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Empathy: Its lack is what most disqualifies Donald Trump for the presidency

I have believed for a long time that one way he got this way is because he has experienced so few of the hardships most of us have endured by the time we reach our 70s.

President Donald Trump
Is Donald Trump so lacking in empathy toward women, people of color, immigrants, and the disabled because he hasn’t experienced what they have?
REUTERS/Erin Scott

As a woman whose mother died when I was 6 years old, I was totally transfixed by the recent CNN conversation between Stephen Colbert and Anderson Cooper in which they shared candid feelings about the losses each experienced as children.

Colbert lost his father and two brothers when they died in a plane crash when he was 10. Cooper’s father died when he was about the same age. His brother also died young. I so related to their descriptions of life before and after their losses, when the world no longer felt safe and predicable. Cooper talked about how he believes the trajectory of his life changed forever, using the word “reframed.” Ordinary concerns of childhood disappeared. I felt such a powerful human connection to both of these famous men. Simply put, I felt empathy. I understood them and I was certain that, if we met, they would understand me.

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Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to President Trump. In my opinion, the quality that most disqualifies him for a leadership role is his lack of empathy. And I have believed for a long time that one way he got this way is because he has experienced so few of the hardships most of us have endured by the time we reach our 70s.

Here is what I know about Donald Trump’s life story. He was born into a wealthy family. He was tall, blond, and good looking, traits that are associated with success in our country. Throughout his life, he has excelled at athletics. He was accepted at a good college. His father helped him start his real estate business with a huge monetary loan most of us can only dream about. I doubt that he has ever had to worry about having a place to live or providing for his family. He has married three models. When the first two marriages ended, it was at his behest. He has fathered five healthy children. His numerous grandchildren seem to be thriving also. As far as we know, he has never had cancer, diabetes, or heart disease, illnesses that afflict many men his age; I know of no major surgeries. And the first time he ran for elective office, seeking the highest position in the world, he won! This man is weirdly lucky.

photo of article author
Martha Bordwell
I’m not saying he hasn’t had any hardships. Maybe as a child he was uniquely sensitive; an “orchid” child easily hurt by slights or the most minor stressors. Maybe he felt inferior to kids who were smarter. Maybe his parents were unloving or critical. And he had a brother who died at age 43 of alcoholism.

But if you consider other leaders, their hardships seem much greater. Obama and Clinton grew up without fathers. George W. Bush fought alcoholism. His sister died when she was 3. His father, George H.W. Bush, lost a daughter. Many of our past presidents served in the military, with all of the exposure to trauma that entailed.

Trump’s political rivals also seem to have endured a long list of challenges. Many are people of color or women, subjected to racism and sexism. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders experienced significant financial problems in their families of origin. And Joe Biden has lost two children and a wife. For five years he was a widower raising two young boys.

Which begs the question: Is Donald Trump so lacking in empathy toward women, people of color, immigrants, and the disabled because he hasn’t experienced what they have? Did his failure to serve in the military cause him to insist that the sacrifices he is making as president make up for lack of combat experience?

On some level I think President Trump knows he hasn’t been tested, ever.

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And that’s too bad. Because I know from personal experience that, although I fervently wish my mother hadn’t died young, I gained from my loss. To paraphrase Colbert, I learned to love the thing I most wish hadn’t happened. As Cooper and Colbert discussed, loss allows for a deeper understanding of the human condition. Personal loss allows one to connect to the suffering of other people. It makes one more human.

President Trump deserves to be tested, just like the rest of us. To be clear, I don’t want mayhem to be visited upon him or his family. However, losing the upcoming election could be the best thing that ever happened to him. It will teach him humility. It will connect him to the human condition. And it would be good for the rest of us too.

Martha Bordwell of Minneapolis writes about current events, family life, and travel. She recently published a memoir, “Missing Mothers.”

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