28 September 2016

Everybody's empathy deficit

While getting ready for work this morning I browsed through the cable news channel and saw Mike Barnacle on MSNBC opining on Donald Trump's "lack of empathy for the human condition," if I remember the words correctly. This observation was provoked by Trump's reported insults, freshly publicized by the September 26 debate, of a Latina former Miss Universe who had gained weight. I suppose that was predictably boorish if not sexist of him, but Barnicle's seemed like an extreme, incorrect diagnosis of the problem. As a critic of Donald Trump I don't perceive a lack of empathy in the man. If anything, his appeal over the past two years has depended greatly on an empathetic connection with his constituents. At the least, Trump's supporters feel that he empathizes with them, and they seem to empathize with him. Democratic skeptics sneer that any perceived empathy toward the working class -- even the white working class -- on Trump's part is pure sham. Since they see him as nothing but a boorish billionaire, they can't believe that he feels empathy toward the working class. They're right about this only insofar as Trump actually empathizes with something other than the "working class" as such. The skeptics will interject that if Trump empathizes with anything, it's the "white America" that he inferentially wants to make "great again." The problem with Trump from this perspective is that he suffers from the selective empathy of the bigot or the male chauvinist pig. That still doesn't sound right, though.

My guess is that Trump loves this country sincerely if not unconditionally, and connects emphatically with people who feel the same way. Part of his appeal may be that his base only trusts someone like him -- older white male, apparently straight, superficially Christian, and rich -- to love the country as unconditionally as they do, without any of the grudges or grievances ethnic and sexual minorities and some women carry and express through declining to salute the flag. But with that unconditional love of country, I think, comes a sincere sort of empathy for "the American people" in some idealized form. This empathy, however, most likely isn't unconditional. It is very much conditional rather than selective; it does not dismiss or disqualify whole groups out of hand. But on some level the empathy of Trump or his constituents has to be earned; it doesn't come as automatically as liberals might demand. It requires a recognition that you're at least trying to pull your own weight, or would if you could. Once that recognition is granted, Trump and his kind are arguably more empathetic and indulgent than American ideological conservatism theoretically permits. The populism attributed to Trump, particularly as applied to trade issues, is a textbook case of empathy for the hard-working American trumping -- there's really no better word for it -- the Darwinian ideal of economic competition espoused by many Republicans and Libertarians. Trump at least appears to reject the "consumer is always right" thinking that demands unconditional free trade regardless of the cost in American jobs. Populism is a more empathetic form of patriotism, which is why people on the left often try to claim the P-word for themselves. The problem with populism is that its conditional (or selective) empathy cuts both ways, rejecting both elitism and universalism in its insistence that a particular group should always be the object of the nation's first regard. But before anyone condemns limited empathy as lack of empathy, let's acknowledge the persistent lack of empathy felt toward Trump's constituents by Trump's opponents, many of whom can't help seeing bigotry as the alpha and omega of their entire worldview. I've been reading articles lately in which liberals wonder how they can ever reach the white working class to break Trump's apparent spell on them. This shouldn't be a hard question to answer, yet Democrats have struggled with it all summer and into the fall. I hope to describe their struggles and suggest some remedies in a future post, but I hope I've done enough here to stop people from saying I don't give Trump credit for anything.


Anonymous said...

"Empathy" isn't a necessary qualification for the office. Unfortunately. In fact, Constitutionally speaking, higher qualifications are required to hold the position of janitor at a public school, than to hold the office of President. The only jobs I can think of that require lower qualifications for the office of President also require the words "would you like fries with that?"

Samuel Wilson said...

The Framers might be forgiven for neglecting to include an education requirement given that George Washington never attended college, while Alexander Hamilton, one of the principal Framers, dropped out of college after one year. Of course, people made more of an effort to educate themselves outside school or academia back then. That remained true into the 19th century, when Lincoln managed fairly well with only a minimum of formal schooling. Depending on how you feel about today's colleges, a degree might not suffice to qualify a modern president.