If anyone understands the psychology of loss, it is Joe Biden. His then wife and small daughter were killed in a car accident in 1972; in 2015, one of his two sons who survived the crash died of brain cancer. He must surely realise, therefore, what the present occupant of the White House is going through. Grief.
Michael Kruse has recounted on the Politico website how, “after his 7-year-old son was murdered inside Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, the phone rang at Mark Barden’s house. ‘The vice president,’ his sister-in-law whispered. He held the phone up to his ear and heard the voice of Joe Biden.
“It cut through the fog of sorrow and shock. ‘I felt,’ Barden told me recently, ‘immediately connected to him.’ They talked for more than an hour—about shared priorities, about their families. 'Lean on that,' Barden said Biden told him. ‘Tap into that.’ And he gave him some practical advice, too: Keep a pad by your bed and rate each day, 1 being the worst, 10 being the best...”
And so on. It is a remarkable and very moving glimpse of the next President of the United States. If compassion means literally the ability to “suffer with” someone in distress, then he has it. Yet he is unlikely to be a welcome source of advice in the private hell for Donald Tump that 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue will have become. When we hear him urge “patience” during the present upheavals in America, it is likely he understands something of what Donald Trump is going through. Trump needs time.
He needed the presidency for his own emotional wellbeing, and is still surrounded every minute of every day by reminders of what he is about to lose. He is a man whose psychology may well make losing the presidential election an almost unbearable trauma. Grief as a response a serious emotional shock is well known to occur not just with the loss of a loved one but also from some grave professional disappointment – anything, in fact, that has been providing a stable buttress to one's identity.
Normal grief, it is understood, can appear in different forms and pass through various phases. These may include denial, guilt, anger, depression, insomnia and withdrawal from social intercourse. Humiliation came make these worse. Not everyone experiences all of them. Normally these states pass, and the individual gradually manages to reconstruct their world of meaning round the new reality of loss. As Biden says to Mark Barden, existing relationships of value to oneself, such as family, can help the adjustment. For some people the adjustment is such a long struggle it becomes a psychological illness. Fortunately It can be treated.
Biden himself drew strength from his Catholic faith, though grief can sometimes trigger a spiritual crisis that makes previous certainties seem hollow mockeries. Biden will have worked through all of that. From what we know about Donald Trump, he has no such source available to him. The reality he has constructed around himself depends so much on his own ego that there is little room for external spiritual influences. Arguably, Trump has not been in a mentally healthy state for a very long time.
For instance he has constructed a grand strategy in order to secure his grip on the White House that is full of logical flaws. A well-balanced mind would never have overlooked the non-sequiturs. To be completely cynical about it, if your game plan is to undermine the result of the election by alleging widespread fraud, wouldn’t it have been a good idea to ensure there was evidence to back it up? If the evidence did not exist, invent some, or get your friends and allies to do so. Richard Nixon would not have missed that trick.
There are some elements nevertheless that Machiavelli would have admired. Minimising the importance of the coronavirus and undermining people's faith in postal ballots (called in the US “mail-in” ballots), persuaded many of his supporters to vote in person on the day. That meant that by the end of polling day, November 3, it looked as though Donald Trump was in a commanding position. Subsequent counting of the mail-in votes gradually swung the outlook the other way, until Joe Biden had emerged as the clear winner. Trump’s tactics required that those mail-in ballots should be rejected as fraudulent.
But he seemed to forget that he would have to prove this: his assertion alone, for once, had failed to generate the “alternative facts” he needed. How, then, does he deal psychologically with his own omission? While grappling with grief? It is an explosive mixture that truly has the makings of a Shakespearean tragedy.