It’s Easy to Have Compassion For Trump (But That Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means)
The other day someone asked me if I could have compassion for Donald Trump. I said “sure, of course I can.”
I got this aghast look like what was wrong with me that I dare feel compassion for such a moral cretan.
I’d contend it’s easy actually to have compassion for Trump. I’ll try to make that argument here. But how far does compassion get us really? That’s a question that’ll be looming over this whole piece and that I’ll return to at the end.
To preview the argument I find it very easy to feel compassion for Trump. At the same time I don’t think compassion goes nearly as far as most people think it does.
As a place to begin I’d recommend you start by watching the PBS documentary Choices which reveals elements of the biographies of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
There’s a very moving scene told by a boyhood friend of the Trump family about Donald’s father berating him and his brothers saying in effect (I’m paraphrasing):“there were only winners and losers in life. Period. Being a winner is all that matters.”
Sound familiar? Campaign slogan anyone?
Mercifully I was not raised with such a horrific view of the world. I can’t actually imagine what that must have been like. I can try to place myself in Trump’s shoes but really on some deep level I can’t. This recognition of the distance between us is the first step towards compassion.
I suppose one of the main reasons the person asked me if I could feel compassion for Trump (as well as the disgusted look I got when I said yes) has to do with questions about his personality. For example, people are passing around articles diagnosing Trump as having a narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). I’m not a clinician so what do I know but it is I suppose within the realm of possibility. So let’s say that’s true or at least something very akin to it, at minimum for the sake of the argument. Dude certainly evinces some weapons-grade self-obsession.
Here’s the thing though: NPD is a coping strategy in response to serious developmental trauma.
Say the kind of developmental trauma where your dad drills into you that there’s only winners and losers in life and if you’re a loser you’ll never earn his respect or love. The kind that would lead your older brother to drink himself to death (in his early 40s). The kind where you became a bully at school, lashing out in rage and are therefore expelled and sent away to a military boarding school (at 12). At which school you are routinely beaten. Where you are indoctrinated into a vision of masculinity where domination is everything reinforcing the view of your father that you have to “be a killer.” Domination over men in combative styles. Domination over women by seeing them as sexual objects to be used for his own gratification.
It’s a disturbing statement — being a killer. Really think about that. Sure you can say “oh but it’s just a metaphor his dad didn’t mean it literally.” But that’s precisely the point. The metaphor is derived from murder, from hunting, treating people like prey. That’s the guiding, overarching metaphor of his life arguably instilled at this very early age.
Fred Trump Sr. told the Trump boys to be killers. Fred Jr. seems to have been too sweet a soul for such brutality. Rather than pass on that trauma to others he decided to inflict it upon himself, leading to his early (and tragic) death. Donald, on the other hand, took his father literally. He became that killer, that winner.
Critics will often say that there’s no real Donald Trump. They’ll argue that Donald Trump — even as president — is a brand, a media personality, a non-entity. But that’s not nearly skin deep enough as an analysis.
The “real” Donald Trump is a coping strategy to trauma. The “real” narcissist that is. That as a narcissist he happens also to have created a sort of secondary emanation (akin to a horcrux) in his media persona is wackier (and more dangerous) still. But there is no “real real” Donald Trump, i.e. the pre-traumatized Donald Trump. There is, as far as I can see, no such self that exists.
This is why Trump explodes in rage at the slightest of personal attacks. Because psychically speaking, it is quite literally life or death for him. If his narcissist amor is pierced anywhere he is done for. There is no “real self” under his narcissism. There is no pre-traumatized self (likely). There is only the narcissist keeping psychic annihilation (barely) at bay.
I see articles with people questioning Trump’s sanity. My response to that is to say that a narcissistic personality disorder is a perfectly rational way to keep that level of developmental trauma (barely) at bay. Doesn’t make it good but there’s nothing insane about Trump. That the US electorate would put such a psychically compromised being in charge of country is what is insane.
Given that history, I find it quite simple and natural then to feel compassion for such a person. Compassion means to “suffer with”. In this case it means to feel deep sorrow for the fact that Donald Trump got brutalized as a boy and the natural innocence of his being was (literally and figuratively) beaten the hell out of of him.
What that means is that Trump isn’t a person you see (in the regular sense). He is a walking, talking psychic defence mechanism (NDP). He’s basically karma incarnate. There is essentially no freedom or choice in his system really at all. He’s simply a mechanism speaking and acting through him.
How can you hate a mechanism? Would you hate a car engine? How would that even work?
It’s a terribly brutal mechanism. It’s a survival strategy yes but it comes at great cost — to anyone who happens to be caught in its wake particularly. It’s a very devolved mechanism to be sure but under the worst of situations sometimes that’s the best that can be done.
Trump doesn’t have a narcissistic personality disorder. The narcissistic personality disorder has Trump.
If this is narcissism charge has any validity then (to the degree that it may be true) any compassion extended to Trump will not be reciprocated as definitionally narcissism is a non or even anti-compassionate stance. It’s a zero empathy disposition.
So if we’re going to experience compassion towards Trump know full well it will not be replicated. Compassion doesn’t mean that it’s ok he’s president and all the horrible shit he’s doing (and will do) is somehow to be written off. Compassion just means I feel deep sorrow that he was so horribly treated. Compassion also means that I understand why he has spent a life passing on that trauma to others, up to and including now whole groups of people writ large in American society. There’s no justification there but such a traumatization of others is bound to occur. Preening moralization and self-righteous condemnations are useless when you’re faced with unfinished traumatic energy. When it comes to trauma either you punish yourself (Fred Trump Jr.) or pass it onto others (Donald Trump).*
Compassion is quite simple. Trump didn’t deserve to be brutalized as a boy. No one does. Wisdom, by contrast, is to know the nature of such a being and understand that one could never ever give such a person any such power.
As Trump would say “haters gonna hate.”
Or, in this case, narcissists are gonna narcissist.
Imagining they could do otherwise is to miss the entire point of the thing.
Compassion in this case is easy. What’s not easy is the necessary political resistance to him and his policies (even while retaining the compassion).
* There is a third option: transmute and heal the trauma so the person doesn’t poisons others nor swallows the poisons themselves. But there’s no evidence that there was any such support or possibility in Donald Trump’s life.