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Consoler-in-chief? Lacking empathy, Trump weighs the economic costs, not the human ones

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Posted on : April 23, 2020

Instead of weighing the human costs alongside the economic ones, Trump seems to be thinking about something else: himself

In times of national tragedy, the US president has, going back at least to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, filled the unique role of consoler-in-chief.

As Roosevelt did during his Great Depression-era fireside chats, the president has given voice to personal suffering and made victims of hardship feel recognized.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, Donald Trump was widely viewed as a weak consoler-in-chief. Sometimes he blamed local leaders for natural disasters, as when California was struck by wildfires in 2018. Sometimes his shows of empathy rang hollow, as when local leaders and victims families shunned him on his visit to Pittsburgh following a 2018 synagogue shooting.

But Trump has especially fallen short as consoler-in-chief during the coronavirus crisis, analysts say, failing day after day to muster expressions of sympathy for victims and their families as the death toll in America increased into the tens of thousands.

And in the current crisis, Trumps failure to grasp the scale of the American tragedy on a human level could do more than fuel emotional turmoil it could cost more lives, according to historians, public affairs experts and political analysts interviewed by the Guardian.

Instead of weighing the human costs attached to decisions about whether to reopen the economy or rush medical equipment to certain states, analysts said, Trump seems to be thinking about something else: his own political future and his need for the economy to rebound quickly if he is to be re-elected in November.

Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, said Trumps emotional blindspots during the coronavirus crisis could hinder his policymaking.

If hes not sharing the feelings and demonstrating the capacity to understand whats going on in the hospitals, whats going on in quarantined bedrooms and homes, and why people are not just frightened but devastated if hes not able to have real empathy for someone who had someone die and was not be able to see them, then hes not going to be sensitive to why scientists are saying, Dont open up too quickly, Zelizer said.

Trump waves off the USNS Comfort in Norfolk, Virginia, at the end of March. Photograph: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

Hes just not thinking of those kinds of costs. And so his lack of empathy is directly linked to his kind of rush to reopen the economy, which in another presidents hands might seem very different.

Unlike most national disasters, the coronavirus emergency is not a discrete event that concludes abruptly with a price tag attached for total damages, or a summary death toll.

The coronavirus crisis is malleable, analysts said, and can be made bigger or smaller, longer or shorter, by how the White House responds, and by how the president encourages tens of millions of people to act. Epidemiological models portray how reopening the country too soon would lead to additional waves of infections, and many more deaths.

But the message Trump delivers each day in press briefings seems to be motivated more by his quest for re-election than any fellow feeling for beleaguered Americans, said Brad Bannon, a Democratic strategist.

The Trump people feel, and they may be right, that his re-election prospects are dependent on a thriving economy, Bannon said. And so its imperative for his re-election that the economy open again.

Trump often makes reference in his daily press briefings to the death toll in the US, which at about 45,000 represents about one-quarter of coronavirus deaths worldwide. But apart from some narrowly scripted remarks delivered in an uninterested monotone, Trump fails, day after day, to deliver expressions of sympathy for the loss of life, which remains on a grim trajectory. Instead his press briefings are more marked by attacks on opponents, whether Democrats, the media, China or the World Health Organization.

He makes attempts at it usually when hes reading prepared remarks, then he makes attempts at [empathy], said Elaine Kamarck, founding director of the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institution. But frankly, hes not very good at it, and he cant sustain it. The minute he goes off script, hes back to that pile of accusations, insecurities, false statements, and attacks.

Kamarck agreed that Trumps inability to muster human empathy hindered his ability to respond effectively to the crisis. If you really are feeling peoples pain, then you really are concentrating on how to help them, she said.

Past presidents from both parties have responded to tragedies with expressions of sympathy and regret that historians credit with aiding the national recovery.

After the Challenger space shuttle disaster in 1986, Ronald Reagan delivered a subdued Oval Office address paying tribute to the courage of the lost crew and addressing their families: We cannot bear as you do the full impact of this tragedy. But we feel the loss, and were thinking about you so very much.

At a memorial to victims of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 including 19 children, Bill Clinton delivered a personal speech addressing the families of victims: Though we share your grief, your pain is unimaginable, and we know that.

Barack Obama sang Amazing Grace during a eulogy for a black minister killed by a white supremacist during a church massacre in Charleston in 2015.

But in his daily press briefings, Trump has largely left such condolences to his devoutly religious vice-president, Mike Pence. Despite the heartbreaking losses, were getting there, America, Pence said on Wednesday.

Kamarck said: You dont have to draw the contrast between Trump and Reagan, which is stark enough. All you have to do every day is to draw the contrast between Donald Trump and Mike Pence.

The press briefings range across topics far and wide, but the main theme for Trump is touting an economic resurgence that awaits if only a rotating cast of villains would stop sabotaging the White House, and the country.

Well be the comeback kids all of us, Trump said on Wednesday. We want to get our country back. Were going to do it, and were going to do it soon.

But even when Trump talks about economic suffering, Zelizer noted, he doesnt evoke the individual suffering and fears of the newly unemployed, people facing food shortages, and workers wondering when their relief checks will land.

I could imagine other presidents talking about the urgency of getting back to normal for workers, schoolchildren, Zelizer said. But you can only do that if you really convey a feeling for why this has been so devastating, beyond everything shutting down.

Instead, when Trump discusses the economic impact of the crisis, he is, once again, mostly talking about himself and specifically his re-election prospects, said Bannon.

I think Trumps going to keep doing everything he can to get the economy open, because thats basically the only hope he has to be re-elected, he said. The reality is that he was too late to recognize the crisis, and he was too early in wishing it away.

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