Republicans aren’t big on empathy. Empathy is for losers. In 2010, Bill O’Reilly reminded all Americans that it says right there in the Bible that “the Lord helps those who help themselves” – so Jesus would have argued that unemployment insurance and welfare and food stamps and all the rest are immoral, because charity creates a “moral hazard” for those who receive it. Real charity is doing nothing for these people, thus providing the poor and unlucky the dignity to solve their own problems and finally become “good” people with a sense of personal responsibility. That would mean that when Jesus said that “the poor are always with us” it’s obvious that Jesus was simply exasperated with such losers, who can’t ever seem to get their act together.
That devastating quote from the Bible that O’Reilly thought he found caused quite a stir – because there are no such words in the Bible. Stephen Colbert reminded O’Reilly that O’Reilly was actually quoting Ben Franklin. In subsequent interviews, O’Reilly sputtered that that’s what was clearly implied in the Bible, if you thought about it. O’Reilly also protested that he was a fine Irish lad, who had gone to Catholic schools all his life, and the nuns had taught him that kindness, which the Church calls Charity, can ruin everything.
This was not Bill O’Reilly’s finest moment, but the moment passed, and then he lost his job. He had sexually harassed one too many women at Fox News. Then his boss, Roger Ailes, lost his job, for the same reason – but nothing much has changed over the years. Donald Trump isn’t big on empathy – and there are the women – but that’s another matter. Trump still has his job.
There’s nothing surprising here. The Republican Party is often referred to as the “Daddy Party” – the party of the largely absent taciturn father who, when necessary, beats the crap out of the kid, to beat some sense into the kid, for the kid’s own good, to teach the kid some damned personal responsibility, but otherwise lets the kid sink or swim on his or her own, for the same reason. Inflict pain. Random acts of meanness help too. That builds character. No one whines.
That’s how government should work, and of course the Democratic Party is the “Mommy Party” – nurturing and supportive. No child (or adult) should be left behind. People don’t whine. They’re really in trouble – and random acts of kindness do a whole lot of good in this sorry world. Charity doesn’t ruin everything. The Democratic Party is the party of empathy – real losers who seem to want to turn all good Americans into whining losers too, as any Republican will tell you.
Some of this showed up in Trump’s comments on Puerto Rico – those folks are going to have to shoulder more responsibility for any recovery from Hurricane Maria – the federal government’s emergency responders can’t stay there “forever” – and their financial crisis is “largely of their own making” – and their infrastructure that was a “disaster” before the hurricane. Some said he wasn’t doing enough, so he hit back. He made his point. Don’t mess with him. People who are hardly Americans, except by chance, especially shouldn’t mess with him. He’s the largely absent taciturn stern father. Let these kids sink or swim on their own. It’ll be good for them. It builds character. He’ll help the people in Texas and Florida. They don’t question him. They don’t whine. Donald Trump really is a Republican. Don’t expect empathy.
Empathy, however, is sometimes part of Trump’s new job. Puerto Rico is one thing. Who the hell are they? They get none. Military families are another thing. They’re supposed to get some empathy, and the Washington Post’s Philip Rucker and Dan Lamothe outline the problem here:
On Oct. 4, the day four U.S. Special Forces soldiers were gunned down at the border of Niger and Mali in the deadliest combat incident since President Trump took office, the commander in chief was lighting up Twitter with attacks on the “fake news” media.
The next day, when the remains of the first soldiers reached Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, Trump was assailing the “fake news” and warning the country of “the calm before the storm.” What storm, he never did say.
Over that weekend, as the identity of the fourth soldier was disclosed publicly and more details emerged about the incident, Trump was golfing and letting it rip on Twitter about Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the NFL, North Korea, Puerto Rico and, again, alleged media bias.
But a president who revels in providing color commentary on the news said nothing about what happened in Niger for 12 straight days – until Monday in the Rose Garden of the White House, where he was asked by a reporter to explain his uncharacteristic silence.
He got caught. Empathy had been called for – just the normal stuff – and twelve days had passed – so he faked it:
In his answer, Trump said in his defense that he had written personal letters to the soldiers’ family members, and he then tried to use the issue to gain a political advantage. Trump leveled false accusations at his predecessors, including former president Barack Obama, saying they never or rarely called family members of service members who were killed on their watch, when in fact they regularly did.
As anger swelled, Trump continued to attempt to bolster his broader claim Tuesday by invoking the death of Marine 1st Lt. Robert Kelly, the son of White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly who was killed in 2010 while serving in Afghanistan.
Had Obama ever called Kelly? That settled matters, but there was more:
The White House did not receive detailed information from the Defense Department about the four dead soldiers until Oct. 12, and that information was not fully verified by the White House Military Office until Monday, according to a senior White House official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment on the internal process.
At that point, the official said, Trump was cleared to reach out to the four families – both in letters that were mailed Tuesday and in personal phone calls to family members that day.
“He offered condolences on behalf of a grateful nation and assured them their family’s extraordinary sacrifice to the country will never be forgotten,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said.
On short, none of this was his fault, and better late than never, but sometime better never than late is better:
In his call with Sgt. La David T. Johnson’s widow, Myeshia Johnson, Trump told her, “He knew what was signing up for, but I guess it hurts anyway,” according to the account of Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.), who was riding in a limousine with Johnson when the president called and heard the conversation on speakerphone.
Wilson recalled in an interview with the Washington Post that Johnson broke down in tears. “He made her cry,” Wilson said. The congresswoman said she wanted to take the phone and “curse him out,” but that the Army sergeant holding the phone would not let her speak to the president.
The White House neither confirmed nor denied Wilson’s account. “The President’s conversations with the families of American heroes who have made the ultimate sacrifice are private,” a White House official said in a statement.
That’s putting a good face on things, because this guy doesn’t do empathy:
Trump did not serve in the military – he sought and received several draft deferments during the Vietnam War – and has drawn pointed criticism in the past for his comments about military heroes.
As a presidential candidate, Trump mocked the service of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a prisoner of war in Vietnam, and feuded with the Gold Star parents of Army Capt. Humayun Khan, who was killed in Iraq in 2004.
And on his first full day as president, Trump used a speech before the Central Intelligence Agency’s wall of stars honoring intelligence officers who died in service to air his personal grievances, including about the media coverage of the size of his inaugural crowd.
This guy is hopeless at empathy. He doesn’t get the concept:
Peter Wehner, an adviser and speechwriter in President George W. Bush’s White House, said communicating empathy and compassion has been for Trump like speaking “a foreign language.”
“Part of being a president is at moments being pastor in chief, dispensing grace and understanding and giving voice to sorrow, tragedy and loss,” Wehner said. “But he’s a person who’s missing an empathy gene.”
Steve Schmidt, a Republican strategist and former adviser to Bush and McCain, said he was surprised by Trump’s twelve-day silence on the Niger attack.
“There is no issue too small for him to comment on,” Schmidt said. “He tweets at all hours of the morning and night on every conceivable subject. He has time to insult, to degrade, to demean, always. But once again, you see this moral obtusity [obtuseness, perhaps] in the performance of his duties as commander in chief.”
That’s harsh, but this may be an inherited or congenital condition – he’s simply missing that empathy gene.
Perhaps it’s a birth defect, or just a Republican thing, but Ashley Parker reports this:
For the past seven years, Gen. John F. Kelly has gone out of his way to keep the death of his son free from politics.
He did not talk about him when – just four days after his death in southern Afghanistan – Kelly found himself commemorating two other Marines killed in combat, in a moving speech in St. Louis. In fact, according to a Washington Post report, he specifically asked the officer introducing him not to mention his boy, 1st Lt. Robert M. Kelly, who was killed instantly when he stepped on a land mine while on patrol in 2010.
Just last month, Kelly slipped away from the White House to attend a Marine Corps scholarship golf tournament in his son’s memory, with little fanfare or attention.
Kelly wanted to keep this private, but his new boss didn’t:
In Trump’s White House, almost nothing is off limits and just about anything can be used to score political points.
Leon Panetta, former defense secretary under Obama and former White House chief of staff under President Bill Clinton, said Trump’s comments were below the dignity of the office.
“I just think it demeans the presidency when you use John Kelly and his son, both of whom are patriots, to back up his excuses for whatever happened,” Panetta said. “I just think it creates a sense that there is no sacred ground for this president.”
It was too late for that:
A White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly, said Kelly did not receive a call from Obama at the time.
Yes, they had nailed Obama – Fox News had something to call outrageous for weeks and weeks – or not:
In May 2011, Obama hosted a breakfast for Gold Star families – those who had lost a family member who was in uniform – and Kelly and his wife attended, according to White House records. A person familiar with the event said the couple was seated at then-first lady Michelle Obama’s table.
Kelly can’t be happy:
Kelly has previously resisted White House efforts to link children’s deaths with politics and policy. Earlier this year, when Trump ordered the Department of Homeland Security to establish the VOICE office – Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement – Kelly, then the homeland security secretary, at the rollout of the office tried to push back internally against efforts to highlight “angel” moms and families whose kids were killed by undocumented immigrants, one department official said. The families were featured at the event but did not have a speaking role.
The official said Kelly is very sensitive to his son’s death being politicized, and recoils at attempts to politicize parents and families in this manner.
The VOICE office is supposed to prove to America that “those people” really are rapists and murderers and drug dealers, and Kelly would have none of it, not done that way:
Kelly participated in a 2011 Washington Post profile, largely, he said, to highlight the lives and challenges of military families.
Even then, however, his reticence emerged. When first approached about the story, he replied in an email: “We are only one of 5,500 American families who have suffered the loss of a child in this war. The death of my boy simply cannot be made to seem any more tragic than the others.”
That has now led to this:
Since joining Trump’s West Wing team, Kelly is almost always at the president’s side for public appearances. But he was notably absent Tuesday from a Rose Garden news conference with Trump and the Greek prime minister.
The White House offered no explanation of why Kelly was not in attendance.
Trump had just used his dead son to score points against Obama. His boss, the man missing that empathy gene, had just “used” his dead son to slap down, one more time, the man who wasn’t even president anymore, the man who doesn’t even matter anymore. Kelly skipped the Rose Garden thing. That congresswoman said she wanted to take Trump’s phone and “curse him out” – but that’s not Kelley’s style. He probably just needed a stiff drink, alone.
Paul Waldman says it’s worse than that:
Every once in a while a politician says something so outrageous that it produces not the feigned outrage that has become so familiar, but genuine outrage. That’s what President Trump managed yesterday, when in a news conference he was asked about his public silence on the four American soldiers who were killed in Niger, and claimed that while he calls the families of those killed in action to express his condolences, previous presidents, particularly Barack Obama, hadn’t done so.
This was a particularly despicable lie, because it painted Obama – and other presidents, but let’s be honest, mostly Obama – as cruel and dismissive when it comes to the sacrifice of those in uniform, while portraying Trump as the only one who truly cares.
This morning, Trump actually seemed to double down. In an interview with Fox News’s Brian Kilmeade, he referred to the fact that the son of his chief of staff, John Kelly, was killed in Afghanistan in 2010: “I mean, you could ask General Kelly did he get a call from Obama.”
You could, but Kelly might mention that Gold Star parents’ dinner, and Waldman would say that that’s not the point:
It’s obvious from his responses that Trump had absolutely no idea what presidents before him did or didn’t do in this situation, which he admitted again today (“I don’t know what Obama’s policy was”). But he went ahead and claimed that only he calls the families.
This is quite familiar to anyone who has been watching Trump these past couple of years. He takes his own limited experience and characterizes it as unique, extraordinary and unprecedented. No one has ever done this before, no one has accomplished so much, no one knows more than I do. There’s an element of the salesman’s puffery at work, but it also comes from a place of pure ignorance.
As conservative writer Tim Carney hypothesized last week, when Trump claims that no administration has ever done as much as his, it isn’t so much that he’s intentionally lying but that he’s so ignorant of the presidency and politics in general. He never realized that presidents and their staffs work very hard (“Like how 10-year-old me assumed teachers went into a cocoon at 3 pm,” Carney said), so he assumes he must be the first to have ever done so. The comparison to a 10-year-old is apt, because Trump’s brand of ignorance is so infantile. All of us are ignorant about some things, but only Trump believes that if he doesn’t know something, no one else could know it either (“Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated”).
That may be what happened here:
When a normal person is in a state of ignorance, he or she might exercise some caution and refrain from making a volatile accusation that, for instance, his or her predecessors were callous to Gold Star families. But not Trump.
Trump may be missing more than that empathy gene, and David Von Drehle – a former editor-at-large for Time Magazine and the guy who wrote Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year – now has this to say:
What struck me was Trump’s contempt for his predecessors. With scarcely a thought, he attacked not their policies, but their characters, accusing them of being casual about the deaths of American soldiers.
In their eye-opening book The Presidents Club my friends Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy documented the deep and complex empathy fostered among sitting presidents and their predecessors. Only they can understand the weighty experience of the office, and this makes even bitter political rivals into “fellow travelers in the parallel universe where past, present, and future blur, where the terrain of regret looks very different and where there is hardly ever such a thing as a perfect outcome.”
However, the newest club member appears incapable of empathy. Thus, he can malign not just the decisions but also the decency of previous presidents – and not as a matter of principle – merely on impulse, a whim.
Trump really is missing more than that empathy gene:
Patriotism doesn’t require us to praise what is not praiseworthy. Like any other American, Trump is free to criticize as he sees fit. But when an elected leader disparages, without cause, the good faith of other elected leaders, he is tearing the country down. What sort of nation, after all, would elect them?
I might be reading too much into a passing remark, except that Trump has been at this business from the beginning. His campaign was a tirade against “stupid” leaders who never managed to accomplish things that he would deliver on Day One. (We’re still waiting.) The transition was filled with talk of incompetent intelligence agencies. His inaugural address told the world that America’s bipartisan foreign policy of the previous 75 years was only a craven and deliberate theft of the nation’s wealth by its own leaders, to be “redistributed all across the world.” No one could hear and heed that speech without thinking less of the United States. For this was not some buck-chasing talk-show host tossing veiled charges of treason. This was the new president.
This is also a man who sneers at America itself:
I don’t think we’ve ever been led by a person with such a low opinion of America. And I’m hardly the only one to notice. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), whose military service Trump denigrated during his campaign, had this to say on Monday: “To fear the world we have organized and led for three-quarters of a century, to abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain ‘the last best hope of Earth’ for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism” – to be Trump, in other words – is “unpatriotic.”
That’s a thought:
The president insists that football players show respect for the national anthem, yet he has no respect for the good faith of those who served before him. He complains that critics are unfair to him even as he unfairly maligns his predecessors. At 71, Trump is experiencing public service for the very first time. We can but hope that the value of it will eventually dawn on him.
Hope won’t help here. This guy is hopeless at empathy. He doesn’t get the concept. The man is missing something – but that should be no surprise. Republicans never got the concept of empathy. Trump is simply more Republican than any Republican ever imagined. They’ve been working on this a long time. Now they have the real deal. Now they have to explain that.