Seeking Empathy for People You Don’t Understand

What would it take to empathize with those who see Trump as a martyr?

Posted Jan 25, 2021

I recently saw a painting of Donald Trump as Jesus, nailed to a cross, with Nancy Pelosi a Roman centurion, piercing his side with a spear. My first reaction was to shake my head in exasperation and astonishment, wondering how anyone could have this perspective, one so wildly different from my own. My next was to utter some unprintable derogatory comments about the artist and their subject, followed by despair that they and I live in such entirely different worlds that I fear nothing could bring about mutual understanding.

Now, I’m trying to find some way to begin that process.

I want to be clear, from the get-go: This will not be an anti-Trump screed. Let me be equally clear: I am definitely not pro-Trump. Moreover, I have not been shy — in other venues — about expressing this. But gatekeepers here at PT and any Trump supporters who might be reading this, please relax as I repeat: This will not be an anti-Trump screed.

Rather, I want to explore some of the dynamics and politics of empathy and of reconciliation. And of my own limitations.

Following the 2016 election, many progressives were urged to listen to Trump voters, to avoid being supercilious (no “basket of deplorables,” please) or contemptuous, not to lecture, not to cite facts, not to invoke Germany in the early 1930s or to utter the word “fascism,” but to listen and to explore our common humanity. Personal disclosure: I didn’t try very hard and certainly didn’t succeed. This, despite that I espouse — at least, rhetorically — the position that we are all one species, brothers and sisters under the skin, the products of the same evolutionary process, and all equally in need of love and respect.

The advice to “reach out” was always difficult, all the more so following the events of January 6, not to mention policies to which I am unalterably opposed. “Walk a mile in their shoes”? I can’t manage a single step. “Look at life from both sides now”? No way. “Forgive and forget”? “Let bygones be bygones”? How can I even begin to “dialog” with someone who feels, deeply, that Donald Trump is being crucified, while I see the US as the victim and Trump as the guy with the hammer and nails?

My favorite Buddhist, Thich Nhat Hanh, wrote an important poem, “Please Call Me By My True Names,” a plea for understanding and compassion, in which he notes that he is the mayfly but also the bird that eats it; he is the frog but also the water snake that devours it; that he is a 12-year-old refugee fleeing oppression in a small boat who is raped by a sea pirate and who then throws herself into the sea and drowns. Most challenging, he notes that he is also the sea pirate, and calls for us to be compassionate toward him as well as toward the girl.

Can I be compassionate toward the artist who painted Trump on a cross? Of course, it is possible that the motive underlying that work was merely a crass anticipation that the theme might fetch a good price from among Trump’s millions of supporters. But I suspect that this person’s anguish was also genuine.

I could engage in civil conversation with “pro-lifers” or even Second Amendment gun advocates, much as we disagree. More difficult would be seeing myself in those sea pirates who maintain that White privilege and Black deprivation are “fake news,” or that Covid-19 and global climate change are hoaxes. But what about thoughtful, loving, and receptive communication with someone who stormed the Capitol seeking to violently overturn the election or Q-Anon devotees who seriously maintain that the federal government is run by a secret cabal of pedophilic, Satan-worshipping Democrats? And that Trump had been sent on a divine mission to overthrow them and Make America Great Again?

Granted that some people are likely irredeemable. These extremists aside, however, aren’t progressives well advised to reach out to ardent Trump supporters, to be patient, to “feel their pain” and to seek common ground? Maybe so, but I confess to more than a bit of pessimism. I also would like to know if those on the Trumpist far-right — readers of Breitbart, 4chan, 8chan, followers of Telegram, Gab, and others — have been implored to do their own soul-searching and urged to reach out to progressives such as myself. I doubt it but would be pleased to be proved wrong.

In the meanwhile, I am stuck with my own failure of empathy, an inability to see myself in the sea pirates among us, a righteous refusal to acknowledge the poignancy of Trump on a cross, and no comprehension of — never mind sympathy for —  the inner life of the artist who imagined it. Until I can, I shall despair for our country in particular and for humanity more generally.  

David P. Barash is professor of psychology emeritus at the University of Washington. His most recent book is Threats: Intimidation and its Discontents (2020, Oxford University Press).