When Donald Trump mocked a disabled reporter, belittled a Gold Star family and insulted deceased senator John McCain for having been a prisoner of war, many Americans were understandably appalled and shocked. But these were not isolated incidents; they are indicative of a more serious problem — what appears to be complete lack of empathy.
As the economic recovery that began under President Barack Obama continued apace, President Trump’s lack of empathy was somewhat hidden.
But amid a national health crisis, with more than 150,000 Americans dead, millions out of work and countless more who have had their salaries slashed, many voters have been waiting for more from their president than self-pity. But nothing has emerged and Trump’s poll numbers have suffered.
A May 2020 Quinnipiac University poll found that while 42 percent of Americans agree that Trump cares about “average Americans,” 61 percent say the same about Joe Biden.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, though, Trump was already losing voters because of his lack of compassion.
A Democratic pollster conducted focus groups of working-class voters last summer in Maine and Wisconsin and found that female voters had especially turned away from Trump because “his ego makes him impulsive and a bully…, he’s dividing the country, he doesn’t care about the working class, only the 1 percent, he’s corrupt and out for himself, and he doesn’t respect women.”
Despite plummeting poll numbers, the president has not even been able to fake empathy and he continues to vilify anyone who disagrees with him in person, on TV, and through social media.
Social media — our modern public square where millions of Americans freely debate ideas — has especially led to an increasing lack of empathy and compassion in political discourse.
Since social media can be anonymous, it can inspire users to post just about anything with no consequences, little accountability and minimal chance to consider how one’s words affect others, which Trump frequently does with his nearly 85 million Twitter followers.
While no laws can force a president or elected officials to have compassion and empathy, certain legislation would help foster more reasoned debate and somewhat lessen the incentives for public officials to vilify people with whom they disagree.
Maryland Congressman John Sarbanes’ “For the People Act,” transformative democracy reform legislation that passed the House of Representatives in March 2019, would create much needed accountability for ads on social media by requiring political ad disclosure.
Even as Election Day approaches, Trump continues to show a lack of empathy toward his fellow Americans through various actions and words.
The Trump administration continues to try to take away healthcare from Americans with pre-existing conditions, Trump threatens to force schools to open during the pandemic and put teachers, students and parents at risk — and he’s trying to make it significantly more difficult for many Americans to vote this year.
As millions of Americans continue experiencing significant pain — emotionally, physically and economically — it’s no surprise that many voters would be more drawn to a leader who demonstrates compassion.
As much as I disagreed with parts of President George W. Bush’s agenda, he was perceived by a significant number of voters as having compassion, especially from his handling of the 9-11 terrorist attacks. His campaign’s slogan of “compassionate conservatism” appealed to many Americans and likely (in part) helped him win two presidential races.
The late congressman John Lewis exuded compassion, empathy and forgiveness toward everyone, even those who previously wronged him.
When a former Ku Klux Klan member who had beaten Lewis at a bus station in South Carolina came to Lewis’ Washington office many years later to apologize for these abhorrent actions, Lewis embraced the man and cried together with him.
President Trump should learn a lesson about empathy from John Lewis and be less like … President Trump.