Donald Trump has cleared every electoral hurdle before him in this presidential race. He went from 1 percent, literally, to the top of the polls. He beat 16 other people for the Republican nomination. He finds himself in a statistical dead heat with likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. And, he has done it all by being himself: brash, bold, controversial and unapologetic.
As the nation turns its eyes to the general election, I have one question that continues to nag at me as I think about the possibility of Trump in the White House: Can he be empathetic? Like, at all? And does he need to be?
“Ultimately, I think a lack of empathy is just one piece of a portrait of a person who is unbalanced and damaged,” said Stuart Stevens, a Republican consultant who has long vocally opposed Trump. “He has spent his life in a bubble, surrounded by hired yes men and women who have never told his inner child to grow up.”
The race to be president is unlike other races for elected office. No one turns to a senator, a member of Congress or a governor when there is a mass shooting, or when a tornado devastates a community. (The Joplin tornado, which killed 158 people, hit the Missouri town five years ago Sunday.)
They do turn to a president. A president is expected to do many things in office, but perhaps the most important is to be both a cheerleader and a shoulder to cry on when moments of great joy and great sadness affect the entire body politic.
The fracturing of the media, our tendency to self-sort into silos of sameness and all manner of other factors have lessened the number of national moments — my seminal one was the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986 — that we experience. Still, there remain moments (the murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut being one recent example) in which the nation looks to its highest elected leader for solace and strength.
Those are the moments in which you realize that politics — at the presidential level, at least — is about much more than policy positions. Voters pick politicians who they think understand them and their values at some level. It’s an emotional connection far more than an issue-driven one. And, it’s also much more powerful than simply an agreement on those policy positions.
All of which brings me to the current state of the presidential race and, specifically, Trump. For all of his successes to date (and there have been many), Trump has consistently struggled on questions tied to empathy.
Asked which candidate “better understands the problems of people like you,” 47 percent of registered voters in a new Washington Post-ABC News poll chose Clinton, while just 36 percent named Trump. On the question of who better represents “your personal values,” 48 percent chose Clinton, and 37 percent went with Trump.
That’s far from an outlier. Two-thirds of voters in a CBS News-New York Times national poll released last week said that Trump did not share their values. Seven in 10 said he did not have the right temperament to be president.
It’s worth noting that Clinton is no great shakes on these questions of empathy, either. Sixty percent of respondents in the CBS-Times poll said Clinton did not share their values. Forty-nine percent said she did not have the right temperament to be president. (Forty-eight percent said she did.) But, on virtually every measure, she outperforms Trump on the palette of questions aimed at testing how empathetic voters believe a candidate to be.
The question going forward for Trump is two-fold: (1) Can he change the perception of himself as a strong leader but not one you can imagine traveling to the site of a natural disaster and delivering a speech to help heal a country’s raw wound? (2) Does he need to?
The answer to the second question is, if past is prologue, yes. Voters — especially swing voters — in a presidential election often make a “feel” vote, meaning that the person they choose is as much about a set of personality traits as it is about a set of policy positions.
If you believe that Trump needs to show a softer — or at least a more understanding — side, the simplest way for him to do that is to put his family more front and center in the general-election campaign. Even people who loathe Trump give him some credit for the family he has raised. Trump as doting father is an image that could go part of the way to softening some of his sharpest edges as a candidate.
Trump could also talk more openly, and candidly, about his relationship with his father and how he dealt with the death of his older brother.
There is, of course, the possibility that the answer to the “does he need to” question posed above is no. That would go against virtually everything we think we know about how modern politics — and voters’ psyches — work. But how different would that be from everything that has propelled Trump so far?
At every turn, he has run the anti-campaign, and voters have loved it. Maybe this is an election in which tough and unapologetic is the new soft and empathetic. With Trump, nothing surprises me anymore.