Stress and Decision 2016: Trump, Cruz, and Rubio Style

I remember a few years ago hearing about the new French president who was newly elected. My first thought was “They had an election? I never heard a word about any campaign.” Given that we, and in this case I mean both the general population and the media, believe we are the only country on Earth and news of other nations politics are largely ignored, I didn’t give the campaigns a second thought. In 2014, I was aware of the campaign battle going on in Israel after President Peres decided not to run for re-election. I wanted to take some time to enlighten myself on the candidates purely for the sake of knowledge. A few weeks passed and then a few more and before I knew it Israel had a new president. My thought this time was “Already? They just started campaigning”. That was 2014.

In January of 2013 (actually probably more like December of 2012) we had begun our own campaign cycle here in the United States. However, this was not for an election in the spring of 2013. Nor was it the campaign cycle for the summer or fall or even winter of 2013. We don’t hold elections in the spring, so it wasn’t for early or mid 2014. It wasn’t even for 2015. It was for November of 2016!

In France, campaign season lasts just a few weeks. In Israel, it last for about 3 months. In countries all over the world its commonplace for election season to be nice and brief (and cheap-ish). Here in the United States, however, we begin the cycle of tearing this country apart, being divisive, judgmental, obstinate, and challenging the moment a new president is elected in preparation for the event that will inevitably occur 4 years later (especially by the losing party). In our love of “winning”, we forget that we should be working together for success even if we lose. And there lies one of the principle psychological problems we face as a country.

Fast forward from the French and Israeli elections and other elections around the world to the fall of 2015. I remember hanging out with my wife on our couch after work enjoying our time together, watching the news (although I must admit that if memory serves the “news” we were watching was The Daily Show with Jon Stewart) and seeing @RealDonaldTrump riding down an escalator and announcing his intent to run for President. Remember that at this point we were all certain that Jeb Bush, #MarcoRubio, Ben Carson, @TedCruz, and @HillaryClinton would be running and their campaigns were either actively or passively already underway and had been for several years. My wife and I laughed at The Donald, took it as a publicity stunt, and really didn’t give it another thought.

Debate after debate passed. News cycle after news cycle passed. Poll after poll (after poll after poll) passed. Mr. Trump’s numbers rose. Mr. Bush’s numbers tanked. Rubio and Cruz stuck in neutral. Dr. Carson appeared as a shadow on the outer edges of the debate stages. Governor Kasich. And let’s don’t forget the guy who claimed to be the governor of New Jersey. And there were others whose names won’t stand the test of time.

And then the debate on the Thursday before Super Tuesday arrived. My wife offered to go get my daughter from gymnastics practice at 9 pm so I could sit and watch the debate that started at 8:30. My 18-year-old son, who is a high school senior, sat with me (on his phone of course but was listening nonetheless…or so he says). We listened as Mr. Trump talked about winning and his poll numbers. We listened as Senator Rubio took shot after shot after shot at The Donald. We listened as Mr. Rubio took personal shots and legitimate shots at Mr. Trump begging and pleading for a specific plan. Apparently Senator Rubio doesn’t think erasing the lines around the states was a plan. We laughed as Mr. Trump struggled to get across any semblance of a plan and was visibly shaken and sweating. My wife and 13-year-old daughter walked in about 9:15 and we also sat together and witnessed this circus. I wondered what people around the world thought of this ridiculousness.

The next day I was checking the news in between my clients and as soon as I got home I immediately turned on a cable news network. In between my office and home, I stopped at the gym. Instead of having my personal treadmill TV on ESPN where it usually is, I had the news on (and I wasn’t the only one). There was very little talk of the circus the night before. All the news was focused on the day’s circus. Donald Trump had stolen the show again. This time by bringing in his old nemesis, Gov. Christie. Once again, Donald Trump had managed to dance around all of the issues that slammed him in the face the previous night. He spent the next press conference making fun of Marco Rubio like they were two 3rd graders at my youngest daughter’s elementary school. Mocking, harassing, teasing, embellishing. Marco fired back doing the same thing. Small hands, funny hair, sweating. It was ludicrous.

My wife had gone earlier that day to vote. As I was finishing up with my last client at about 6:00, my client asked me if I had voted and I told him I was heading to do that as soon as he left. He asked me who I was voting for. I didn’t mind. I told him. We started a tradition in our family last August that every week we’d take our son out for a lunch or dinner. Just the three of us to talk about college. We wanted to give him the opportunity to ask questions, contemplate, clarify, voice concerns and fears, etc. I got to the polling station about 6:45, just in time to cast my vote. I then met my wife and son and the restaurant for his “college night”.

I arrived just at 7:00. We grabbed a booth just minutes later. The restaurant we were at happened to have a big screen tv and it just happened to be facing me. By the time our server had brought our waters they had already called the race in our home state of Georgia for Clinton and Trump. Let me say that again. Minutes after the polling station had closed, the cable news had called the Georgia race! MINUTES!

We sat and we talked. I found myself glancing up at the screen as the poll numbers for Vermont, Virginia, Alabama, Tennessee, and so on scrolled across the screen. I watched the breakdown of Virginia by county. I watched as Texas and Arkansas and Oklahoma unfolded. Then it hit me. We weren’t talking about college. We were talking politics. We spent our son’s college night this week discussing politics. As we were getting up to walk out of the restaurant I said to my soon-to-be college freshman, “you’re screwed.” He responded back with, “I know”. I stayed up hours watching the pundits repeat themselves over and over and over again. Eventually fading off before Rubio ever won his lone state.

The next day, Wednesday, I saw my usual batch of regularly scheduled clients. Of the seven I had that day, only one didn’t bring up the election in some form or fashion (and that’s because he was a 14-year-old kid with mild Autism). Six clients that day brought up the election. Five wanted to discuss it with me at length. I’m a psychologist. I’m not a political pundit or campaign manager. While we did discuss their views on the candidates and why people are voting the way they’re voting, the purpose of the discussions they all had was how what is going on is related to their individual stress and anxiety.

Stress and anxiety. Relationships. Marriages. Family. Those are my areas of expertise. I tell all my clients that while I have a PhD in psychology and have a very well established and respected practice, what I do is not your typical psychology, therapy, or counseling. I hold a very firm belief that while we are all unique, we don’t live, love, work, or otherwise function in a vacuum. Our lives are shaped by the people, places, events, experiences, and world around us. This includes the political landscape (aka The Circus) that we are experiencing in this very lengthy election cycle.

Who among you regularly complained, discussed, or even gave much thought to illegal aliens coming in from Mexico before Mr. Trump said he would build that mighty wall and make the Mexicans pay for it? Note the word “regularly”. Did you think about it on occasion? Probably. Was it a major concern? Maybe. Maybe not.

Who among you considered Mexicans rapists? Probably very few of you. As most of us know, the majority of rapes are perpetrated by people close to us, not by an illegal Mexican who just crossed the border who is looking for a way to feed his or her family and find a place to live. The illegal aliens have other things on their minds other than raping strangers.

Who among you even knew what the word amnesty even meant before you googled it during one of the debates or hearing the word on the news?

Who among you really, truly knows what is constitutional or unconstitutional about the Affordable Care Act other than just the Republicans say it isn’t constitutional and plan to repeal it? Who among you even knew ObamaCare was actually even actually called The Affordable Care Act? Who knows what Donald Trump means by “erasing the lines around the states?” If you do, please tell me.

Who among you can actually detail what ANY of the candidates’ positions are on any given topic that has been made an issue in this campaign (other than repealing ALL of President Obama’s executive orders and Obamacare)?

This is my point. The fight between Republicans and Democrats and the fight within the Republican party has been thrust upon us from every imaginable angle. Some real, some imagined, some manufactured. Our heads are spinning. As members of the human race, we strive for control of ourselves, our environment, and the world around us. We desire order and structure. We want to know what we are getting into and what we are going to get out of it. As this campaign season moves forward, we are getting less and less of everything we need, want, strive for, and desire. We are getting candidates who are manufacturing issues that don’t really exist purely for the sake of raising the ire and emotions of the general populous. We have candidates who say one thing one day and one thing the next. And we accept this (that’s for another blog on another day).

This disconnect between what we desire as human beings and what is being presented to us in this campaign year is challenging our psyches in an unhealthy way. We want order. But we are getting disorder. We want consistency. But we are getting inconsistency. We want stability. But we are getting instability. We want people who have our best interests at heart. But we are getting a circus just for the sake of winning.

We, the people, are being conned. Not by Donald Trump or Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz. We are being conned by ourselves. We are choosing, yes choosing, to get caught up in the circus. It may be entertaining in the moment, but we are not investing in ourselves right now. We say to our family and friends, “How can anyone vote for Donald Trump? He’s going to ruin us.” We say, “Marco Rubio is establishment and look where that’s gotten us.” We say, “No one in congress will work with Cruz. They all hate him.” And moments later we’re all worked up. We end up in the same mindset, the same disarray, the same inability to get across a cohesive message that these politicians exhibit day in and day out. If they are causing these stresses and anxieties within us about our present and our future, then you are doing the same to yourself by trying to articulate and debate their very same messages.

I’m reminded of these words by Alicia Keys:
Some people live for the fortune
Some people live for the fame
Some people live for the power
Some people live just to play the game

Now I’m not saying don’t listen or learn or have an opinion. I’m not saying don’t vote or don’t care. What I’m saying is that these Machiavellian personalities (and our Machiavellian political system itself) is absolutely not conducive for a lower stress, lower anxiety way of living. I’m saying learn wasn’t doesn’t work. If, as human beings, we are consistent with our beliefs and morals, organized, honest, do what’s right instead of doing what it takes to win, we’ll literally feel better. If we’ll let our internal systems and psyche drive our external behaviors, we’ll be better off. Take the time to engage in the the things we actually enjoy rather than becoming overwhelmed with the 24/7 cycle of the things that cause us stress.

What if you ask a friend, colleague, or family member, “How Do I live?” What kind of answer would you get if they answer honestly? Are your organized or disorganized? Are you honest or do you play the game? Do you live the Machiavellian lifestyle? Are you consistent with your kids, siblings, parents, and others are around you? Is your life a circus?

Remember that anxiety comes from not controlling your internal mechanisms of thoughts, behaviors, emotions, and attitudes. It comes from inconsistency. It comes from lack of clarity and constantly changing values and beliefs. It comes from a lack of authenticity. It comes from a lack of boundaries.

On second thought, maybe we can learn something from Trump, Cruz, Rubio and the like.