In the course of this pandemic, I’ve heard political commentators mention that good leaders express empathy in moments of national trial. When I first heard this, I didn’t attach much significance to the observation. It seemed soft, moralistic, a little fuzzy. But as the pandemic gathered force and spread death and destruction across the country, my thinking shifted. I began to think that a sense of empathy on the part of our leaders is more than a feel good thing; it’s political and consequential.
Here’s how, albeit in a negative sense.
In Trump, we have a president who lacks empathy. In fact, his tank is empty. He sees himself as a “tough” guy, as he understands the term. As a result, someone who is supposed to lead the country is emotionally detached from the suffering, despair, and deaths that millions of families are experiencing during this pandemic. Others hardship and pain simply don’t register in any sort of felt way with him. Thus he’s unable, and we see it daily, to provide even an ounce of solace to grieving families and a grieving country.
But it doesn’t end here. It’s not the only reason, but it also figures into his utter inability, and we see this daily too, to feel any sense of urgency to unite the country in a common, science grounded effort to beat this pandemic. His focus is elsewhere. On blaming others, in sowing division, shopping conspiracy theories and dismissing experts, in taking care of his wealthy friends and gaining political advantage over his rivals and critics, and, above all, in winning reelection in November, even it means issuing a death sentence to untold number of people, old especially, but also others in the early and prime years of their lives.
If you expected that this outrageous narcissistic behavior would find no support beyond the White House, you would be wrong. Not only does it find support, but the support is fawning and substantial. It includes the Republican Party, more than a sliver of billionaires and corporations, most evangelicals, and a white, majority male, grievance driven, mass base.
In their eyes, he’s not a wayward son, not politically and psychologically aberrant. He’s their guy, they’re clean up hitter, someone who’s ready to do their dirty work when it needs to be done. He may have a few rough edges for some, but they are hardly disqualifying and come in handy at times.
If we extend the lens out a bit, Trump appears not as a fluke, not as as an inexplicable contingency of history, not as an immoral, unfeeling misfit. He’s, instead, the logical result of the rise, growth, and consolidation of right wing, white-nationalist, misogynist, anti-working class, anti-democratic authoritarian power at a time when the reproduction of capitalism and the way that “life used to be” is fraught with challenges and challengers. Or said differently, a revanchist movement, born in the aftermath of the Civil Rights struggles and the surge of movements that followed, finds in Trump a prodigal son whose mission is to complete the institutionalization of extreme right wing authoritarianism for years to come, albeit in a highly personalized form.
Is it any wonder that the November elections are so suffused with urgency for all of us who believe in a kinder, egalitarian, democratic, just, and sustainable world?