So far, frankly, it hasn’t mattered very much. The main focus has been, appropriately, on the president’s lack of competence. We clearly have a medical and scientific A-team being supported by a White House D-team. Trump’s initial failure of urgency wasted weeks that could have been used in lifesaving preparations. His long holiday of denial hurt the country badly.
But the United States is now on the verge of events that will demonstrate the need for empathetic leadership. So far, many of the sacrifices imposed by the coronavirus crisis have been theoretical (except in the most dramatically affected areas). But even under the best-case scenarios, we are entering weeks of mounting fatalities. Before it all ends, many Americans will know someone who dies or faces severe illness. At the same time we will start counting and feeling the costs of an economy in suspended animation.
Why does empathetic leadership matter in this kind of moment? At the most basic level, it tries to redeem hardship for some greater good. When President Abraham Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg, in the midst of so many fresh graves, he was making clear that those deaths were not random or purposeless. He dedicated unimaginable sacrifice to a transcendent purpose — the survival of self-government. By feeling and expressing grief, Lincoln could give it enduring meaning.
Two days after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, President George W. Bush spoke to then-New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and New York Gov. George Pataki by phone in the Oval Office. Bush expressed his sympathy for those who were mourning (“I wish I could comfort every single family whose lives have been affected”) and urged people to treat Arab Americans with respect. He continued with barely controlled emotion: “I don’t think about myself right now. I think about the families, the children. I am a loving guy, and I am also someone, however, who has got a job to do, and I intend to do it. And this is a terrible moment. But this country will not relent until we have saved ourselves and others from the terrible tragedy that came upon America.” Channeling the nation’s emotions allowed Bush to direct them in a proper direction — away from domestic bigotry and toward a foreign enemy.
Empathic leadership also serves the purpose of reassuring vulnerable people that someone is on their side. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chats convinced people in the bread lines of the Great Depression that an aristocratic president had their back. Following the March on Selma in March 1965, President Lyndon Johnson spoke to a joint session of Congress. He compared Selma to the sacrifices of the American Revolution and the Civil War. And he concluded: “Their cause must be our cause, too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.” In that moment, Johnson assured the civil right protesters that the American “we” encompassed their cause and that the president himself would be their advocate.
This is the type of unity that Trump endangers when he accuses his opponents of wanting to tank the economy, or ties presidential attention to the gratitude of governors, or throws out xenophobic gibes, or dedicates his briefing to the praise of flunkies, or accuses health professionals of stealing protective gear. There is a hole at the heart of Trump’s rhetoric where empathy belongs. How must the marginal in our society — prisoners, migrants, the homeless and destitute — view a president who seems most excited by stock market gains and welfare for big corporations?
It is not particularly helpful to urge the president to grow a soul. But empathy in times of crisis is not some altruistic add-on. It is the manner by which a nation’s suffering is given purpose, and a method of assuring the vulnerable they won’t be forgotten. If the president can’t feel it, he needs to fake it.