Donald Trump has a major empathy problem.
That’s not new – but it is very, very important both to understand his reaction to Charlottesville as well as his presidency going forward.
Way back in May 2016, I wrote this:
“As the nation turns its eyes to the general election, I have one question that continues to nag at me as I think about the possibility of Trump in the White House: Can he be empathetic? Like, at all? And does he need to be?”
Watching Trump fumble his initial response to the violence following white supremacist protests in Charlottesville, Virginia on Saturday, I was reminded of that question. Trump ran as an unapologetic tough guy. But, what happens when you need a softer touch – in moments like the one that transpired in Charlottesville over the weekend?
“Ultimately, I think a lack of empathy is just one piece of a portrait of a person who is unbalanced and damaged,” Stuart Stevens, a Republican consultant who has long vocally opposed Trump, told me of Trump at the time. “He has spent his life in a bubble, surrounded by hired yes men and women who have never told his inner child to grow up.”
That may be an overly-harsh analysis. But, it’s hard to dispute Stevens’ assertion that Trump’s capacity for empathy is extremely low and, when he is required to reach out to people who he doesn’t know or who don’t support him, he is extremely uncomfortable and often simply unwilling to do it.
Trump’s two Charlottesville speeches are prime evidence. In his Saturday remarks, Trump seemed to be entirely focused on ensuring that people didn’t blame him for these violent acts and making clear that protesters “on many sides” were responsible for what happened.
On Monday, Trump, defying all political logic, started by touting his many accomplishments as president before turning to denounce the neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups responsible for the violence – which left a woman dead and dozens injured – in Charlottesvile.
Particularly in Monday’s speech, it was clear that Trump was checking a box that his advisers insisted he needed to check after swinging and missing so badly Saturday. They told him to read the speech, so he did. But, he quite clearly didn’t feel as though it was necessary to do so.
Ask people close to Trump and they will insist he is a kind and understanding person.
“He is a compassionate person,” said ousted White House communications director – and longtime Trump pal – Anthony Scaramucci in an interview with Stephen Colbert on Monday. (See! Told you!)
And, there is little question that Trump is extremely close and fiercely loyal to his family and a very small inner circle of friends. But that is a very different thing than being empathetic about the struggles of people you’ve never met or who you know didn’t vote for you or don’t like you.
For Trump, being president has always been about kicking ass and reasserting America’s spot at the front of the line. It’s sort of like this moment at a NATO summit at the end of May:
And, it worked for him during the campaign! People – especially Republicans – were sick of politics as usual. The color-within-the-lines politicians hadn’t done much of anything they liked so they were willing to take a chance on someone who didn’t sound or act like anyone who had ever run for president before.
The 2016 exit poll bears this out. Of the 15% of voters who said knowing the candidate “cares about me” was the most important trait in making up their mind who to vote for, Hillary Clinton beat Trump by 23 points. Among the 39% of the electorate who said a candidate who “can bring change” was most important, Trump won by 68(!) points.
People didn’t think Trump really cared much about them. But they wanted change more than they cared about being cared about.
The problem for Trump – as so starkly exposed by his response(s) to Charlottesville – is that being president is a very different thing than running for office. Where a lack of empathy doesn’t stand out all that much as a candidate – there is a president in place doing that empathizer-in-chief job – it stands out hugely when you are actually the President and the country turns to you for unity and inspiration.
And when you deliver a speech in which you cast an incident of white supremacist violence that left a woman dead as a both-sides-do-it situation, you lose credibility even with people who want to believe you have it in you to be more and better than you were as a candidate.
Empathy is not usually the sort of thing you can just start having. And it’s not something that Trump even seems terribly concerned that he lacks. But, as president, empathy matters. There will be more moments over these next three and a half years where Trump will be called on to recognize and identify with the real grief people are feeling while also reassuring them that better days will come.
After what happened over the last 96 hours in Charlottesville, it’s not clear Trump has it in him to do that.