In the hours following the horrific terrorist attacks in London, the president of the United States was taking it personally.
Not in a presidential “what happens to our allies happens to us all” kind of way. And not because, as a New Yorker who’d lived through 9/11, he deeply empathized with our British friends. And not because he’s a human being with feelings.
No, what he took personally was the continued scrutiny of his proposed travel ban. In the wake of this awful tragedy, he seized the moment to take yet another knife to the people of London just to say, “I told you so.”
As London Mayor Sadiq Khan tried to calm his city, telling residents and visitors not to be alarmed by an increased police presence, our president was scrambling to take his words totally out of context purely to delight and arouse his 30 million Twitter followers and renew his calls for a travel ban, now hung up in the courts.
The salvos were depressingly revealing.
“At least 7 dead and 48 wounded in terror attack and Mayor of London says there is ‘no reason to be alarmed!’” he tweeted, inaccurately characterizing Khan’s statement.
Later, presumably after seeing the considerable pushback in defense of what had been Khan’s actual words, Trump doubled down, attacking Khan personally as well as his Twitter followers’ favorite enemy, the mainstream media.
“Pathetic excuse by London Mayor Sadiq Khan who had to think fast on his ‘no reason to be alarmed’ statement. MSM is working hard to sell it!”
To put a fine point on it, Donald Trump is the most powerful leader in the world, and yet he still tweeted at another world leader with all the insecurity, paranoia and fake courage of a guy in his mom’s basement.
To call this embarrassing is an understatement. It’s shameful, ugly and even a little disturbing to know the man with the nuclear codes has so little self-control, not to mention a total lack of clarity and stability in a time of crisis.
Yet as one group of coastal liberals, moderate conservatives and much of the media scolds Trump for his unforgivable behavior, another group collectively shrugs and says, “But what’s that got to do with me?”
They’re not wrong, of course. I speak with Trump supporters all over the country, and I’m constantly reminded that what concerns us is very different. I worry about Trump eroding our standing with our overseas allies, his undermining of important institutions like a free press, and the dangers of implementing religious tests as a matter of national security policy — all important, but arguably and admittedly the concerns of someone who knows where her next paycheck is coming from.
Meanwhile, many of Trump’s supporters are worried about the plant that just closed down, companies shipping more jobs overseas, the opioid crisis and the rising cost of health care, insulin, food and child care.
It’s oversimplifying to say theirs are pocketbook issues, but if your town’s underemployed and dealing with a heroin epidemic, why the hell do you care about Trump’s Twitter war with Sadiq Khan?
The divide between Trump supporters and everyone else isn’t merely economic. Plenty of economically disenfranchised people voted for Hillary Clinton, and plenty of upper-middle-class and rich people voted for Trump.
It’s a divide over empathy, and what it should look and sound like. As a conservative who worked hard over the past decade to pull the Republican Party away from the perception that it wasn’t compassionate toward people of color, other minorities and women, I sat baffled and distraught as Trump ran head-on toward that perception.
But to others, Trump was the only one who had empathy for them. They felt angry and ignored, and when Trump acknowledged that anger and mirrored it back to them, that was a kind of empathy, too.
Both are valid. But what Trump has tricked us all into believing is that one kind of empathy must come at the expense of another — that if you empathize with the people of London and their mayor, for example, you’re a politically correct elitist who doesn’t put America first. Or that if you care more about your own family and finances than you do the Paris climate accord, you’re an unsophisticated nationalist who doesn’t deserve a voice.
The battle going forward won’t be over liberalism or conservatism, progressivism or populism, globalism or nationalism. The battle going forward will be over empathy — who’s showing it and who’s receiving it. For Trump, it’s a zero-sum game. America must show it isn’t.
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