The Post's fiction critic Ron Charles interviewed George Saunders, the noted short story author who is now out with a critically acclaimed book titled “Lincoln in the Bardo,” on Monday. The conversation, as all conversations these days do, turned to President Trump.
Here's what Saunders said about both the 45th president and the 16th:
The main thing that I feel is — whatever you want to say about Lincoln — his empathy expanded as he lived. He was probably a typically racist Indiana boy. And then those last three years, his pot of empathy went out to include everybody: his soldiers, of course, these millions of Americans who were being enslaved, even the South. So that’s why we love him, I think, because with all that pressure on him and all that hatred coming toward him, he didn’t turn to the haters and disabuse them; he actually tried to include them in his love. It sounds a little corny, but I think the historical record kind of backs me up. Well, now, let’s just say the opposite motion is happening: The empathy is going from all to small, and maybe just to himself, to Mr. Trump himself.
Saunders is, obviously, no friend to Trump. But the point he makes about the end — or diminution — of empathy in the context of politics is a very, very important one regardless of your partisan leanings.
For months during Trump's run to the Republican nomination, one smart GOP consultant would make the same point to me over and over again: Just wait until people actually start imagining Trump as president. That is, once people began imagining Trump responding to, say, the aftermath of California's deadly and devastating flooding, he would soon fade.
This consultant's argument was that people want many things from their presidents, but at or near the top of that list is the ability to play consoler or empathizer-in-chief when the moment demands it. (Think Obama after the Newtown massacre or George W. Bush on the pile at the World Trade Center.) Trump, as demonstrated repeatedly during the course of the early days of the campaign, was seemingly incapable of such empathy or gravitas. He would just as likely tout his great poll numbers in such a solemn moment as he would find the right words to make the country feel like all hope wasn't lost.
I began to think of it as the “empathy gap” — and a major problem for Trump.
Then, he won. Not by turning over an empathetic leaf but rather by insisting there had already been too much “woe is me” thinking and hand-holding in the country — and that our obsession with those sorts of things was why the United States was in its current morass.
The exit poll tells the story. When asked which of the four character traits of a candidate most influenced their vote, just 15 percent of people said “cares about me.” Hillary Clinton won that group 57 percent to 34 percent. A whopping 39 percent of voters said a candidate who can “bring about needed change” was the key; Trump won those voters 82 percent to 14 percent.
That's the election in a single poll question: People wanted change much more than they wanted empathy.
At issue going forward is whether people value toughness and change over empathy in a president or whether they just liked the idea of voting for someone with that profile. That won't be truly tested until some sort of misfortune befalls a part of the country or a group of people while Trump is in the White House. (Thankfully nothing of that sort has happened yet.)
What's much more clear is that Trump will not change. He has spent his life viewing the world as a survival of the fittest brawl for all. Just because he has been elected president, Trump won't suddenly turn deeply empathetic (or introspective) when something bad happens in the country or the world. He is not someone prone to sitting around and talking about how things make him (or anyone) feel. He is someone prone to demanding and/or taking action.
The end of empathy is just one of the many radical changes in how we think about politics that Trump's election has triggered. People want to know how you will fix their problems more than they care that you understand those problems. Remarkable.