Donald Trump's lack of normal human empathy is more than disturbing — it's dangerous

As the hurricanes, the 9/11 anniversary and McCain's death make clear, Trump is incapable of normal human emotion

By Heather Digby Parton


Published September 12, 2018 9:10AM (EDT)

 (Salon/Benjamin Wheelock)
(Salon/Benjamin Wheelock)

Bob Woodward's new book "Fear: Trump in the White House" was finally released on Tuesday, and while many of the more colorful and interesting revelations within were already published by those who got early copies, many interesting impressions have yet to be fully discussed. Woodward's method, which he and Carl Bernstein pioneered in their reporting on the Watergate scandal, is to reconstruct events from interviews with numerous sources, many of them on deep background. In the case of this latest book, as with their classic work "All the President's Men," the story provides new details but in the end really just pulls an abundance of earlier reporting into a coherent narrative. The Trump administration is the most transparent of any presidency in my recollection, due to the daily gusher of leaks to dozens of different White House reporters -- while the president tweets virtually every passing thought --- so "Fear" isn't quite a shocking as it might be.

Still, it's disconcerting to read a Woodward book that reveals a presidency just as malignant and dysfunctional as the Nixon administration, although in different ways. I confess that I didn't expect to see two presidents with such monumental character flaws twice in my lifetime. If I didn't know better I would think there's something wrong with the Republican Party that it keeps electing these people.

There are many differences between the two men, starting with Trump's frightening lack of preparation, intellect and general knowledge by comparison with Nixon. But on a character level, they show similar flaws. Trump lacks Nixon's sometimes maudlin sentimentality and Nixon didn't manifest the grandiose self-regard that Trump uses to mask his insecurities. But both presidents have a petty, mean vindictive streak and a fetish for never showing "weakness." And both will be remembered for a total lack of normal human empathy.

Nixon's flaws in that regard are well-known. The man mastered politics and policy but he was a cold fish. The fact that he climbed as high as he did with such a prickly personality was a testament to his perseverance and ambition. But Donald Trump is something else again. His inability to care about anything but himself is so glaring and obvious that it's pathological.

Woodward's book is full of examples of Trump being unable to compromise, apologize, change course or otherwise behave like a mature adult because he sees anything less than total dominance as weakness. And since he is so often a failure, and cannot admit it, he simply lies and says that he actually won.

Yesterday, he demonstrated that in living color:

He spared not a thought for the people who died or those who were left homeless for months. He simply doesn't have it in him. The mayor of San Juan spoke for most people with this tweet:

During the campaign, when asked if he had ever asked for forgiveness, Trump memorably replied, "I like to be good. I don't like to have to ask for forgiveness. And I am good. I don't do a lot of things that are bad." When he was forced to make the one and only apology he's ever made (for his crude comments on the "Access Hollywood" recording) he apparently made a promise to himself to never do it again. Woodward has him railing at former White House staff secretary Rob Porter for convincing him to give a mildly conciliatory speech after the Nazi marches in Charlottesville:

That was the biggest f---ing mistake I’ve made,” he tells Porter. “You never make those concessions. You never apologize. I didn’t do anything wrong in the first place. Why look weak?"

As for human empathy, that's been obvious since he first started running for president. (New York journalists would say it's been obvious for 30 years.) He made fun of a disabled journalist, insulted women as being too ugly for him to assault, degraded Gold Star parents, calls African-American women "low IQ" -- the list goes on and on and on. The president's behavior toward the widow of Army Sgt. La David Johnson, who was killed in Niger last fall, was a perfect example. He failed to offer comforting words and then petulantly defended himself on Twitter, bringing down a barrage of abuse from his followers on the grieving widow at the worst moment of her life.

Last month he showed similar pique when at first he refused to keep the White House flag at half-mast to honor the late Sen. John McCain and only belatedly allowed his staff to put out a mildly laudatory statement in his name. McCain had not invited Trump to speak at his funeral, largely because the two men had disliked each other greatly for a variety of reasons, not least of which was Trump's nasty comment about McCain's POW history. We can also assume that the McCain family was terrified of having the president speak on such a solemn occasion because he is incapable of being dignified.

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Trump nearly always treats public appearances as campaign events regardless of the context. His early appearance at CIA headquarters, shortly after taking office, illustrates that concern. Instead of giving a serious, sober speech in front of the 117 nameless stars that represent fallen agents, he lied about the size of his inauguration crowd and talked about his war with the media. Then he said this:

Every time I say I had an uncle who was a great professor at MIT for 35 years who did a fantastic job in so many different ways, academically -- was an academic genius -- and then they say, "Is Donald Trump an intellectual?" Trust me, I’m like a smart person.

During the 9/11 commemoration on Tuesday, he managed to get through a prepared speech without digressing to brag about his intellect or his alleged accomplishments. But he certainly didn't get through the event without behaving inappropriately:

After that, he posted this:

That is the real Donald Trump. As was this, 17 years ago on that awful day:

We talk a lot about Trump's egomania, dishonesty and incompetence, which are dangerous traits when it comes to any president. But, like Nixon before him, he also has some serious character defects. He is fundamentally bereft of empathy and human compassion, which may be the most disqualifying characteristic of all.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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