Political commentators on both sides of the isle have raised the question: does Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump have the temperament or character to hold what is, arguably, the most powerful office in the world? While “temperament” in this context is a broad term, which includes the ability to control one’s temper, I want to focus here on just one aspect of temperament, namely the capacity for empathy.
Trump has a long history of saying things that most would agree are callous and insensitive. This suggests a persistent tendency or habit. For example, in a 1990 Playboy interview with Donald Trump, when asked what he meant about the then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev not having a “firm enough” hand, Trump replied:
When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it. Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength. Our country is right now perceived as weak... as being spit on by the rest of the world.
More recently, in November 2015, Trump mocked New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski, who helped to debunk Trump’s claim that thousands of Muslims were celebrating the collapse of the World Trade Center. Kovaleski has a congenital joint condition known as arthrogryposis, which limits movement in affected joints. While holding his arms against his sides, flailing his hands spastically, Trump mimicked Kavaleski in a contorted, agitated voice:
Written by a nice reporter. Now the poor guy, you gotta see him - 'aaahhhh, I don't know what I said, ahhhhh I don't remember.' He's going 'ahhhh, I don't remember, maybe that's what I said.' This is 14 years ago. They didn't do a retraction.
At the recent Democratic National Convention, Khizr Khan, a Muslim, who lost his son, Humayun Khan, in the Iraq war, delivered a powerful, emotional speech. Khan’s son, a captain in the U.S. army, posthumously earned the Bronze Star and Purple Heart for saving the lives of many fellow soldiers in Baquba, Iraq, in 2004. Ordering his troops to “hit the dirt” as a vehicle approached the gate they were guarding, Khan approached the vehicle and was killed when a suicidal bomber detonated it. In his speech, accompanied by his wife on stage, Khizr Khan, a Harvard trained attorney, was critical of Trump’s anti-Muslim immigration policy and criticized him for lack of knowledge of the U.S. Constitution. At one juncture, Khan held up his own copy of the Constitution and invited Trump to take and read it. In response to Khan’s speech, Trump had this to say:
Who wrote that? Did Hillary’s scriptwriters write it?
His wife, if you look at his wife, she was standing there. She had nothing to say. She probably, maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say. You tell me, but plenty of people have written that. She was extremely quiet and it looked like she had nothing to say.
During his speech, Khan also said that Trump has “sacrificed nothing.” Trump responded:
I think I’ve made a lot of sacrifices. I work very, very hard. I’ve created thousands and thousands of jobs, tens of thousands of jobs.
Now, there is something very odd about the way Trump relates to human concerns such as those illustrated above. For, in all three examples (and there are many others that could have been used to illustrate the point), he seems to have missed the nuances that require keying into human emotions. Most of us, who reflect on government tanks rolling over, crushing, and dismembering hundreds of college students protesting for human rights in China, would not cite the Tiananmen Square massacre as an instance of the sort of strength and resolve our leaders should demonstrate here in the United States. Indeed, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects freedom of assembly from government encroachment, and virtually all Americans have been brought up to view freedom of speech (regardless of one’s views) to be part of who we are as Americans. So it is not only perceived as callous to hold up such an instance of government aggression as an exemplar of power and strength; it is also a good example of what distinguishes a democratic nation from a totalitarian one.
Nor would most adults, world-wide, consider it appropriate to publicly mock the disabled; or respond to parents, whose son had sacrificed his life in defending our nation, with groundless accusations about the authenticity of a speech that clearly came from the heart. Nor would they publicly say that Khan’s wife, the mother of the deceased, was silent because she was not allowed to speak—regardless of whether or not they harbored a misimpression driven by a stereotype of Muslim women in the United States. In truth, Mrs. Khan had been invited to speak but feared she would not be able to maintain her composure, especially with a picture of her son projected behind her. Nor would most of us agree that creating jobs in the process of making a profit on one’s investment is on the same par with the sacrifice involved in losing one’s child in military service.
So, why is it that Trump does not seem to “get it,” that, far from “telling it as it is,” he is seriously misguided?
Khizr Khan’s answer is that Trump lacks empathy as well as “a moral compass” and the evidence appears to support this. In the instances noted, Trump failed to demonstrate an empathetic understanding of the plights of others—students who were brutally slaughtered by their government; a disabled journalist trying to do his job; and the mother and father of a fallen American war hero.
As I have discussed in a previous blog, empathy, as a state of mind, involves resonating with what is going on in the subjective world of another. This state involves both cognitive as well as feeling components. While some people can understand the circumstances of others on an intellectual level, they cannot put themselves in their subjective shoes in order to feel how they feel. Arguably, this is a disqualifier for some professions such as the counseling professions where a therapist needs to resonate with the subjective world of the client in order to build trust and facilitate constructive change. But what about being the Commander in Chief of the United States? Does this office also require empathy?
If the Commander in Chief needs to make ethical judgments, then the answer is a resounding yes; and it is hard to deny that this is a necessary condition of being in an office wielding such awesome power, at least this side of the divide between democracies and fascists regimes. Ethical judgments almost always involve consideration of the welfare, interest, and needs of others. Indeed, an ethical (or moral) problem exists when what one does can affect, for better or worse, the welfare, interests, or needs of others. Ethical decisions are typically about others and how they will or might be affected. To truly appreciate what others are going through, one needs to resonate with and feel their pain, suffering, sorrow, grief, or frustration—whether it is a disabled person, the parents of a slain child, an idealistic, college student in an oppressive society, or anyone else whose welfare, interests, or needs have been adversely affected.
Indeed, anyone can say he understands these plights. Anyone can tell a nation of people who suffer economic hardship, lack healthcare, and can’t afford to go to college, that he understands their plights. Anyone can promise to “Make America great again!” And it is, of course, a no-brainer that most Americans want to be safe from terrorist attacks and employed. But, these can be empty platitudes consistent with oppressive government regimes that condone exploitation of work forces; slave wages under subhuman working conditions; violate free speech, target certain religions and races for unfair discrimination, deportation, or internment; allow giant corporations to sell dangerous products in order to maximize “productivity” even at the cost of human life; and support policies that despoil the environment making it unfit to support human life. All this is, indeed, possible when a leader of a world power lacks the capacity to transcend his own self-interested wants, desires, priorities, expectations, and goals in order to emotionally as well as intellectually appreciate what it is like to be oppressed, violated, and treated like a mere thing. But such self-transcendence and other-regarding emotions are possible only if one is truly capable of empathizing with others.
Empathy is the moral emotion that permits us to key into the feelings of others, gain insight into what they are going through, and what would make them do and feel better. Veterans who return from a war with serious injuries need a leader to understand their plight, to resonate with it, and to help them attain the emotional, physical, and economic support conducive to their welfare, interests, and needs. The disabled are disempowered by others who degrade them—whether this is a disable journalist or an Iraq or Afghanistan war veteran. Those who are disenfranchised or discriminated against do not feel comfortable with a leader who calls them “criminals and rapists,” or who aligns and maligns them as “terrorists.” Women who are overweight or fail to fit a media- and corporate-driven idea of beauty do not feel empowered when they are called “fat pig,” “slob,” or “dog;” or when referred to as “beautiful pieces of ass;” or when told that breast feeding is “disgusting;” or that sexual assault in the military is to be expected; all of which Trump has publicly stated. A president of a democratic nation, who represents the welfare, interests, and needs of diverse cultures, ethnicities, races, religions, and sexual orientations, is effectively a moral leader in chief. Such an individual needs to be not just capable of resonating with others who share his own interests and values. Instead, he needs to be able to transcend himself, to resonate with the plights of the many and sundry people who are not seventy year old, white billionaires; do not perceive the world in exactly the same way he does; do not conform to his ideas about how people are supposed to look, think, act, and feel; and who do not necessarily agree with or support his views. To do this, the president, as moral leader in chief, must have a well developed capacity for empathy.
This involves a resoluteness to connect with others; bracket one’s self-interest in order to see the world from the other’s perspective; dispense with one’s own critiques and self-defensive reactions in order to understand and feel what others are going through. This is not something that can be done once in a while. It must be practiced regularly in order for it to become a habit, or second nature. Empathetic people are disposed to empathize with others. It does not appear that Trump meets this mark, and it is not likely, at least based on his past history, that he will somehow suddenly undergo a cognitive, behavioral, and emotional metamorphosis were he to become president.