Donald Trump and the Death of Empathy

Some sober food for thought on the last weekend before the election. No trolling, we promise!

(Albert H. Teich /

This essay is Part 1 in a series written during the last leg of the 2016 presidential election.

When President Obama nominated Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court in 2009, he mentioned that one of the traits he looked for in a potential justice was empathy. The right wing, acutely sensitive to any shifts in the court’s balance of power, understood the word to be a code for judicial activism or “legislating from the bench,” and went ballistic. It was all heat, and no fire, and Sotomayor was confirmed easily, 68-31.

Nine “centrist” Republicans voted yes, which made the battle over empathy seem ridiculous. Fighting something that most people think of as a virtue was taken as proof of the disease afflicting the Republican Party. Things that made perfect sense within conservative circles sounded inscrutably weird to everyone else. At least, that was how the Democrats — tantalized by the thought of a permanent governing majority, and still high on 2008 — thought about it.

Seven years later, the haughtiness has evaporated. The Republicans took the House in 2010 and the Senate in 2014, and now control more than 30 state governments. (Merrick Garland, the moderate chosen to replace Antonin Scalia, couldn’t even get a confirmation hearing, let alone an up-or-down vote.) The slow-motion constitutional crisis drifted along. Yet even these victories weren’t enough to heal the right’s existential emergency, because Obama was still president and demographics weren’t on their side. Disaffected Republicans needed a savior.

Enter Donald Trump. He sensed straight White Christian America’s festering tribal alienation and weaponized it. Given a voice, given a figure who gleefully demolishes any democratic social norms that get in his way, his supporters feel validated. To get to this depressing juncture, they’ve fought empiricism, common sense, and the wishes of the corporate-oriented Republican establishment that nurtured their grievances for as long as it was expedient. But most of all, they’ve been fighting against empathy — hard.

A Trump rally is like the mirror opposite of a music festival where everyone’s on MDMA. Instead of swelling with the expansiveness that I get from a Dan Deacon set at Outside Lands, his crowds surge with righteous indignation. Their inarticulate leader stokes their passions, extemporizing on how badly everything sucks. (It should be said that Trump isn’t entirely wrong: NAFTA, automation, and the entire neoliberal order have weakened the American middle class. But no one should expect the Republican Party to turn its back on the billionaire donor class and call for strong unions or a national infrastructure bank.)

Still, it’s mostly bullshit. And in any case, policy proposals are beside the point. Trump’s candidacy channels an us-versus-them movement, with the full checklist of proto-fascist tropes: made-up boogeymen, minorities persecuting the majority, the imminent end of all that is good, the promise of salvation. And demonization of “Those People” is the key. Mexicans are rapists — trans women, too. Ghazala Khan wasn’t allowed to speak at the Democratic National Convention. Black Lives Matter is a cop-killing hate group. China invented climate change to harm American manufacturing. Refugees fleeing ISIS are members of ISIS. The ferocity of this nihilism is astounding, but beyond the willful ignorance of the facts, everything rests on the resistance of any empathy, of any regard for the Other.

But as any Bernie Bro will tell you, the rot in the system isn’t just on the one side. If you’re a liberal who’s been on social media at all this year, you can feel yourself being sucked, meme by meme, into the arms of your tribe as if by tidal forces. Our side is good, and their side is racist. We have facts, and they’re just stupid. Progressives, supposedly the people who can tolerate nuance and refuse to see the world in black-and-white terms, have fallen prey to no small amount of convenient oversimplification.

More importantly, this has meant rationalizing away a lot of legitimate concerns about who and what we’re voting for. After a year and a half of this, I’m not sure what. Hillary Clinton worked for years laying the groundwork for the Trans-Pacific Partnership before claiming she was against it when the winds blew that way. She said she wants a no-fly zone over Syria even though she admits it would kill a lot of Syrians. She got paid hefty sums to speak soothingly into the ears of Goldman Sachs, and fought hard to prevent the release of the text of those speeches.

“So what?” goes the reasoning. “We have to stop Donald Trump.”

And it’s true. Above all else, we have to stop Donald Trump. But in so doing, empathy starts to suffer at the hands of mob justice. Tweeting in support of Donald Trump is now grounds for getting fired from your job, irrespective of its bearing on your job description or performance. One Trump donation can lead to a boycott of an entire company.

As a politically engaged queer person, I feel the anger — and it’s hard to disentangle myself from it. The same goes for the fear of waking up on Nov. 9 to a Republican president-elect. And I freely admit I love seeing asshole Trump supporters get their comeuppance. But we still have to share the country with these people when this is all over. At the end of the Civil War Abraham Lincoln didn’t say, “Now let’s burn the entire South to the ground.” He said to show “malice to none and charity for all” — and that meant charity toward people who owned and brutalized other human beings, then declared war on the government to protect their right to do so at will, unmolested, forever.

Lincoln was right. Mob justice feels great, and it’s not even necessarily wrong, but it’s impossible to apply the same standards across the board. You can’t get 60 million Trump voters fired for voting for Trump. You won’t even be able to fire 0.1 percent of them. So it’s probably best not to try.

To be very clear, there is no moral equivalence between the left and the right on this. The left isn’t perfect, but it doesn’t gin up enemies or encourage people to take up arms against their neighbors. Even a few thousand angry tweets demanding a pro-Trump porn star be shitcanned isn’t the same as the candidate telling people that Hillary will triple the population of the country.

But you can feel things getting uglier. Viewed from 30,000 feet, it looks like we’re slowly drifting toward another civil war whose chief theater is fought online (hopefully, anyway, since one side is armed to the teeth and the other isn’t). At some point, largely through social media, empathy started losing its warmth and began curdling into something vaguely Maoist, a cold and doctrinaire means of signaling your own tribal righteousness to the small circle of people who agree with you.

Yet nobody’s pure. The coalition of Americans that will elect Hillary Clinton — or, if you think of your vote primarily as a vote against, the coalition that will defeat Donald Trump — will not consist primarily of off-the-grid vegan cyclists who majored in gender studies. Instead, there will be uncritical omnivores, affluent types with medallion flight statuses that indicate their extraordinary contribution to the destruction of the climate, millions of people who keep in their left front pockets a supercomputer built in China by a modern slave.

Their winning coalition will contain Islamophobic Jews, homophobic Muslims, racist gays, misogynist Latinos, pro-life Catholics, creationists who find Trump vulgar, lefties who hate the homeless and don’t vaccinate their children, old Republican ladies who secretly just want to see one woman president before they die, and plenty of straight-up shitty white people. That’s the Democratic Party, impure to the core. Without all those people — without this long list of assholes with aspirations and dreams just like you and me — we will lose.

So let’s not tear everything apart. Donald Trump didn’t singlehandedly kill empathy. But he capitalized on the tribalism that wounded it, and imperiled the country in a way we haven’t seen in 150 years. And we can only unfriend so many people.


Peter Lawrence Kane is the arts and culture editor at SF Weekly.

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