How Empathy Led Donald Trump To The White House (Really!)

Donald Trump

There are many words one can use to describe Donald Trump’s personal qualities, but I’m guessing “empathy” isn’t high on many people’s list, whether they support him or not.

Empathy may have been the critical factor in his 2016 Presidential election victory, however.

The reason can be found in the latest episode of Waking Up (“Abusing Delores“), the podcast from Sam Harris. It brought up an insightful discussion that speaks to one of the main reasons I recently started this anonymous blog.

Empathy vs Compassion

Harris and his guest Paul Bloom talk about a difference between empathy and compassion, two words that most of us consider to be wonderful qualities that help bind moral societies together.

  • Empathy is defined as personally engaging with the emotional experience of another person, as in the classic Bill Clinton line, “I feel your pain.”
  • Compassion is about wishing others well without necessarily having that emotional attachment that is implied in the concept of empathy.

The twist here is that empathy comes with certain pitfalls. By nature, we are more likely to have empathy for people who are similar to us: family, neighbors, those of the same ethnic or religious background, etc. Those who are unlike us are harder to empathize with.

You can see where this leads.

Empathy Can Be A Double-Edge Sword

“Identity politics” has been one of the buzzwords of the 2016 election cycle, and it neatly ties in with this discussion. By targeting his appeal to white, Middle American voters, Trump struck a number of empathetic points with them (“Make America Great Again” is music to their ears), building that sense of a collective movement within that group. His off-the-cuff speaking style helped by making his rallies more of a conversation between speaker and audience than a typical teleprompter-driven political speech.

People felt that he really understood their concerns, even though a billionaire who lives in a gold tower is pretty much as far away from the world of a rural central Pennsylvania working-class family as you can get.

While all that sounds wonderful, we are also familiar with the flip side.

That kind of group dynamic has a consequence, that people outside the group do not get the benefit of that empathy. Immigrants and refugees are just two obvious examples of groups that were discarded if not outright vilified by Trump supporters, as the recent wave of hate-related incidents has shown.

The bottom line is that we have to be very careful with this type of empathetic thinking; it leads to preference for one’s own group above all others, which can be incredibly dangerous in an open, diverse society.

When it comes to public policy, compassion is a steadier guide. Motivation for the concern of all, not just those who are familiar to you, is the rational choice for long-term progress.

Why I Launched This Anonymous Blog

This issue relates to why I launched this blog anonymously. I have written before on other platforms, and ran a very successful website that dominates its field to this day. In the aftermath of the election I wanted to find a new outlet to talk about politics, policy and how we can move our society forward, with compassion.

I want this to be about the ideas, however, rather than the messenger. I don’t want your reaction to my words to be preconditioned by what you know (or don’t know) about me.

It’s all too easy to dismiss an article you don’t like by immediately discrediting the source. We all do that from time to time. So I’m doing what I can to neutralize that effect, and let the work stand on its own.

So I hope you will take a look around this site, follow me on Twitter (@tupatriot) and contribute to a conversation about how we, as a country, can move forward in the wake of what has been an incredibly divisive political season.