Contributions to University Life” and “Outstanding Faculty Award” in 2019). A 2009 post-graduation survey done by the Career Center named Dr. Matacin one of the three top faculty members in the entire University of Hartford community as a faculty member who had a major/positive impact on students.
Despite dr. Matacin’s primary scientific interest at first may not have a lot of connections with the current political situation in the States, her qualifications from social psychology and pedagogical interests in systemic oppression and activism can provide some interesting insights into the current happenings in American society. Dr. Matacin herself wants to be cautious in overstepping her area of expertise, clearly pointing out that on some of the questions in this interview, she can answer only as an American citizen, but not as an expert for better precision and honesty for our readers. If by some chance you are a reader outside of Croatia and you wish to see how the Croatian language looks like, click this link to check out the Croatian translation of the interview.
Ivor Kruljac: For starters, how would you personally and briefly comment on Trump in office for the past four years? Is there anything good you could say about his mandate or was it a complete catastrophe?
Mala Matacin: I think it’s important for me to tell you and readers where I see myself politically, professionally, and personally as they inform my experience and views on the Trump presidency. I consider myself a progressive and for me, this means supporting policies that address racial, economic, gender and other inequities that currently exist. I am a professor and in my classes, I support civil discourse, a hallmark of democracy, when we talk about these complex issues. I grew up in a strict Catholic, Croatian family and the value of helping those less fortunate or suffering is deeply entrenched in me.
Even though Trump leaves office soon, the ramifications of his presidency will, unfortunately, reverberate for a long time. It has been agonizing for me to watch the sexist, racist, and ableist rhetoric that has undoubtedly fueled the violence and outright hatred that culminated in the riots on the Capitol on January 6, 2021. The United States has historically been divided and his presidency highlighted these long-standing divisions. This country has not come to a reckoning with its racist past and this presidency has made that quite clear. So, if I were to say anything good about his time in office it would be the mainstream attention to social movements like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter that address gender and racial inequities.
IK: You are a professor at the College of Arts and Sciences, University of Hartford. Before Trump was elected there were tours of a controversial Trump supporter and journalist Milo Yiannopoulos across the country’s Universities. Did Milo (or any other Trump supporter ) attempt or succeed to hold a speech at your Faculty / university and how did you, the students and the faculty reacted to it? Are there groups and associations of students in favour of Trump in your Faculty and are you able to sustain a peaceful learning environment or were there incidents reflected by the overall polarisation of the American society?
MM: Perhaps a specific example can help answer this question. In the spring, 2019 one of the students in my class brought to my attention that a speaker from PragerU (Will Witt) was supposed to speak on campus. I encourage open dialogue about current events that are related to course content and so we talked about it for some time. The students were quite disturbed that the University was hosting this speaker and wanted to know how to best address it. I had never heard of the person or the institution so I needed to learn more (by the way, students were very aware of the speaker). PragerU is not a university but seems to espouse hate—and there was a surprising number of people who were having conversations on various platforms (YouTube and Reddit).
At our University, all events have to be properly registered and put on our campus calendar. This one was not and no one in administration even knew about it. I cannot now remember the details, but it was determined that no one went through the proper channels to register the event. The bottom line was that the event never took place. But, the important thing is that all of us—students and faculty—were able to express concerns, learn more, put it a larger context of our class, and probably most importantly, take action by sharing it with administration who has the ability to do something.
This is not to say that people on campus don’t disagree. But, my experience is that such disagreements about ideology remains peaceful and respectful. When incidents like the #BlackLivesMatter protests over the summer or these latest Capitol riots, our University leaders are quick to send out responses to the campus community that hate and violence are not tolerated.
IK: You have a PhD in social Psychology with postdoctoral training in Behavioral and Preventive Medicine. Here in Croatia we often discuss the social traumas caused by the war in the 90’s and the previous Yugoslavian regime. What are the social traumas in the US that would cause such a violent stir among Trump supporters?
MM: This is such a great question with a complex answer that is rooted in our history of slavery and racism. In some ways, this can be compared to what happened in the former Yugoslavia where the rift was based on ethnic and religious identities (please forgive me if this is too simplistic of an explanation). Those with privilege in the United States are white, men, cisgender, able-bodied, Christian, non-immigrant, and middle-upper class. When people who hold those identities feel that their privilege and power are being taken away, they will fight to regain power. It is no accident that those who stormed the Capitol were white men. Leaders and their rhetoric make a difference—for four years, Trump’s words, actions, and policies are part of a larger backlash; his words have inflamed and given permission for outright hatred and violence.
“This is not who we are” is a phrase that has been used by several of our politicians (mostly those who are white men) in response to the riots at the Capitol. Those in marginalized groups, mostly BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) point out that this is EXACTLY who we are. Until there is accountability for such behavior, nothing will change. Personal or social trauma is not repaired by calls for “healing” or “time to come together”, but is a long process of being accountable to the violence, insurrection, or abuse. To date, Trump and most of his supporters refuse accountability. In fact, as I watch member after member of his cabinet turn in their resignations (some citing the riots), they do it so that they do not have to hold him or themselves accountable for the insurrection or invoke the 25th amendment.
IK: In the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) Principles of Medical Ethics there is a thing called the Goldwater rule. If I understood correctly the rule states that it is ‘unethical for psychiatrists to give a professional opinion about public figures whom they have not examined in person, and from whom they have not obtained consent to discuss their mental health in public statements’. Can you tell us more about how this rule came about and what you think about it? Is it possible to legitimately psychoanalyze a person based on his public output and do you think this rule could change or be modified (and how) after the experiences with Trump?
MM: I’m happy to talk about the history of the Goldwater Rule, but please know I am not a psychiatrist (a medical doctor who specializes in mental health). Both psychiatrists and psychologists are bound by ethical standards in their professions but they are different. The Goldwater Rule is in the American Psychiatric Association’s Principles of Medical Ethics and states (Section 7, number 3):
“On occasion psychiatrists are asked for an opinion about an individual who is in the light of public attention or who has disclosed information about himself/herself through public media. In such circumstances, a psychiatrist may share with the public his or her expertise about psychiatric issues in general. However, it is unethical for a psychiatrist to offer a professional opinion unless he or she has conducted an examination and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement.”
The Goldwater Rule is named after Barry Goldwater, a US senator and candidate in the 1964 presidential race. A magazine, Fact, published an article stating that over 1,000 psychiatrists said Goldwater was unfit to serve as president. Goldwater sued the magazine and won. After that, the APA instituted the rule that doesn’t allow a psychiatrist to specifically address the mental health of someone that they have personally examined and has been given permission to share. The American Psychological Association (also called “APA”—so confusing!) is not specifically bound by the Goldwater rule but has the “APA Code of Ethics.” Similarly, psychologists cannot ethically share any details of someone they have examined with the media.
Since Trump took office, these ethical standards have come under scrutiny and there are countless arguments on both sides on whether or not Trump’s mental state should be a matter of public discussion. Those who have spoken out cite something called “duty to warn”. “Duty to warn” in this context means that a mental health professional can be held liable for injury if they withhold information that would have prevented that injury. One notable example is a group of 27 mental health professionals who wrote a book entitled “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump” who felt it was their moral and ethical duty to warn that “Trump’s mental state presents a clear and present danger to our nation and individual well-being.”
But the truth is, experts from all fields are frequently called upon to try and help the public understand a variety of human behaviors like mask-wearing during the pandemic, choosing to be vaccinated, voting, protecting the environment, and helping villages after an earthquake. Additionally, it is not an uncommon for professors to ask students to explain human actions from a variety of theoretical viewpoints. In this way, I do not see comments on a public official’s behavior as being exempt from remarks made by psychologists, psychiatrists, sociologists, historians, or others trained in their respective fields.
IK: Do you think that scientific communities of psychologists and psychiatrists will speak loudly about the importance of mental health for presidential candidates? Should there be more frequent check-ups of presidential mental health in accordance with the 25th amendment?
MM: It’s frustrating to me that mental health issues have always come after the attention paid to physical health. But, mental health still carries a stigma with it. I do see that psychiatrists and psychologists speak loudly about the importance of mental health issues, but the coverage it gets in mainstream media is minimal unless a celebrity speaks out. So, I want to thank you as a journalist for covering this question that you have asked about it! I am heartened that there are mental health professionals speaking out as with the example I gave of the book above–“The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump”. However, unless there are people to enforce such rules like mental health check-ups, nothing will change. As with my earlier comments, there must be accountability.
IK: In 2019, AFD, the far-right political party in Germany was put under surveillance because of the threat to the country’s democracy, As reported by The New York Times: ‘The German Constitution, which came into force in 1949, contains many protections against extremism. It includes provisions to monitor and even ban far-left and far-right parties’. Do you think it is possible for something like that to happen in the US?
MM: There is a phrase I am fond of—“never say never.” So many things I thought would never happen, have occurred so I try and stay humble. However, I don’t think we will ever completely ban a party although parties will evolve. One of the civic rights covered under the first amendment of the Constitution is “freedom of speech” which states citizens can express views without being subject to censorship or punishment from the government. This last part—“from the government” is important because social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook are not the “government” and can censor hate speech or speech that calls for violence.
The First Amendment Center of the Freedom Forum Institute conducted a study in 2019 and found that “…most respondents (77 percent) agreed that misinformation on the internet and the spread of fake news is a serious threat to democracy, and most agreed it is important for our democracy that the news media act as a watchdog on government (72 percent). This improved trust in journalism encourages champions of the press across the country” (https://www.freedomforuminstitute.org/first-amendment-center/state-of-the-first-amendment/).
IK: So, do you think that due to the first amendment, it is highly unlikely that anyone in Congress would suggest such a monitor or bans to prevent a “future Trump” (or that such an idea could appear in the US mainstream)?
MM: I believe that no one wants to see a repeat of a leader like him. That is why impeachment is so important. The next step will be for the Senate to vote on it and if it passes, he can never hold public office again. But, allegiance to one’s party is strong and I’m not convinced there will be enough votes from Republican senators to do that. Look at the vote from the House of Representatives—only 10 out of 211 Republicans voted to impeach him. We all know that there will be a backlash against these representatives from their own party (threats to them). It’s very sad to me that our politics are based on so much vindictiveness rather than doing the right thing.
IK: Here in Croatia (as I personally witnessed and saw as comments underneath the domestic news about Trump) people are praising Trump for not starting any war (despite almost starting one with Iran and North Korea and causing tensions with China), it seems that while he did unspeakable obstruction of peace in the US that many outside of the US still like him for the whole no-new-conflict thing, almost in a way as, he sabotaged the US but not the world what would you say to those people if you have the chance?
MM: I don’t know enough about Trump waging or not waging war internationally. What I would like to say to people who like Trump because he did not start a war, I would say they are wrong. He IS waging war but on his own citizens by failing to uphold the Constitution and American democracy, spreading false claims that he won the election, failing to take the coronavirus seriously, and inciting violence.
IK: USA has always been perceived as a “world cop”, fighting for freedom and democracy across the globe and is almost constantly involved in some kind of war and conflict (whose justification and true interest can of course always be and often are questioned, at least outside of the US). In his campaign Trump was talking about sending the troops home and reducing the role of the US on a geopolitical scale. How do ordinary people in the US perceive the role of your country as the world cop and do sympathies for Trump reflect that people in the US no longer want their country to be so active in global conflicts?
MM: I really don’t feel qualified to answer this question.
IK: If not as a psychologist, could you answer it as a private citizen if you discussed this issue with other private American citizens?
MM: It’s no surprise that the world sees the US in this militarized way because we spend MORE on our military than any other nation (https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/military-spending-by-country). Feelings about this reflect the “split” in Americans that we saw during the last election. There are groups who think that what people do in their own countries are none of our business and that we should just “police” our own country. But, there are others who believe, as global citizens, it is our duty to be involved. In other words, we need to help serve as “peacekeepers” (although I think it’s ironic that keeping peace is so militarized).
The New Yorker published an article on November 18, 2020, written by Daniel Immerwahr (https://www.newyorker.com/books/under-review/should-america-still-police-the-world) ) about this very question and I’d like to borrow heavily from it. As the article suggests, why can’t we engage cooperatively with other countries rather than be so heavy-handed using “American strength, engagement, and leadership.”? One suggestion is that the US give up its place as a “world cop” so to speak. “It would require Washington to give up the notion that its troops or its values should dominate the planet. This wouldn’t mean retreating from worldly affairs, just adjusting to a more level international field.” I don’t see this as happening anytime soon as “Relinquishing that primacy—giving up the seat at the head of the table—is about as palatable to U.S. policymakers as defunding police departments.”
IK: Trump supporters were always talking that they are against the political establishment and they see Trump as the answer for their demands. Criticism of mainstream US politics in your country of course, are nothing new and not just from the far-right, but also from the left and far-left Spectrum. There is the documentary director Michael Moore who is very critical of the US establishment and musicians such as the punk rock band Anti-Flag that criticize capitalism, exploitation, and the overall vibe that politicians don’t give a damn about ordinary people. In Europe and in Croatia, people also feel that way and are expecting the state to be socially sensitive and help the poor, to offer free healthcare, free education and thus creating equal opportunities for people of different incomes, while in the US it seems that the poorest people in society vote for the biggest opposers of state help and for those who are against welfare, free health and education. How is that possible, is it simple ignorance or the deeper heritage of the American culture that has different settings than the European societies and is rooted deep in the minds of the people? Also can the 2nd amendment be viewed as some sort of socially, politically, and culturally inherited paranoia in contrast to societies in Europe that do prefer that country regulate access to guns to everyday people?
MM: It’s such a good question to ask why those who are poor or otherwise marginalized would vote for someone whose policies are against their best interest. It’s complicated, of course, and I don’t know that I am the best person to answer the question.
I recall when Trump was first running for office, he boasted about how little taxes he paid (and now, we know this is true). His “promise” that others could do the same (pay few taxes), I’m sure was enticing. But, right-wing views are not simply about money and the redistribution of wealth, but overall moral conservatism—pro-life, anti-gay marriage, not supporting LGBTQ+ issues, and religiosity. It may also be that the two-party system doesn’t really allow for much choice. If the thing that is most important to you is the abortion issue, then money may not be what drives you.
Race affects this question too. A research study was published in 2018 that showed racial resentment might be why poor whites oppose social welfare. In the words taken from an article in the Atlantic: “When whites feel their status in the racial hierarchy is threatened, they become more resentful of minorities. That, in turn, translates to a greater opposition toward welfare, because some people think welfare disproportionately benefits minorities.” (https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/06/racial-resentment-motivates-opposition-to-welfare/562010/)
Most people (70%) in the United States do not own a gun (https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2017/06/22/the-demographics-of-gun-ownership/). Those who own guns are more likely to be men, white, live in rural areas, are less educated, and are Republican (twice as many Republicans own guns than Democrats). The part of the US where I live, for example, is the lowest percentage of gun owners in the nation. Most people who own a gun say it’s for protection, but research has shown that guns in people’s homes are much more likely to be used on a family member or someone they know than an intruder.
The United States is rare among westernized countries in that it allows citizens to own guns and does not have gun laws. I was VERY struck when I was in Croatia that there was little discussion of shootings and gun violence. I love this about Croatia and European countries! Gun violence is always on our news and I sincerely hope we can be more like those in Europe and regulate citizen ownership of guns.
IK: Biden is elected president. How would you compare him to Hillary Clinton that lost elections against Trump in 2016? In your opinion as the founder and faculty advisor for “Women for Change”, was America just not ready for the first female president or besides gender is there something fundamentally different in the way Biden approached his campaign in comparison to Hillary (political views, his political priorities, communication style)? Did Biden win because people were truly sick of Trump or did Trump put a nail in the coffin himself with the way he handled the pandemic and with his response to the protest against the death of George Floyd?
MM: Hillary Clinton did win the popular vote (she received more votes from citizens); but she lost in the electoral college. It’s a weird system and there are a lot of people who want to get rid of the electoral system because of this. I’m not sure the US is ready for a female president though. Had Hillary Clinton won, her opponents would have continued with the disgraceful name-calling, insults, and sexist speech directed at her.
Regarding Hillary and Biden: The COVID crisis notwithstanding, Biden was always a stronger candidate in the polls. There is polling data that suggests voters had a more positive feeling about Biden than they did about Clinton. Here is a graphic (https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/meet-the-press/why-biden-s-poll-lead-different-hillary-clinton-s-n1243837).
It’s hard for me to not see gender bias playing a role in their campaigns as it is one of the things I study. Our perceptions are deeply gendered in ways most of us simply can’t see. For a woman to be likable, she must portray certain “feminine” qualities and not seen as “too masculine”. For example, it is well documented that “assertiveness” in men is seen positively but in women is viewed negatively.
Yes! People are truly sick of Trump! He is leaving office with THE lowest approval rating (at the time of the interview, 29%) of any outgoing president in US History (https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2021/01/15/biden-begins-presidency-with-positive-ratings-trump-departs-with-lowest-ever-job-mark/). His low rating got even lower after the domestic terrorist attack on the Capitol and his post-election behavior. He is the only president in history to be impeached twice (and there will be a trial beginning this week in the Senate). A majority of citizens (68%) don’t want Trump to remain a major political figure and 75% say he bears some responsibility for the violence at the Capitol. Social media platforms have cancelled his accounts as have companies and banks.