You write of your waning (perhaps totally gone) ability to empathize with Donald Trump:
I find it impossible to see the world through his eyes, to find much that is human about him. He strikes me as little more than the sum of his greed and lusts and electrical impulses — and, surely there’s more to him than that.
Empathy is good for all kinds of reasons, chief among them that it helps our hearts stay tender and flexible. When we’re empathetic, we see from new perspectives, including those on the margins. When we’re empathetic, we see ourselves from other people’s point-of-view, and that means we can see the log in our own eye. And when we’re empathetic, we recognize that other people are not so much wrong as temporarily waylaid in their journey to be better, more loving, more kind, more generous people. You say that since humanity is “fallen,” we all need to be patient with each other and provisional in our pronouncements. Empathy helps us do that.
I am not a believer in the theology of The Fall, but I’m a believer that people are oftentimes bad–and that a lifetime of acting bad shapes you into a bad person. This is the worst of all Calvinisms: I don’t think people are shitty because of original sin. I think we’re just shitty. And this doesn’t mean that we’re not human–it is exactly what it means to be human: to be easily captured by self-centeredness.
Trump’s self-centeredness is repulsive to everyone but dictators and the petty little people who would be dictators if only they could be, but it’s only the extreme of what many of us do: pretending that our race, class, gender, and nation of origin aren’t giving us undeserved privileges in this world. We tell ourselves the same lies Trump tells: that we worked hard for where we are; that other people are less deserving; that if they have more, we have less; that we must win at all costs; that others are there to be exploited; that anyone stupid enough to be exploited deserves it. Now, granted, we don’t tell ourselves these messages as regularly or publicly or baldly as Trump does, but we do it when we need to justify self-centered actions that we know will harm others.
For me to avoid falling into self-centeredness, I have to work at it. It’s not my default. I think that this is true for many people, because Jesus had to explicitly teach that we are to “love thy neighbor as thy self.” When he said this, he begins with this truth: that most of us do a remarkably good job of loving ourselves. That’s what makes the statement radical.
So: is there more to Trump that his crass striving and staggering entitlement? No. I don’t think so. Deep down, there is no deep down.
That’s not an accident or a psychological condition–it’s the confluence of his unexamined privileges, the logical conclusion to a life lived without challenge or responsibility. The rich can’t get into heaven any more than a camel can go through the eye of a needle not because God hates rich people but because, to gain and sustain riches, you have to decide not to love others as yourself. When you do that, you are deciding that other people are worth less than you, that they do not deserve what you have, that it’s okay for people to starve while you feast, to freeze while you own multiple homes. It’s not that you lack empathy–you can imagine what the widow and the orphan feel but believe they deserve it; in fact, you may come to delight in their pain (which is how we get a president and his supporters who are so cruel) because you believe it is justice.
And when you make those decisions, you shape yourself into something bad. Over a lifetime, you become nothing more than “greed and lust and electrical impulses” because you make space for nothing more. You grow so mean and meager that you can’t even see the problem. When the rich young man hears Jesus’ direction to give away all he has to the poor, he goes away sad, and we empathize with him: it is hard to hear such a challenge, and he is sad about that, which is understandable. But, for someone like Trump, he can’t even hear the challenge. And because he cannot love others, he cannot love God.
Does that make him not-a-human (or, alternatively, perfectly fallen, a cartoon villain)? I don’t know. I’m not suggesting we take him on a fishing trip and, when no one is looking, drown him without remorse,as I have read some indigenous communities do to men who are sociopaths. I am saying, though, that it is okay to respect his choice to be the person he is, which means that we recognize and name those choices for what they are: evil. It also means we can stop hoping he will be different or expecting or asking for better. And, I think, it means we can stop trying to see the world from his perspective. We have seen it, and it looks like hell.