Michael Gerson wrote an opinion piece in the WaPo yesterday about the lack of empathy expressed by Donald Trump. Much of the article was aimed at showing how important empathy is at bad times like we’re are going through. He pointed to examples of past leaders. I wholeheartedly agree. At the end he urges the president to “fake it.”
There is a hole at the heart of Trump’s rhetoric where empathy belongs. How must the marginal in our society — prisoners, migrants, the homeless and destitute — view a president who seems most excited by stock market gains and welfare for big corporations?
It is not particularly helpful to urge the president to grow a soul. But empathy in times of crisis is not some altruistic add-on. It is the manner by which a nation’s suffering is given purpose, and a method of assuring the vulnerable they won’t be forgotten. If the president can’t feel it, he needs to fake it.
He cannot. The President is one of the most entirely left-brained human beings I have ever observed. He is completely dominated by that side and cannot connect to the real world of events happening all around him. For that, his right-brain must be working. He can only see the dissociated “facts” he has filled the left hemisphere with. As we are now very much aware his world is dominated by such facts, including a strange, narcissistic belief i his own powers.
Empathy is a paradigm right-brain process. Empathy requires a connection to and sense of what is going on over there. On a person-to-person level, that is always problematic because one can never see clearly into the brain and body of the other to discover what needs to be taken care of.
But in a collective sense, such as that which is essential for effective leaders at any scale, concerns and needs are evident to all. It is virtually impossible to ignore or miss them. To the extent that some connection to the troubled world exist (right-brain), empathetic responses are possible, but only possible. In our modern world, left-brain “rational” actions, based on abstractions gleaned from the past and removed from the context of the moment, are the norm and suppress actions of caring based on the experience of being connected.
No such possibility exists when the right-brain takes a walk. Then, the cold, passionless, unfeeling, controlling left is completely in charge. At the extreme, the outside world, normally experienced via the right, recedes entirely leaving only the ego in place. It becomes the center of everything, despite whatever is going on. A perfect description of President Trump. It is impossible for the president even to fake empathy because he in cognitively incapable of taking in the situation and acting consequently.
Empathetic behavior may not be needed when everything is humming along and everyone involved is flourishing, that is, personally and institutionally engaged. Normal, rule-bound behavior is the engine that drives all institutions, but the complexity of life at all scales precludes such normality. Nothing ever exactly fits all the rules. Change is the norm. Problems always show up. To the extent that they involve people’s human concerns, empathy or some other sense of connection is a new essay component of all responses. When the world, itself, is falling apart, empathy is critical at every level of human interactions. Faking it will not do.