In a matter of weeks, the US electorate will have the opportunity to exercise one of its most sacred privileges: the right to vote. For America – and the rest of the world – it will be the most consequential election of our lifetime. A referendum on Donald Trump as President to be sure, but also a nation’s referendum on empathy.
Empathy – the capacity to feel what someone else is feeling or imagine what they are experiencing – has beenon decline for years. But Trump has eviscerated it from the White House. Here are a few examples from his vast repertoire of empathy-deficient decisions, actions and stances:
- Despite professing love for his fellow Americans, he has repeatedly shown disregard for those in need. Instead of consoling victims of natural disasters, he’s thrown paper towels in Puerto Rico and held political rallies in Texas with ravaged homes and communities as his backdrop.
- He openly mocked victims of sexual assault who came forward during the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, and encouraged everyone to “think of your sons and husbands.”
- He repeatedly claimed he’s the unifier-in-chief, while condemning those who disagree or challenge him. Journalists have been singled out as the enemy of the American people. Athletes and activists speaking up about systemic racism have been dismissed as un-American.
- His administration’s wrath for refugees and asylum seekers have led to multiple travel bans and separated families. Worse, the pursuit of undocumented immigrants and the detention of children in cages was unconscionable.
- Empathy for mother earth does not even register on his radar. His administration has relentlessly dismantledenvironmental regulations and reneged on international climate agreements.
- Attempts to exhibit empathy have been selective, insincere and scripted. In a meeting with mourning families from Parkland, he referred to bullet points on a notepad to “hear” their pain.
- Tone-deaf to racialized communities decrying systemic oppression, he stated on the heels of the tragic incidents in Charlottesville, North Carolina, that there were “some very fine people on both sides.” More recently, when protests broke out nation-wide in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, he diminished the movement by calling the words Black Lives Matter a symbol of hate.
- Finally, he views it as a badge of honour that his country has the world’s highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases – a pandemic which he continues to refer to as the “kung flu” or Chinese virus.
Empathy is often conflated with words like pity, sympathy and compassion. But they are not synonymous. Instead, think of them on an altruistic emotion continuum – with pity on one side and empathy on the other.
When you pity someone, you necessarily look down on them. There’s power asymmetry embedded in the relationship. But when you empathize with someone, you recognize that we all share a common humanity. Something the U.S. President has repeatedly failed to do.
History has shown that hate flourishes in the absence of empathy for “others.” The Rwandan genocide and conflicts that ravaged the Balkans in the nineties turned neighbours into enemies overnight. Two examples of what can happen when leaders castoff empathy and use “us vs. them” narratives to pit one group against another.
The corollary is also true. Purposeful empathy can catalyze social progress and bring people together across all sorts of dimensions of difference.
Let’s be clear, Trump’s words and actions are doing real harm to people. But let’s also acknowledge that he’s a symptom of an even more existential threat: America’s growing empathy divide that could help dismantle their democracy, with sweeping implications for the world.
Let’s pray that our neighbours to the south, practice collective empathy at the polling station in November. The stakes could not be higher.
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For more than a decade, I have been singularly focused on leveraging empathy for personal and social transformation. I teach Leadership and Social Entrepreneurship & Innovation at McGill University and co-founder of PVM-Studio, a global advisory firm that supports purpose-driven people and organizations. Learn more about my work here.