What ‘Hoarders’ Taught Me About Politics

By Michael E. Norris

“Hoarders,” as many of us have learned from the eponymously named TV show that began in 2009, the first year of the Obama administration, documents the ill effects of a now formally recognized mental condition in which individuals obsessively and irrationally acquire and hang on to things.

They cram their homes, garages, storage sheds, pantries, bathrooms, bedrooms, back yards, and virtually every other unoccupied space with piles of things they often never needed in the first place, have long outlived whatever use they may have once offered, and may even threaten their health and safety.

These individuals, who are not “collectors” in the conventional sense, are often hard-pressed to explain why they feel they must not let go of some old toy, tattered magazine from decades ago, or a swizzle stick they had brought home years earlier for reasons they cannot even remember.

But they are absolutely convinced of their necessity and may even forcefully reject efforts to help them and the neighborhoods in which they live by disposing of them.

Trump’s voters saw a man willing to stand by them and take decisive action to restore what they believe is a set of American values in which they have put great store for most of their lives, only to see them dissipated, in their view, by floods of illegal immigrants unfairly sucking up their tax dollars and by international trade agreements that have done nothing but allow big business to move their jobs abroad, reduce U.S. wages, and leave broad swaths of flyover country economically devastated.

They looked on in disbelief for eight years as, in their view, the Obama administration became party to this massive economic disenfranchisement, all the time storing up and doubling down on their fiercely held beliefs.

In response, they became political hoarders.

Just as material hoarders may forcefully reject the efforts of their own children and friends to help extricate them from unsanitary and dangerous living conditions, their political counterparts reject change agents as the opposition party – people out to destroy them by taking away the things they have come to love.

Material hoarders cannot imagine their own culpability. “It’s about every else,” said one psychoanalyst interviewed for the program. Hoarders possess a “high level of victim mentality.” Another said hoarding has “a protective function” in which the masses of debris serve as a “shelter” or “bunker.”

One hoarder referred to the local government, which had condemned her trash-filled home and threatened her with eviction, as “a real form of terrorism.” Another woman, referring to the heaps of vermin-infested trash piled throughout her home, said that the government was “taking away my savings.”

“This isn’t fair,” said one hoarder, as unsanitary debris infested with living and dead rodents and cats was being removed in response to a court order.

It was exactly this sort of misguided thinking that Trump masterfully exploited. 

Beginning in May 2013, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the nation’s psychiatrists, began listing “compulsive hoarder disorder” as a complex emotional problem characterized by a fierce need to acquire, combined with a paralyzing inability to get rid of things once acquired.

Perhaps the earliest and most famous example of the disorder was the Collyer brothers, who were found dead in their virtually impenetrable Harlem brownstone in 1947 amid an estimated 140 tons of trash that filled the home from floor to ceiling and back to front. 

The reasons commonly given by voters who supported Donald Trump, as summarized in a The Atlantic magazine and repeated in endless TV and radio talk shows, are the need for decisive action in Washington; a “corrective to American culture’s pathologies;” the rage of the white middle class; and simple desperation.

            The ongoing chaos in the Trump administration since his inauguration, with its daily diet of scandal and political machinations, has driven his overall popularity ratings to the lowest levels of any new president.

            Yet those ratings remain high among his own party. This is political hoarding disorder: an inability to say good-bye to old things of proven inutility and to adapt, as voters did in the 2008 presidential election, to the changes occurring in our country.

            Some flyover country residents, as recounted in a recent column by Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times, have vowed to continue supporting the president even when he plans to eliminate the programs from which they benefit directly.

In recent years, hoarding has come to be considered a treatable condition; indeed, most of the TV programs offer an upbeat ending when hoarders admit their problem, agree have the junk removed from their homes (with varying degrees of ease or difficulty), and reconcile with previously alienated family members or friends who had refused to visit their unsanitary residences.

But whatever their motivation, compulsive hoarders often have difficulty understanding how cleaning up will benefit them. They persist in acting against their own best interests. One hoarder was “so focused on what she’s lost that she can’t see what she’s gained” by clearing out the garbage, a psychoanalyst said.

            I have tried since November 2016, like many Americans, to figure out what brought a crudely spoken, uninformed, unpredictable “populist” into our nation’s highest political office. All sorts of theories have been suggested. I have considered them all carefully.

            But I now believe that “Hoarders” explains it all.  

            Michael E. Norris, PhD, is founder and editor of Between The Coasts and the author of “Reinventing the Administrative State” and more recently “Undue Process: Taking The Law Out Of Law Enforcement,” which analyses constitutional issues associated with private security practices.

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