Daniel R. DePetris

Donald Trump is the president who can’t do compassion

Donald Trump is the president who can't do compassion
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The president of the United States has to wear many hats. When a crisis hits the world, it’s the president who is often called to help solve it. And when a crisis hits the home front, whether it be a mindless mass shooting, a major hurricane, or a mass-casualty terrorist attack, it’s the president who is expected to play the healer-in-chief.

It’s now a proven fact that Donald Trump cannot play the role of a healer. The two deadly shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio that claimed the lives of nearly 30 innocent people thrusted an immediate catastrophe upon Trump’s shoulders. And despite pledging to leave the usual political bickering out of it, he couldn’t help himself.

Trump did what most of his predecessors have done in a similar situation. He delivered a nationally televised speech decrying the bloodshed, praying for the families, and sending a message that there is no room for hate or extremism of any kind in America. He flew to El Paso and Dayton, thanked health care professionals and law enforcement for their service, and visited the victims at the hospital to wish them well. He could have left it at that, choosing to live above the political foodfight for a few days as the Democratic presidential candidates were rolling around in the dirt calling him an enabler of hate-fuelled violence and a cold-stoned racist.

In hindsight, it may have been too much to ask for. For someone who has been fending off enemies, real and perceived, for decades in New York, Trump is physically incapable of letting the slightest pass go by without a response. The Trump school of thought: to take the high road when confronted is to act weak. To take the opposite tact would be wholly unnatural, like a hungry lion sparing the baby water buffalo drinking from the stream.

So, true to his paper-thin skin form, he went on the attack. He laughed at Beto O’Rourke as an overrated, failed politician with a fake name. He blasted two Democratic officeholders who he just met at a hospital for “misrepresenting” the love and admiration the hospital staff and patients gave him—calling one, Sen. Sherrod Brown, a “failed presidential candidate.” He punched another Texas Democrat, Joaquin Castro, in the gut for saying mean things about him on the airways. Before he even landed in El Paso, Trump dismissed Democratic presidential frontrunner Joe Biden as a boring dullard who was losing it mentally—this in response to an address where the former vice president all but laid America’s entire white supremacist problem at Trump’s feet.

And of course it wouldn’t be Trump if he didn’t take advantage of the moment for his own political benefit. He used his sojourn to the hospital as a campaign visit, posting on his Twitter account a one-minute long video of himself listening stoically to the doctors and embracing the adulation of the waiting crowd in the hospital corridors.  

Predictability, all of this generated outrage across the country. Therein lies the problem: at a time when Americans could use a time-out from the pettiness, the president (as well as his Democratic opponents) only fanned the flames of the very division most of us are hoping to escape. The country’s political class, with a fiery, controversial, and tone-deaf Trump at the top of the system, is now seemingly incapable of leaving politics at the door when good, old-fashioned compassion is called for. 

Unfortunately, the average American will have to learn how to live with this dynamic for the next year and a half—or the next four and a half years if Trump wins re-election in November 2020. Because for as long as “the Donald” is in the White House, Democrats will take issue with everything he says and does. Trump will only make things worse by belittling their intellect, poll numbers, and personal defects. The action-reaction cycle is the disturbing new normal.  

This is not what Americans want from their leaders. But what we want is increasingly irrelevant.