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Donald Trump and Empathy

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The President of the United States has an empathy problem.

His problem is that he has never needed empathy. He has never needed to care about a community, nor anyone outside a community. As a real estate magnate, he was never in the people-caring business.

That’s not to say he is the only president who has ever had an empathy problem. I’m sure others have lacked in that department as well. That is also not to say he hasn’t shown concern or care for individuals on occasion.

Nor, lastly, is this to say that a lack of empathy is a disqualifier to hold the world’s most powerful political office. This is merely an observation on Donald Trump, President of the United States, and his actions thus far in the office.

When Trump won, I knew his lack of empathy was going to plague his administration. He ran a highly divisive campaign in perhaps the most divisive election in America in over 100 years. He kept his campaign focused on taking sides on social issues, instead of focusing on policies – which frustrated many pundits and fellow candidates. But by taking sides, he alienated those who disagreed and he has yet to show interest in building bridges to bring those who disagreed with him into the fold.

Dr. Richard Friedman, a professor of Clinical Psychiatry at the Cornell Medical College, recently wrote that Trump is a master of empathy.  Friedman stated Trump’s ability to empathize with his base is what keeps them on his side. He concluded that Trump uses that empathy to feed the fears of his base and create a bond with them.

I think Friedman is right to a point. What he gets wrong is that Trump doesn’t really understand the struggles of his base. Trump’s political connection with his base is not empathy for people, but empathy for power. He understands there is power in drumming up fear and he used that to sell himself as the savior against all that would reduce the social power of his base – be that globalism, terrorism, or liberalism.

President Trump is an admirer of power. He seems to believe politics is about power, not people. He lauds those who have power, and doesn’t identify well with those who don’t. That is to be expected from a billionaire. Rarely do those with their own private jet understand those at the bus stops. But as president of all Americans, Trump represents the people at the bus stop as much as those in penthouses and private yachts.

Thus far, Trump’s statements have given little indication that he will learn to be empathetic. He pins blame, points fingers, and plays favorites. He might be great at business, tax plans, and trade, and he may tweet a generically empathetic platitude when needed, but connecting on social issues will continue to befuddle him.

Trump’s lack of empathy looks even worse when compared to previous presidents. For better or for worse, President Obama was seen as very empathetic to minority struggles in America. Likewise, President George W. Bush was a church-going, God-fearing man with a good heart, although he may have been the victim of bad advice on Iraq and slow movement on New Orleans.

For President Trump, meanwhile, every cameo at a golf course and every awkward speech further distances him from many of those he represents. While many will never like him as a person nor have any tolerance for his policies, his ability to connect could earn him the respect of the position.

Increasingly, empathy is considered an essential element of leadership. Understanding the trials, tribulations, and life decisions of team members is an advantage in building unity and cohesion.

According to Justin Bariso, who writes about Emotional Intelligence and the ability to connect,

If a leader can demonstrate true empathy to individual team members, it will go a long way toward encouraging them to perform at their best. It may even inspire the team to show empathy for the leader.

Trump seems to want Americans to “make America great again”, but can’t seem to connect with half of them on a personal level. He has a slogan, but getting people to run with that mission statement requires emotional buy-in. If Trump can’t connect with people, he will have a hard time motivating them.

This is another difference between real estate and other corporations. Trump’s money came from development and the value of land and buildings. There was little production outside of construction. And those doing construction were not building based on Trump’s vision, they were building based on his specifications.

Trump’s dilemma reminds me of an old Casey Stengel quote, “The secret of managing is to keep the guys who hate you away from the guys who are undecided.” Those who oppose Trump (and there are many) can easily run the narrative unless he shows empathy. Showing empathy and not causing conflict may create empathy for Trump himself.

Among other difficulties, Donald Trump has an empathy problem. It is tough to teach an old dog new tricks, and even more difficult to teach empathy to a 70-year old man whose empathy muscles have atrophied, if they were ever developed.

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