Like a lot of folks, I couldn't make it through the last debate. I'm not talking about the one between Harris and Pence, obviously; that one was nearly watchable. I'm talking about the presidential debate. After ten minutes, I had to walk away. While my girlfriend critiqued Trump's responses, I felt the sinking weight of something different: He's doing exactly what he needs to do to win, and he knows it.
I should know, after all: I used to be a Republican. Sort of. It wasn't that my politics were all that different. None of my core beliefs about humanity had changed. It's simply that I was listening to different news sources, living in a different state, and dating a Republican. I was a product of the five people I listened to most, and at the time that was my boyfriend, a couple of dutifully apolitical recovering alcoholics, and two political commentators: Scott Adams and Ben Shapiro. Adams identifies as a leftist who supports the president, and Shapiro is a staunch Republican.
As always, part of me doubted - and part of me was willing to listen.
The other day, my girlfriend and I sat once again in couples therapy. It's free, and we appreciate the pat on the back from a male couples therapist continually surprised at how well two women can communicate. We were recounting our experience of watching the presidential debate - or at least, the first ten minutes of it - and it felt important to disclose to our therapist, too, that I used to be Republican. I told him the same thing I thought while watching the presidential debate: Trump knows what he's doing. Republicans are probably going to win. And I don't want to talk about it.
Part of this is because I don't want to get more distressed than I already am. Looking back on my life, I've survived pretty tough circumstances simply by thinking about other things. At one of my most developmentally critical periods of my life, all four people living in my house were depressed. At another critical juncture, the transition to college, I pretended that roommates were great, eating meals with virtual strangers was exactly what I wanted, and that I wasn't a bit hungry. And when I first got sober, I lived for a full year in painful awareness of how I didn't like my job, my living situation, my social life, and the way my body felt nearly all of the time. In short: I know that I can do hard things, so long as I don't belabor how damn hard they are.
That's only one of the reasons I don't want to talk about the election. While I'm not a Republican and I don't support Trump, I can still see there from here. I can remember the arguments that smart people made against abortion, socialized medicine, gun control, and hell - even same-sex marriage. I'm dating a woman, a woman I'd love to marry, and part of my brain is still open to what the Old Testament would have to say about it.
In short: I can't talk about politics without remembering that most of us - myself included - have a history of being pretty wrong, pretty stubborn, and pretty willing to believe that everyone else is an idiot. We have an evolved skill - no, I guess I can't see creationism from here - to avoid or explain away all information that disconfirms our beliefs. And perhaps more charmingly: we have an innate desire to get along with the people we love, and who we want to love us. Our beliefs tend to look like theirs.
The couples therapist, as it turns out, used to be a Republican, too. He also went to seminary. I bet that he, too, has considered what the Old Testament has to say about same-sex marriage. I bet that his desire to be in harmonious relationship with his loved ones, with the God of his understanding, and with the exceedingly progressive medical school that employs him, have made some of those prior beliefs feel untenable and even embarrassing. He and I admitted our former politics the way one might disclose a history of rampant credit card debt: a little humorous, a little ashamed, a little too eager to disclose that all debts have been repaid.
You might be wondering: If I can still see there from here, why did I find it so hard to watch the presidential debate? Why have I spent the last two weeks obsessing over what will happen next month? Shouldn't it be the die-hard liberals storming away from the debate screen, as Trump fails once again to denounce white supremacists?
Here's the thing: I'm still the product of the five people closest to me. And these days, that's my girlfriend, my family, and a few openly progressive alcoholics in recovery. After the killing of George Floyd, I made my first heartfelt attempt to acknowledge my own internalized racism. I tried to imagine what it might feel like to be black in the United States, and I hated myself for never having tried that before. And while the last four years of Trump's presidency changed virtually nothing about my daily life, I know there were ill effects. And I know I was protected from them.
In conversation with my own therapist on Thursday, I asked her what she thinks about all of this. "Are you more concerned for yourself and your family?" I asked her, thinking about how I could possibly console my sister if Trump wins re-election. "Or are you worried about your clients?" I'd heard from other therapists that providing counseling in the aftermath of the 2016 election was hard. "Do you dread going into work in November?"
She laughed a little. "Well, I'm more worried for my clients," she said, "but I don't dread seeing them."
And then, she said the first hopeful thing I've heard all year. Polls don't give me hope, but this did.
"I've been through a lot of elections," she said. "I've seen the bad guy win many times. And I've seen that, most of the time, people find a way to keep living. The human spirit is resilient."