11/17/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

State of Confusion: John McCain's Anger and the Debates

In my most recent two blogs I have discussed from a psychological perspective both John McCain's authority problem and his emotional instability. As the pressure of the presidential campaign mounts, McCain's immaturity takes new forms and suggests a pervasive fault line in his psychological stability.

The debates have been fatal for John McCain by exposing these personality traits to the American public. McCain's failure to look at Obama during the first debate attracted wide-spread media attention. People sensed there was something hostile and/or disrespectful in McCain's obvious refusal to look at Obama or to speak with him directly. McCain's body language was carefully designed to say that he found Obama unworthy of his attention.
McCain failed to understand that most members of the viewing audience did not share his hatred for Obama and, thus, found his behavior reprehensible and juvenile. Looking at a person when they are speaking to us is one of the most rudimentary forms of respect. Deliberately refusing to do so is like shunning; it is intended to make the other person feel they are not worthy of this most basic human recognition. Willfully subjecting another person to that experience is a silent form of mental cruelty. It is sadistic.

In the second debate, McCain still could not control himself, as evidenced by his contemptuous characterization of Obama as "that one," an expression suggesting Obama's importance was no greater than a nameless street mutt being selected from a pound. His sneeringly repeated refrain that "Senator Obama doesn't seem to understand..." and his avoidance of Obama at the end of the debate added to the unflattering image McCain presented to those viewers still trying to make up their mind about the two men. Since "undecideds," of course, did not share McCain's clear view of his own superiority, the behavior was annoying and reflected badly on McCain.

By Wednesday's third and final debate, McCain's staff successfully got McCain to look at Obama. They knew that McCain had looked contemptuous and disdainful by not doing so in prior debates. Unfortunately for McCain, it appeared his staff had forgotten to tell him that the reason he had to look at Obama was to avoid looking disdainful and contemptuous. What did McCain do? He looked straight at Obama with contempt and disdain written all over his face. When this look combined with the sarcastic and gratuitously cruel approach McCain took to Obama in the last debate, it was the death knell for John McCain.

That these events all occurred on national television where McCain was obviously hoping to make a good impression, suggests a serious breakdown in impulse control on McCain's part and a serious failure to understand how he comes across to other people. The impulse control problems are well-documented in his history and have been highly visible during the campaign, most notably with his selection of Sarah Palin and his inability to control his feelings of dislike for Obama on national television. As I said in a previous blog, this is not a man we want to answer the phone at 3 AM.

But why is McCain so oblivious to the kind of impact he is having on his viewing audience? That is something I have seen in many people in Washington and in private industry who live the life of privilege that John McCain has lived, a fact that is obscured, even rendered taboo, by his POW experience. Like many people who are empowered, they become seduced by the excessive deference other people give to them because of their power and position. They do not get the corrective benefit that honest criticism provides, and they begin to feel like legends in their own minds. When they are put before an audience that does not have to fear them or cow tow to them, they are shocked at the scornful reaction their smugness and/or arrogance receives.

McCain has morphed during this campaign into a disliked and unappealing man, while Obama's style has offered the public a kindly and thoughtful man prepared to be president and lead the country in the new and uncharted waters it must travel. The public now likes Obama and dislikes McCain. It is black and white and black has won the hearts and the minds of America.

Bryant Welch, J.D, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and attorney and author of the new book State of Confusion: Political Manipulation and the Assault on the American Mind (Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin's Press, June 2008.)