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Although I’ve previously contrasted President Obama’s moral sense with his successor’s egoism, the latter’s recent trip to El Paso, following the mass shooting there, dramatically revealed how Trump’s egoism overwhelms any signs of empathy.

obama empathy

Especially vexing was Trump’s boasting about himself during a visit to an El Paso hospital. Regarding his behavior following the shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson wrote, “Me, me, me, me, me. Always me, never anyone or anything else.” And Robinson mentioned Trump’s “stunning lack of empathy,” which was “on grotesque display.” Commenting on the same El Paso visit, CNN’s Anderson Cooper contrasted the empathy displayed by Presidents Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush on other tragic occasions with Trump’s egotistic display. “Not normal” was Cooper’s terse summary. Two other commentators were liberal Jonathan Capehart and conservative David Brooks, both on the PBS Newshour. The former contrasted Bush’s presidential comforting in New York after the 9/11 tragedy and Obama’s in Charleston after a mass shooting there to Trump’s empathy deficiency. Brooks’ reaction to Trump’s visit: “He's a sociopath. He's incapable of experiencing or showing empathy.”

Obama’s display of empathy in Charleston was nothing new. As far back as his pre-presidential The Audacity of Hope,  he wrote that empathy “is at the heart of my moral code, and it is how I understand the Golden Rule—not simply as a call to sympathy or charity, but as something more demanding, a call to stand in somebody else's shoes and see through their eyes.” One website has amassed a whole series of Obama video clips in which he speaks of empathy and laments that our country seems to suffer from “an empathy deficit.”

Although no longer president, Obama and his wife Michelle also empathized “with all the families in El Paso and Dayton who endured the . . . latest mass shootings.” He indicated that tougher gun laws “can save some families from heartbreak, and help prevent some of “these tragedies.” He also wrote that “all of us have to send a clarion call and behave with the values of tolerance and diversity that should be the hallmark of our democracy.” And we should “reject language coming out of the mouths of any of our leaders that feeds a climate of fear and hatred or normalizes racist sentiments; leaders who demonize those who don’t look like us, or suggest that other people, including immigrants, threaten our way of life, or refer to other people as sub-human, or imply that America belongs to just one certain type of people.”

The ex-president’s words were typical of his stress on values. Not only did he consistently emphasize the importance of empathy, tolerance, and diversity, but also other values such as rationality, kindness, self-reliance, self-discipline, mutual responsibility, temperance, and optimism.

The ex-president’s words were typical of his stress on values. Not only did he consistently emphasize the importance of empathy, tolerance, and diversity, but also other values such as rationality, kindness, self-reliance, self-discipline, mutual responsibility, temperance, and optimism. Many of these he mentioned in his chapter on values in The Audacity of Hope, where he also wrote that he learned most of his values from his mother. Later on, he indicated that his mother was “the dominant figure in my formative years. . . . The values she taught me continue to be my touchstone when it comes to how I go about the world of politics.”

On another occasion, he stated that she used to tell him “If you want to grow into a human being, you're going to need some values. Honesty . . . Fairness . . . Straight talk . . . and independent judgment.” By training she was an anthropologist who spent much time in Indonesia, part of it with her young son, Barack. As Charles King tells us in his new book, Gods of the Upper Air, anthropologists like Franz Boas, Margaret Mead, and Ruth Benedict, all familiar names to Obama’s mother, stressed the importance of openness to the values of different cultures and the basic humanity of all peoples.

Contrast the values that Obama was taught with those absorbed by a young Donald Trump. What he valued most was success, which he identified with making lots of money. He and his real-estate tycoon father (Fred) were attracted to the rags-to-riches myth or “Algerism” (after novels of Horatio Alger who depicted it). Historian Christopher Lasch has called that myth “the dominant ideology of American politics” during the late-nineteenth-century Gilded Age. He added, “Failure to advance, according to the [Alger] mythology of opportunity, argues moral incapacity on the part of individuals or, in a version even more implausible, on the part of disadvantaged ethnic and racial minorities.” Trump’s simplistic view of societies “winners” and “losers” and better and worse immigrant types has been strongly affected by this myth.

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The only “religious” values that appealed to Trump were those of ministers like Norman Vincent Peale, who once stated “Christianity is entirely practical.” In his Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1962), historian Richard Hofstadter indicates that Peale confused “religion and self-advancement.” In 1977 Peale officiated at the first of Trump’s three weddings. According to a Trump biography, Peale “predicted the real estate developer would become ‘the greatest builder of our time.’ ” Trump, in turn, considered the minister an important mentor, who taught him “to win by thinking only of the best outcomes.” The biography (see review of it here) also indicates other unflattering information on Trump and his family, such as the following: In 1973 “the Justice Department announced the filing of one of the most significant racial bias cases of the era: United States of America v. Fred C. Trump, Donald Trump and Trump Management, Inc.” The department charged the Trumps with “refusing to rent and negotiate rentals with blacks, requiring different rental terms and conditions because of race, and misrepresenting that apartments were not available.”

The contrasting concern with values manifested by Presidents Obama and Trump matters greatly. As U. S. neuropsychologist and Nobel laureate Roger Sperry once stated: “Human value priorities . . . stand out as the most strategically powerful causal control now shaping world events. More than any other causal system with which science now concerns itself, it is variables in human value systems that will determine the future.”

Because of the power and influence of U. S. presidents, their values (or lack thereof) matter more than for most of us. In her recent book, Leadership: In Turbulent Times, Doris Kearns Goodwin focuses on Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson and writes that they were “at their formidable best, when guided by a sense of moral purpose, they were able to channel their ambitions and summon their talents to enlarge the opportunities and lives of others.” She quotes Theodore Roosevelt’s words that democracy can succeed only when there is “the fellow feeling, mutual respect, the sense of common duties and common interests, which arise when men take the trouble to understand one another, and to associate for a common purpose.” And she emphasizes Lincoln’s “emotional intelligence, his empathy, humility, consistency, self-awareness, self-discipline, and generosity of spirit" as well as his “sensitivity, patience, prudence . . . tenderness and kindness.”

An earlier presidential historian, FDR biographer James MacGregor Burns, has written more directly on the importance of presidential values and moral purpose: “Hierarchies of values . . . undergird the dynamics of leadership.” In discussing FDR, he wrote, “It was because Roosevelt’s fundamental values were deeply humane and democratic that he was able, despite his earlier compromises and evasions, to act [against Hitler] when action was imperative.” Such leadership reflects “considerations of purpose or value that may lie beyond calculations of personal advancement.”

Still another historian, Ronald Feinman, who in 2018 wrote about 14 presidents who have demonstrated moral courage, has stated that “the most significant factor” in rating presidents’ greatness “is when they demonstrate moral courage on major issues that affect the long term future.” He believes that President Trump “has no ability within his own narcissistic, self-serving personality, to be anything like these Presidents.”

Other presidential historians such as Robert Dallek and Michael Beschloss have also commented on Trump’s lack of positive values and unfitness for office. Among presidential scholars there is wide agreement that Trump (so far in his presidency) is one of the worst presidents in our history.

walter moss

Walter Moss

Although most presidential surveys do no inquire directly about presidents’ values, one of them (the 2018 Siena College Research Institute Survey of U.S. Presidents) does ask respondents to rank the presidents according to integrity. Trump comes in dead last. A fitting reflection on his poor values and egotism.

Walter G. Moss