The missing empathy gene


There is no constitutional requirement that a president be the country’s consoler in chief, but there is a long history of presidential empathy.

Abraham Lincoln comforted a torn nation in 1865 when he said, “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle.” And Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke these oft-cited words during his inaugural speech at the height of the Depression in 1933: “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

In more recent years, we heard words of comfort from Ronald Reagan following the Challenger disaster; consolation from George W. Bush in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks; “I feel your pain” from Bill Clinton in 1992; and a moving rendition of “Amazing Grace” by Barack Obama during the eulogy of terror victims murdered at a black church in Charleston, S.C..

But now, as our nation struggles with an unprecedented mix of turbulent social, medical and financial challenges, and when our political divides are deepening, we hear no soothing words from the White House.

Indeed, President Donald Trump seems oblivious to the importance of words of comfort and reassurance to help calm a troubled country and ease its fears. Instead, he has doubled down on confrontation, continued his mean-spirited and demeaning name calling and tweets, and persists in taunting his adversaries with unsupported accusations and overreaching threats.

Donald Trump’s lack of empathy outrages his opponents and concerns his friends. The depth of concern was brought into high relief last week by a series of statements from longstanding public servants in the Republican party’s orbit, who reacted to the administration’s efforts to militarize the response to nationwide protests in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. First, there was Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the joint chiefs, who worried that “as they execute their orders, the members of our military will be co-opted for political purposes.”

The next day, James Mattis, the Marine general who resigned as secretary of defense in 2018, condemned the president in a stinging article, writing that Trump is “the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people — does not even pretend to try. Instead, he tries to divide us.” That was followed by former Trump Chief of Staff John Kelly, who defended Mattis in response to Trump’s insulting attacks of his former defense secretary.

In the months ahead, as we move toward the presidential elections, Americans will ask themselves whether they are better off today than they were four years ago. We suggest adding whether you feel better about the emotional quality of our country’s leadership than you did four years ago.

The answers to those two questions could decide the election.

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