Ten days ago, at a press conference before leaving Singapore, President Donald Trump called on Time magazine reporter Brian Bennett. “Am I on the cover again this week?” Trump asked rhetorically. “Boy, have I – so many covers.”
The image, taken by photographer John Moore, showing a girl crying as her mother is searched has instantly become the touchstone of the family separation crisis. That scared little girl juxtaposed against the towering Trump — looming over her in a black suit – is a startling image.
But it’s more than that. It’s a telling image. It shows the compassion gap that exists between the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” border policy and the real-life people that are affected.
The best example of the administration’s decided lack of compassion came Monday night in a press briefing by Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. Nielsen, inexplicably, said she was unfamiliar with the photos of children being detained in cages. She repeatedly insisted that all the administration was doing was enforcing the existing law when a) there is no law forcing family separation and b) the rise in family separation is directly attributable to the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy.
Nielsen never once said that she understood how difficult it must be to have a child taken from you – even temporarily. She never acknowledged that this isn’t some dry debate in a think tank in Washington, these are real peoples’ lives.
Trump himself has paid lip service – barely – to the human element of this whole crisis.
“Ivanka feels very strongly,” Trump said after signing an executive order Wednesday that allows families to be detained together. “My wife feels very strongly about it. I feel strongly about it,” Trump said. “I think anybody with a heart would feel strongly about it. We don’t like to see families separated.”
And that was about it.
The simple fact is that compassion and empathy are not strong suits for this President. Never have been, never will be. He knows – and relies on – his experience, and not much else. His ability to cast himself into the shoes of others – particularly those less fortunate than him – is minimal. And his interest in doing so is even smaller.
Remember that in the wake of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Florida that left 49 people dead, Trump tweeted this: “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism, I don’t want congrats, I want toughness & vigilance. We must be smart!”
While that is the most glaring example, there were any number of smaller signs – both during the campaign and since – that Trump simply doesnt’ do the empathy thing.
And voters acknowledged as much at the ballot box. Of the 15% of people who said that having a candidate who “cares about me” was the most important trait in how they decided to vote, Hillary Clinton beat Trump by 23 points. But far more voters wanted change than cared whether the candidate understood them and their lives – and Trump won those change voters overwhelmingly.
One of the central questions as Trump prepares to seek a second term is whether or not voters will make that same calculation in 2020 – will a desire for change trump (ahem) compassion in a candidate again?
What we do know: Trump isn’t changing. You don’t just suddenly develop an empathy gene. And the Time cover is a stark reminder of how much empathy matters in a president.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correctly describe the image of the crying girl on the Time cover.