A day in the psychiatry clinic? No—just scenes from that high-stakes festival of intense human competitiveness gone awry: the current presidential election. Alas, we have no FDA-approved treatments for any of these unusual political behaviors.
More stunning is how blind some loyal voters are to the flaws of their candidate of choice. They seem to be joyfully intoxicated by sharing the unusual beliefs of the candidate, in a cultish folie en masse of epidemic proportion.
Other (rational) voters are stunned and jarred by what they see and hear; they appear to be in need of Rx: an intellectual antiemetic.
The rise of uber-narcissism
A certain amount of narcissism is, understandably, necessary to run for the nation’s highest office and to believe, against all odds, that winning is certain despite microscopic favorability in the polls. In this election cycle, the cup of narcissism has run over; yet, to adoring fans, narcissism only adds a wondrous halo to their candidate.
The history of the United States is rife with similar behavior by elected officials, including our revered Founding Fathers.1 But today’s psychiatrists, witnessing this national charade, are perplexed and question the rationality of the national psyche. Established rules for seeking the Presidency have been demolished and the show goes on as if heightened narcissism is the new normal in human behavior.
Giving voice to my colleagues’ consternation
Here are a few thoughts that might cross the mind of psychiatrists as they watch, with a frown and pursed lips, this unconventional election cycle:
From a psychoanalytic perspective, the id has left the ego in its dust, and the super-ego went home to hide.
When boorishness trumps civility, hillaryous consequences ensue.
The gullibility of voters deserves serious scientific study. Jeste and Harris2 reviewed the evidence for a neurobiology of wisdom; The National Institutes of Health should fund research into how some voters believe the candidate of their choice will provide them with everything they wish. The chicken in every pot expands to 100 in every pot, and money grows on trees (at least on 1% of the forest!).
From an evolutionary standpoint, survival of the fittest has become survival of the most bombastic.
The zeitgeist reflects an electorate that oscillates agonizingly from surprise to anger to cynicism to disgust.
The traditional internal conflict (studied by political scientists) of choosing between 2 reasonably meritorious candidates has been transformed into a conflict over whether to vote at all.
This is the least nuanced presidential campaign—ever.
All decision-making in politics is unconscious, political scientist Jon A. Krosnick proposed. In this election, however, candidates’ enunciations are so overt that it’s hard to believe there’s anything left in the unconscious. Freud spoke of the “primary process” arising from the unconscious; he definitely was not referring to the primary process we experienced during this election cycle.
From a neuropsychiatric perspective, the limbic system has kicked the cortex in the metaphorical derrière in this election campaign.
Unabashed display of character flaws, personal shortcomings, and biases prove that anyone can run for president in a democracy, and that some voters will display a flight of reason and vote for a flawed candidate.
Even an inept demagogue can be misperceived as a savior by followers. Some voters could use a few sessions of insight-oriented therapy or cognitive-behavioral therapy for their unrealistic expectations.
It is dizzying, mentally, to watch candidates’ verbal acrobatics as they try to pass several litmus tests to satisfy disparate demands of sundry constituencies and mendaciously flip-flop on many issues—ignoring the fact that everything they have said was recorded or videotaped. Intellectual transvestism is a political sin, and sinners abound.
Oh, for a Jenner, Pasteur, or Sabin to discover vaccines for the intellect
Writing this editorial has been therapeutic. It feels good to ventilate about this bizarre election process that has the nation in its grip. I would feel much better if neuroscientists would develop and license vaccines that would broadly inoculate candidates against demagoguery, dishonesty, and pandering and voters against mind-boggling gullibility.
That would make elections so boring. But also so on-label….