There is nothing necessarily nice about empathy. What Trump doesn’t have is sympathy – he doesn’t really feel badly for other people.
Many Americans see President Trump’s preoccupation with the protesting NFL athletes – and his near silence on the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico – as evidence that Trump has no empathy. Wrong.
Actually, Trump is a master of empathy. Most people confuse empathy with sympathy and don’t understand the nature – or power – of empathy. There is nothing necessarily nice about empathy, which is essentially the ability to imagine and intuit how other people think and feel.
It has nothing to do with genuinely identifying with others or actually feeling their pain; that would be sympathy. Instead, empathy is really about having an accurate theory of mind of other people – and getting under their skin.
Trump has lots of empathy. What he doesn’t have is sympathy – he doesn’t really feel badly for other people. He is not using his considerable empathy skills for Puerto Rico for a simple reason: they are not his base and he has little interest in them.
All successful politicians have unusually high levels of empathy. That is what makes their supporters feel and believe that they are understood, regardless of the true motives of the political figure.
The same is true of successful demagogues and psychopaths who have an uncanny ability to read the mind of their victims in order to manipulate and control them. Thus, depending on the moral compass of a leader, empathy could be a very positive or very destructive force.
Trump made a strong empathic connection with his supporters by acknowledging their pain and economic hardship and by promising to Make America (and by extension, them) Great Again. How? It hardly mattered once he made people feel he understood and liked them, something far more effective than policy details.
But there is an extra twist to what Trump has done when it comes to empathy that helps us understand not only his success, but the puzzling and enduring loyalty of his core supporters, many of whom are unemployed, angry and stressed.
Despite considerable evidence to the contrary, they still believe he will deliver on his campaign promises because the empathic connection he’s made with them, which emphasizes fear and threat, is psychologically and neurobiologically much more powerful than mere facts. Why?
Studies of humans and other animals show that chronic stress tends to makes us more fearful while at the same time less critical and analytical in our thinking.
The reason is that chronic stress is toxic to the prefrontal cortex, which is the brain’s reasoner-in-chief and allows us to rationally evaluate evidence, among other things. In response to chronic stress, neurons in our prefrontal cortex shrink and, as a direct result, we lose some of our ability for flexible and critical thinking.
In stark contrast, chronic stress causes neurons in the amygdala, the seat of anxiety and fear in the brain, to get larger and more active, increasing a sensation of danger.
(Both these effects are usually reversible so long as the stress is not too severe or prolonged.)
Is it any surprise, then, that a fair chunk of President Trump’s core base – people who are probably chronically stressed – would be particularly receptive to “information” that conveys a sense of threat and more likely to dismiss reasoned argument and real facts as fake news?
There is a clear adaptive advantage to being vigilant and anxious in the face of real danger. But you want to be able to dial down your fear once the danger has passed – or you discover there was little danger to start with – so that you have greater access to your critical faculties.
That is exactly what President Trump is hoping his core supporters never get around to. From the moment of his inaugural speech where he declared that “this American carnage stops right here and stops right now” to the present, he never misses an opportunity to remind his base of their supposed enemies, be it Muslims or the liberal media, with a histrionic sense of threat and fear.
So long as Trump continues to stoke his supporters’ fear, he strengthens their loyalty. It also explains, in part, why President Trump has been so eager to provide his base with convenient human scapegoats for their predicament.
After all, if you are angry about having lost your job, it is far more emotionally satisfying to blame an immigrant than the likely truth, which is that you lost your job to automation or a shift in the nature of the economy – an abstract explanation without a human target for your anger.
The disturbing truth is that we are most vulnerable to being exploited by an empathic demagogue like President Trump when we are stressed and anxious. In that state, we are hard-wired to favor fear over reason.