The dig against liberals is that they love humanity but hate people. President Trump, on the other hand, hates humanity but loves people. One on one he charms, seeking approval and love. More important, when presented with individual human cases of suffering, his amoral, inhumane stances seem to melt.
Recall during the campaign when he agonized over just how many people he wanted to deport. Appearing with Sean Hannity, he asked the crowd, “So now we have the person, 20 years, upstanding person, the family’s great, everyone’s great. Do we throw them out or try and work with them. Ready? Number one, we’ll say throw them out, number two we say work with them. Ready? Number one!” Sure he wants “everyone” here illegally to get out, but the grandma here for 30 years? Well, not her. Likewise, for the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) young people, he cannot bring himself to follow his policy to its logical conclusion. “I actually have a big heart. Something that nobody knows. A lot of people don’t understand that. But the dreamers, it’s a tough situation,” he told Dana Bash. “We’re going to do something. … I would get people out and then have an expedited way of getting them back into the country so they can be legal.” The policy makes no sense, but Trump cannot envision himself as the villain when he has a particular victim, or group of victims, clearly in his head.
Conversely, no matter how many statistics confirm that immigrants are overwhelmingly law-abiding and commit fewer crimes than native-born Americans, anti-immigrant groups have been hugely successful in parading family members of specific victims whose death may (or on closer examination, may not) be caused by illegal immigrants. Yes, Trump uses such cases to manipulate our emotions, but by the same token, the groups, who for years have spouted phony statistics and bogus data to demonize immigrants, can claim to have successfully manipulated him.
Likewise on Syria, Trump throughout the campaign decried the notion that we had any interest in Syria. The horde of immigrants was a threat, in his mind. Bashar al-Assad was better than the alternative, he insisted. Then came the pictures and the videos this week. You could tell how uncomfortable, repulsed even, he was. Asked whether the latest attack was a red line, he responded: “It crossed a lot of lines for me. When you kill innocent children, innocent babies — babies, little babies — with a chemical gas that is so lethal — people were shocked to hear what gas it was — that crosses many, many lines, beyond a red line. Many, many lines.” As he said the phrase “babies, little babies,” you could see his face contort with genuine revulsion. The specific images showing individual victims plainly moved him. ” And I will tell you, that attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me — big impact. That was a horrible, horrible thing,” he said. “And I’ve been watching it and seeing it, and it doesn’t get any worse than that.”
To some degree, this is human nature. Joseph Stalin (who was responsible for the deaths of millions of Russians) said, “A million deaths is a statistic; one death is a tragedy.” Likewise, the world shrugs when 450,000 Syrians die but recoils in horror at the image of a victim of the Aleppo bombings, 5-year old Omran Daqneesh, caked in blood and dirt and sitting in an ambulance.
The bias in favor of individual cases over generalized data is more acute with Trump because he has so little understanding of or intellectual curiosity about the world. A man who tweets headlines from Fox News in place of reading briefing papers remains remarkably ignorant, easily moved by one image or one hard-luck case. He’s a tabula rasa of sorts, so when a dramatic image breaks through, it may be the only particularized knowledge he has of a given situation.
In his thirst for approval and distorted self-image, Trump needs to be seen as beneficent (why else lie about charitable donations?). Accordingly, advisers, activists and commentators who want to appeal to his desire to be praised as some kind of humanitarian would do well to deal in the concrete, the particular. He’s unmoved by a statistic (24 million people will lose insurance) but may be greatly moved by the plight of a single person denied coverage.
Trump’s intellectual weakness and emotional neediness leave him vulnerable to manipulation. (Vladimir Putin has figured that out.) The danger is that policy decision-making becomes the battle of sob stories, each side trying to find the most extreme and poignant tale. On the positive side, if he can be shown the human consequences of ill-conceived policy stances, Trump might, as he prides himself for doing, be “flexible” enough to change his mind.