It’s hard to think of a better summary of Trump’s presidency than those three short sentences. In his four years as president, Trump has proved that he’s not a typical politician not by bringing new efficiency and principle to the job, but by constantly demonstrating utter disdain for the simple ideas of human connection and emotions. In the middle of a pandemic and an economic crisis, a “typical politician” who cares about families and kitchen tables looks pretty good.
Take the way Trump talked about his son Barron, who along with the president and first lady, contracted covid-19 earlier this month. Trump didn’t talk about worrying for his child, or feeling guilt over the possibility that he might have exposed his family to a dangerous disease. Instead, he reduced his son to a piece of evidence in his argument that the novel coronavirus isn’t much of a threat, that it will just go away.
Yes, it’s true that, through Oct. 17, just 39 children between the ages of 5 and 14 — Barron Trump’s age — have died of covid-19. But every one of those children is precious to someone. Trump apparently couldn’t take a moment to demonstrate that he understands and shares his fellow parents’ anxieties. And he didn’t mention his wife, Melania, at all.
Those omissions are consistent with what Trump’s behavior suggests he believes: that all human beings are mere instruments, whether they’re enhancing his appearance on the New York social scene or enhancing his reputation as an immigration hard-liner by locking up children. It certainly makes him different from a “typical politician” — and from a typical human.
That same attitude showed up in Trump’s response to a question about 545 immigrant children who were separated from their parents as part of the administration’s early immigration crackdown and have not been reunited with them years later. Rather than acknowledging the human cost of that policy, or pledging to rectify the situation, Trump reduced those children to pawns, too, saying coyotes and drug cartels “used to use them to get into our country.”
And in that moment, Biden was there to remind Americans what a normal politician might look like — and why they might actually miss the typical rituals of American politics.
“Their parents were with them!” Biden exploded, in response to Trump’s assertion that these 545 children were somehow cogs in a nefarious enterprise. “They got separated from their parents ….Those kids are alone. Nowhere to go. Nowhere to go. It’s criminal.”
In that moment, Biden was speaking as a politician and as a parent. Making immigration policy as a whole requires balancing a whole host of concerns and potential policy impacts. But when it comes to acting as a custodian for 545 kids, the head of government should think like a parent, one who recognizes that children need more than clean facilities to thrive.
Trump couldn’t even muster up empathy when moderator Kristen Welker gift-wrapped an opportunity for him to do so, asking him if he understood how painful it was for Black parents to have to give their children the “Talk” about how to deal with law enforcement.
“Yes, I do,” the president said, before turning to an attack on Biden and a self-glorifying refrain about how “nobody has done more for the Black community than Donald Trump ... with the exception of Abraham Lincoln — possible exception."
It’s a genuinely hilarious claim, and a self-revealing one. And yet, Trump’s inability to say more than three words about those parents and their fears demonstrates yet again his total lack of moral and emotional imagination. The same was true of his response when Welker asked him about communities of color who are affected by high levels of pollution. To Trump, it was all about money: Those families, he said, were well-paid, so what did it matter? Once again, Biden, acting as a typical politician, was the one who could make the connection: If you’re being poisoned, he suggested, “it doesn’t matter what you’re paying them, it matters how you keep them safe."
But for all his ridiculousness, there is no line that strips Trump as bare as his contempt for the family and the kitchen table does.
Early in the evening, Trump tried to take a swipe at Biden for campaigning virtually in the covid-19 pandemic. “I’d love to put myself in a basement or a beautiful room in the White House and go away for a year until it passes,” Trump said. Maybe, come Nov. 3, he’ll get his wish, and the American people will elect a president who wants to meet them at their kitchen tables rather than to sneer at them from private clubs.