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EDITORIAL: A troubled political psyche

Is Donald Trump unstable? Is Hillary Clinton a liar? Is one or the other unfit to serve as president? Some Loudouners surely think so.

Citizens in Loudoun, considered a pivotal county in the presidential election, are so troubled by the candidates – their assertions, their rhetoric, their performance and their values – that some have asked psychologists to assess whether a candidate they oppose has a personality disorder or sociopathic tendencies.

Residents appear deeply troubled by one candidate or the other, says Dr. Michael Oberschneider, founder and director of Ashburn Psychological Services. Some partisans have sought the counsel of psychiatrists and psychologists to validate their disdain for either Trump or Clinton.

Oberschneider can’t remember an election when the candidates for president were so polarizing. In the recent history of presidential campaigns, the candidacies of elected presidents Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama brought tough accusations that resulted in strident disagreements among the populace. But those disagreements pale in comparison to those in the current election cycle.

The developments of the current campaign – as well as the strong-willed personalities of Trump and Clinton – have brought some Loudoun residents, including adolescents, to psychologists for counseling.

Some want validation that they are right about an opponent they disdain, says Oberschneider. Others want to assign labels such as “narcissist,” “xenophobe,” “dishonest” or “liar” to the candidate they oppose. Adolescents, some influenced by positions of their parents, can be troubled or confused by what they hear and see.

Oberschneider stays neutral. “It is unethical for psychiatrists to give a professional opinion about public figures they have not examined in person and obtained consent from to discuss their mental health,” he says.

Psychiatrists and psychologists operate under ethical rules that prevent them from offering professional diagnostic opinions about the mental health of public figures they have not personally examined. The American Psychiatric Association’s version of this is known as the Goldwater Rule — named for Barry Goldwater, a polarizing Republican presidential candidate in 1964. Responding to a magazine survey at the time,1,200 psychiatrists said they found Goldwater unfit for the presidency. Goldwater sued the magazine and won.

Oberschneider stands by the Goldwater Rule, despite widespread analysis of the candidates on the internet, including some by mental health practitioners.

Characterizations of a candidate as being sexist, racist, intolerant, dishonest, narcissistic or merely obnoxious may be accurate, but do not support a diagnosis of personality disorder or mental illness, Oberschneider says. People with diagnosed personality disorders typically lead damaged lives that impact how they function. They also tend to damage the lives of family members.

“People with a severe personality disorder don’t have success,” he says. “We can’t say that about the two presidential candidates.”

Indeed, anyone who feels that they are best suited to become president, exhibits some degree of narcissism, according to Oberschneider. “That’s healthy,” he says. “You want the president to feel like the smartest person in the room.”

Still, Oberschneider says he’s seen an intensity in the disdain for both Trump and Clinton. Some of the disdain is channeled by passion, but it can manifest as outright hatred that affects the balance and certainty that people seek in their lives, even in an affluent and well-educated county such as Loudoun. He says he’s seeing more patients who want him or others to expose either Trump or Clinton as unfit to serve, and thus validate their own emotional or partisan leanings.

How to counsel them? “I listen,” Oberschneider says.

Listening can be unpleasant in a campaign that has featured lewd and vulgar language, sexual escapades and morality plays involving marital infidelity, harsh threats, boorish behavior, stunning accusations and, in many cases, disregard for the facts. The rhetoric is amplified by stark disagreements over pressing issues of our times.

The noise in our heads isn’t about to go away. One of two people who is disliked by large parts of the electorate will be elected president of the United States. Given current events and current passions, be prepared to deal with a lingering hangover.

Editor's Note: Dr. Michael Oberschneider writes a column that occurs occasionally in the Times-Mirror.


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