A Therapist’s Guide From Obama To Trump

Barack Obama taking the oath, January 20, 2009

It is a moment in time that is private, personal, and often forgettable. The moment you turn out the lights, get into bed, and look straight up at the ceiling. Other than a faint light, the room is dark and in a moment you’ll be asleep. But until then, you stare at the dark ceiling with only your thoughts.

Eight years ago on the night before the inauguration, I wrote about the dark ceiling staring back at Barack and Michelle Obama. “Who can sleep? In 11 hours, the nation turns the biggest page since the country was formed more than 200 years ago.” The shift was seismic and the transfer of power extraordinary as we anticipated our first African-American president. Obama’s victory was more than transformative, he seized an uncommon opportunity: 2008 was the first election in 46 years that a sitting president or vice president didn’t run for the office while Obama was the first Democrat in 32 years to win the White House with more than 50% of the vote.

The First Couple walking the parade route after the inauguration ceremony, January 20, 2009

Now we face another seismic shift with Donald Trump. On the eve of his inauguration, millions of Americans will be staring at their dark ceilings tonight but will have trouble sleeping. “A lot of people are waking up from the denial state and going into a depression,” says Dr. Susan Birne-Stone, a Brooklyn psychotherapist. She believes Trump has a knack for stirring emotions and making people feel worse. “I think this has been a very traumatic experience for a lot of people. Every time he does something, tweets something negative, or the reality that he is going to be in one of the most powerful positions in the world, for some people that have actually experienced trauma in their life, whether it be personal or in their community, the people are re-experiencing past trauma.”

LISTEN to my interview with Karen, who shares her deep sense of abandonment the night after Donald Trump’s victory.
Hillary Clinton supporters react to election results, November 8, 2016

Ten weeks after Trump’s unexpected victory, the country’s emotions are divided by two colors. “Those of us in the blue states of mind are still grieving,” says Dr. Richard Zuckerberg, a Brooklyn psychologist. “Others in the red states are happy and excited of the possibility of change. They overlooked all the things Trump said. To them, the Wizard of Oz will get them to another place.”

That other place is what contributes to many people’s blue mood. But is it healthy to fear the wizard behind the curtain before he even takes office? “Try to be careful not to be caught up in the anticipatory anxiety of what’s going to happen,” cautions Dr. Birne-Stone. “Because if something does happen, then you want to use your strength and your tools to figure out what you want to see and work towards that solution.”

Anticipating the worst is what has mobilized tens of thousands of activists who will descend on Washington, D.C. this weekend. Instead of waiting to see what happens, they’re making their voices heard. Dr. Zuckerberg knows many of these activists are struggling with November’s results and the presidential transition. He believes Obama’s farewell address helped lift his supporters but also reminded them of just what they will miss. “This represents in part how the country’s blue states are dealing with the loss. How to move on, how to make the transition from this wonderful president- gracious, giving- who represented good things, to someone who represents pathological narcissism who will leave us out of the equation. And that’s what we fear.”

A Donald Trump supporter reacts on Election Night, November 8, 2016

This fear is what is staggering to millions of voters. “I think it’s very important that rather than getting overwhelmed by the big picture, that we need to be very careful to really zoom into what’s actually happening, not just the noise. We know the noise is very negative but we don’t know what’s actually going to happen. And my strong recommendation is that when we figure out what action needs to happen, people need to figure out what they can contribute,” added Dr. Birne-Stone.

Before we think Obama’s impact has ended, Dr. Zuckerberg believes there’s an important lesson his supporters can still learn. “Obama perhaps represents being more mature than us. He will not be absorbed into tears or into anger and that’s what makes him more mature. That’s why he can put his chair next to Trump’s in the Oval Office- mature to baby- and he’s not going to devolve himself in an immature position. He’ll remain adult. And that’s what we need to do, remain adult or aspire to adulthood.”

Donald Trump and Barack Obama meet in the Oval Office two days after the election, November 10, 2016

Maybe the country has an eight-year itch and these mood swings are unavoidable. It’s easy to forget that the United States has been alternating presidential leadership for a while. Since 1980, two-term presidents have been the norm, three-terms if you count George H.W. Bush as an extension to the Reagan years. And Trump’s ascendancy is obviously not the first time in recent memory that the country has faced a tumultuous transition. In 2000, it took 36 days of lawsuits and court decisions before George W. Bush was declared the winner, edging Al Gore by .009% in Florida’s still-scrutinized election. In his December 2000 acceptance speech, Bush pledged to “seize the moment.” In the end, the way he seized those moments amounted to a mere 22% approval rating when he left office. While Obama had small shoes to fill, Trump faces Shaq-like sneaker proportions. Obama leaves office with an unprecedented 60% approval rating, with 65% of Americans saying his presidency was a success.

Which brings us back to the dark ceiling. As I wondered eight years ago, when the lights go out tonight for Donald and Melania Trump and they look up at their dark ceiling in the moments before they fall asleep, what hopes, dreams and fears will be staring back down at them? Whatever it is, Dr. Zuckerberg leaves the rest of us with a question that could determine the tone of the next four years: “Trump- do we give him a chance?”