Empathy in the Age of Trump
Or: Why I might be a hypocrite when it comes to politics
This week the Deseret News published an op-ed I wrote urging Orrin Hatch to retire so Mitt Romney might take his place.
I wrote the piece because I want more politicians to fight Donald Trump from inside the GOP and because I admire Romney’s anti-Trump speech last year at the University of Utah, which was perhaps the strongest single speech of the entire election cycle.
As is usual, many of the comments in response to my op-ed were thoughtless and flippant, dashed off in a moment of hot ego.
But there was one comment that struck me. It notes a discrepancy between my writing about religion, which has focused on uniting around the ideals of truth, beauty, and goodness, and my writing about politics, which has lately been antagonistic toward Trump and his enablers.
Even though the comment is critical of me and even though I’ll never feel old enough to be called “Mr. Ogden,” I largely agree with it.
When discussing religion, Mr. Ogden is careful to emphasize empathy and understanding those with different viewpoints. He writes, “How can I find common ground with my opponent so that we can grow together?… open yourself up to the possibility that your position is wrong…[being] committed to the possibility of conversion to the ‘enemy’ camp.”
On politics, this is all thrown out the window. He paints in broad brush strokes, creating caricatures of both Romney and Hatch. He understates Romney’s support for Trump (remember that whole Secretary of State thing?), and overstates Hatch’s support. He uses charged rhetoric: “pandering”, “embarrassingly”, “hijack”, etc.
Considered as a whole, the two sides are hard to square, and make for less-than-convincing writing. The appearance is that of yet-another left-of-center blogger demanding careful treatment on favorite topics, but willing to launch rhetorically charged fusillades against political opponents.
It’s an intelligent critique—well researched and well argued, without resorting to personal jabs. More than that, the comment accurately pinpoints an inner tension I’ve felt ever since Donald Trump won the GOP primary last year.
That is, how do I reconcile my desire to build bridges and my raw disdain for Donald Trump?
I’m still wrestling for an answer.
To that end, I’m engaged in an ongoing dialogue where one part of me (who I might name Jon1) wants to build bridges in every instance and another part of me (who I might name Jon2) wants to defeat Trump at all costs. Depending on the day or hour or minute, I could side with either of these voices.
It’s admittedly contrived as outlined here, but my inner dialogue looks something like this:
J1: That comment is right, you know. You’ve been a hypocrite when it comes to politics, displaying none of the empathy you espouse in your writing about religion.
J2: I don’t see it that way.
J1: Why not?
J2: Because I believe Trump is singularly bad. He withdrew the health insurance of his own nephew (an infant with cerebral palsy) as an act of petty revenge, he’s now been accused of sexual misconduct by 19 women including his first wife who said under oath that he raped her, he settled for $25 million dollars for defrauding Trump University students, he stole money from hundreds of employees and contractors, and on and on. Plus, his tweets suck.
J1: So you’re saying it’s okay to drop empathy for Trump because he doesn’t embody your ideals?
J2: I suppose that’s one way to put it.
J1: But isn’t that the same line of reasoning everyone uses to fight those they disagree with? They label their opponents as vile and then use that label as an excuse to not truly empathize with them.
J2: That may be true…
J1: It is true. You’re not empathizing with Trump. You aren’t viewing him or his enablers as human beings with complicated motives and desires.
J2: If that’s true it’s because I don’t want to normalize Trump’s vulgarity, his crassness, and his cruelty. I don’t want to build bridges with someone as corrosive as he is.
J1: So… don’t build bridges with people you disagree with?
J2: No, it’s not that. Build bridges with those who earnestly pursue truth, beauty, and goodness—no matter if they’re Republican or Democrat, religious or non-religious. But don’t build bridges with those who are as corrosive as Trump, particularly when they’re in a position to hurt millions of people.
J1: In that case, division still exists.
J2: I suppose so. It’s the division of putting principles before party.
J1: But I still don’t think you’re being honest with yourself. You’re blind to the fact that you’re partisan—just another left-of-center blogger, as the comment said. All your political writing has pointed in only one direction: Against Trump and his enablers. You haven’t called out Democrats for their many moral lapses.
J2: I know, I know. You never stopped recounting those lapses to me all those years we identified as Republican.
J1: So why not call out the Democrats too?
J2: Because Donald Trump is the president. Because in my opinion the lapses of the Democrats who are currently in power pale in comparison to Trump’s lapses.
J1: Careful. Your partisan blinders are starting to show…
J2: I don’t see it as partisan. If another Republican had won the presidency—say, Marco Rubio or John Kasich—I likely wouldn’t be writing anything about politics right now.
J1: Is that true? Or is that just a convenient lie you tell yourself because you’re unable to see how partisan you are? Are you merely a hypocrite, refusing to show the same empathy you urge everyone else to show?
J2: I don’t know… I hope not… But I don’t know.
This dialogue goes on, but I’ll end it there. The point is that there’s part of me that thinks I’m a hypocrite and part of me that thinks that because Trump has crossed a threshold he and his enablers don’t deserve empathy.
I ask myself if I’m falling into the same trap of petty division I’ve protested in the past. Is Donald Trump an exception to the rule of empathy? If he is an exception, why is that? Where’s the exact threshold Trump has crossed that makes me think I shouldn’t view him with the same empathy as any other human being?
And then there are harder questions.
What about the men I’ve viewed as heroes? Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, but he owned slaves. Brigham Young organized the cities I call home, but he had 55 wives (some whom he married as teenagers) and was hopelessly racist. Mahatma Gandhi overthrew oppression in India, but he mistreated his wife and had a history of misogyny.
Everywhere I look, I see the horrors of powerful men.
Does that mean I should not view any of these men with empathy? If Donald Trump crosses a threshold, don’t all these men also cross that same threshold?
Don’t we all cross that threshold to some degree?
For instance, what should I do about the dark part of me—that lazy lout who craves whatever feeds his short-term interests and who I might call Jon3?
(Everyone dislikes Jon3.)
Should I extend empathy to that part of me? If so, should I not extend the same empathy to Trump and his enablers?
I might say that Trump deserves no empathy because he’s let his worst demons consume him to the core. He’s irredeemably a garbage human.
I might also say that unlike the men I might call heroes, Trump has accomplished no generous, superhuman feats. He’s made no heroic sacrifices to lessen the stench of his landfill of sins. He consists instead of layers and layers of ego.
But who am I to malign another human being when I too struggle against ego?
Again, I don’t know.
I might say that perhaps an answer lies in the dialogue itself—the back and forth of earnest comments, like the intelligent comment I received in response to my op-ed.
Or perhaps (and I’m realizing this now, only after writing this piece) Jon1 is completely right. What if the only way to reconcile my desire to practice empathy and desire to defeat Trump is to just let empathy completely win?
As I write that, I’m reminded of a quote from the novel Ender’s Game:
“In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves. And then, in that very moment when I love them… I destroy them.”
If that’s true, what would that look like in practice when it comes to Trump?
Maybe that’s where the next dialogue starts.