When President Trump declined to meet with Jacob Blake’s family during his recent, unwanted visit to Kenosha, Wis., I saw it as one of the few acts of mercy he’s committed during his presidency. It eliminated any risk that Trump might lapse into a golf metaphor, and compare the seven bullets shot into Blake’s back by a police officer to shooting seven over par on the 18th hole at his favorite Trump-branded resort.
Not that the Blake family wanted to meet with the president. Wary that Trump would find a way to politicize the Aug. 23 police shooting that left Blake paralyzed below the waist, Justin Blake, Jacob’s uncle, was unequivocal: “We don’t have any words for the orange man in the White House.”
With all the horrors Trump has inflicted on this country, his exhausting lack of empathy has always felt especially loathsome. Of course, he wouldn’t speak to the Blake family or even utter Jacob Blake’s name during his Kenosha trip. He saw no political upside to a show of public compassion for a Black family or for a restive community with neither justice nor peace.
On his own trip to Kenosha, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, met Thursday with the Blake family, attended a community meeting, and spoke to Jacob Blake, who remains hospitalized, on the phone.
Like democracy, empathy is on the ballot. This nation can no longer pay the impossible cost of a leader immune to facts and grace, as it sinks deeper into financial devastation, violent right-wing extremism, sickness, and death.
Empathy is the low hanging fruit of presidential duties. In dire times, it’s a word of reassurance, a whisper of understanding to ease, if only for a moment, the gnaw of desolation. From Ronald Reagan’s speech after the Challenger space shuttle tragedy in 1986 to Barack Obama singing “Amazing Grace” at the 2015 memorial service for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, one of nine Black people murdered in their historic South Carolina church by a white supremacist, presidents often rise above the clamor of partisanship to console a bruised nation.
Trump can’t even feign sympathy because he is attuned only to his own needs and discomforts. When a moment requires the smallest gesture of kindness, he’ll find a way to do even less.
When Trump called Myeshia Johnson, the widow of Army Sgt. La David Johnson, who was killed, along with three others, during a military operation in Niger in 2017, Johnson said the president mispronounced her husband’s name and spoke in a “tone” that made her “cry even worse.”
Susan Bro refused Trump’s attempted calls after her daughter, Heather Heyer, was murdered in 2017 by a white supremacist at an antiracism protest in Charlottesville, Va. She had nothing to say to the man who, days earlier, first defended the Neo-Nazis and racists emboldened by his presidency.
“You can’t wash this one away by shaking my hand and saying, ‘I’m sorry,’” Bro told the Guardian at the time. “I’m not forgiving for that.”
After Puerto Rico was devastated by Hurricane Maria in 2018, Trump traveled to San Juan and inexplicably threw rolls of paper towels to survivors as if he was a human T-shirt cannon at a ball game. Brushing off criticism, Trump said, “I was having fun, they were having fun.”
Trump shuns empathy like it’s a green salad.
Unless there’s a clear political advantage to be garnered, Trump can’t be bothered with kindness — and then, he’s most likely to budge only for his base. Notice how much compassion he has for Kyle Rittenhouse, the vigilante charged with shooting three men, killing two, at a Black Lives Matter protest in Kenosha last month. Then again, Rittenhouse is a Trump supporter. Following Trump’s lead, defending and even praising this accused murderer is now a virulent right-wing cause.
Like few presidents before him, Trump has concretized the primacy of the individual over the collective good — such as not wearing a face mask to lessen the spread of COVID-19. During this nation’s worst pandemic in more than a century, that brand of selfishness continues to prove destructive beyond measure.
Trump does not care about lives lost, livelihoods destroyed, or the millions facing eviction and food insecurity on his watch because he has continually underplayed the danger of COVID-19. It’s not just his incompetence; his absence of empathy is killing us.
So much in this nation must be repaired and restored. Not just these years of Trump, but the repulsive rhetoric and odious politics that allowed him to become president. Trump treats empathy as weakness and a failing. That’s why he especially mocks men who cry.
That’s also how he treats a nation in tears. His failures of leadership and character magnify that this country cannot abide four more years of an impervious man whose heart will never ache from the burdens of others.