Seeing Donald Trump: How a Sensible Empathic View of Him Can Help Progressives Stop Him

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If in this article I do a good job of creating a sensible empathic explanation of Trump’s troubling behavior, I’ll evoke what at first to my fellow critics of him must seem impossible, much less undesirable. I hope to evoke compassion for him as the innocent victim of influences beyond his knowledge and, therefore, his control. But why strive to evoke compassion for horrible people? I believe this compassion-evoking view of any person is more credible than the degrading view held by nearly everyone. Incidentally, I’m one of those haters – Trump disgusts me. But it’s vital, I believe, to at least able to be angry at and feel compassion toward practically everyone.
The practical point of this empathic explanatory view? Perhaps most importantly regarding Trump, we must have a credible view of him and his supporters to plot an effective strategy for preventing him from winning the Presidency. That ought to be unarguable. And empathic explanations make the best sense of people. Of course, Trump may alienate the populace enough to derail his bid, but as of this writing, the polls haven’t tipped against him enough to quiet our worries about the possibility that the perhaps the most dangerous man to every run for this office will win the election, the growing number of Republicans for Hillary notwithstanding.
To begin to understand him we need to have in mind the most troubling behavior we must put in a credible perspective. Most notably, Trump has frequently taken advantage of bankruptcy laws that are too easy to unjustly use. He borrows money, defaults on the loans, and goes into bankruptcy. He’s quite open about this practice. He said, “Out of hundreds of deals & transactions, I have used the bankruptcy laws a few times [most critics say there were at least four times] to make deals better,” he said recently on Twitter. “Nothing personal, just business… It’s a very effective & commonly used business tool.” How callous. Never-mind, of course, that the investors in the companies that made the loans always lose significant money, as do small contractors who work on his buildings. And his “just business” dismissal of the plight of his victims connotes a man who doesn’t much care about people. At his worst, he seems sociopathic, like the guy who’s picture appears on the cover of Snakes In Suits, Robert Hare’s book on non-criminal psychopaths; this nattily dressed businssman has a huge snake draped around his neck – evil personified. Second, Trump also makes outrageously degrading remarks about his opponents, women, minorities, and a gaggle of other categories of vulnerable people. Critics therefore call him a bully, a blatant racist, and worse. He also says things that seem delusional, perhaps only joking blustery things like, “My twitter has become so powerful that I can actually make my enemies tell the truth.” Finally, he proposes actions he would take that seem at best impossible to do and at worst, destructive, like building a wall to keep out Mexicans and claiming that we need global warming to get rid of the bothersome snow in his home city, New York. (Of course, again, this may be only jokey bluster, but this comment does roughly represent his views on global warming.)
In sum, he at least appears to be wild, grossly insulting, inhumane, and dangerous. Why really is he like that? Assuming that this characterization is valid, it won’t do to explain him tautologically, as in, “He’s acting insane, irresponsible – fill in your favorite degrading characterization – because he’s insane, irresponsible, etc.” We need a more searching understanding.
Begin near the beginning of his life and before that in the life of his father. Unfortunately, the publicly available historical record of Donald Trump’s childhood and teenage years is sparse. But the few bits of available information eerily echo the lives of other rich people who also seem not to care about ordinary people, especially the Koch brothers’, as portrayed in Dark Money by Jane Mayer.
Trump’s father, Frederich Christ “Fred” Trump, was the child of a German immigrant. A Senate committee authorized an investigation of Fred Trump’s business dealings. They found that he and his partner paid $34,000 for land which they then rented to their corporation for over $60,000 per year in a 99 year lease. They built an apartment complex on that land with money loaned to them by the Federal Housing Authority (FHA). And the loan amount was $3.5 million more than the cost of building the apartment complex. To cover the loan, Trump argued, he had to charge much more for the apartments than they were worth. Subsequently, 2,500 tenants sued Trump and the FHA, arguing that Trump and his partner had charged illegally high rent. Readers, was that difficult to follow? I’ve spent a few hours trying to understand it and boil it down to the simplest form, and I’m left with more questions than answers. Fred wasn’t indicted. He had complex explanations for seeming misdeeds, and those explanations are beyond my ability to evaluate. There is no smoking gun I can find, but there are these bits of smoke that at least hint that his father was also capable of being unethical.
Michael D’Antonio, a former Pulitzer prize winner and author of Never Enough, an unauthorized biography of Trump, offers perspective on Trump’s father’s influence on Donald. In an interview on Inside Edition, he said, “His father told him ‘Be a killer. Be a killer. Be a king. You’re supposed to dominate. You’re supposed to be in charge.'” D’Antonio opined, Trump accordingly has “the impulses of a monarch.” And D’Antonio quoted Theodore Tobias, Donald’s fatherly athletic coach during his school years, as saying, “The father was really tough on the kid…. He was very German.” Readers, this is Tobias’s slur against Germans, not mine; much of Western Civilization was, in Tobias’s meaning, very German during the Koch brother’s father’s and Trump’s father’s upbringing. Consider the US wholesale attacks against and degradation of Native Americans following the Native Removal Act of 1830 and gruesome child labor practices in America, just to name a few of many examples.
Two of Trump’s experiences resonate to the early life of Charles Koch, who Mayer convincingly portrays as intent on dominating America. Donald’s parents sent him away from home to a military school at age 13, as Charles was; Charles was sent away because he was incredibly badly behaved. The euphemistically expressed reason for Trump’s banishment is that his parents wanted to “channel” his considerable energy. The real reason is that, as Trump is quoted as saying to a reporter for Business Insider, “in the second grade I actually gave a teacher a black eye – I punched my music teacher because I didn’t think he knew anything about music and I almost got expelled.” Trump added, “I’m not proud of that, but it’s clear evidence that even early on I had a tendency to stand up and make my opinions known in a very forceful way. The difference now is that I use my brain instead of my fists.” In retrospect, he is grateful for his time at the academy, where he says he learned how to channel his “aggression into achievement.”
His trivializing view of punching his teacher – spinning a violent act into an expression of self-assertion – is standard Trump-speak designed to minimize the destructiveness of his behavior. And he trivialized his banishment from his family to military school as an opportunity to learn how to channel his aggression. But why really had he become a violent person bent on dominating other people without regard to the harm he caused them? To put this question in terms of a minor but telling manifestation of his heartless desire to dominate, Why on his reality TV show, The Apprentice, did he so condescendingly and cruelly say to “losers” on the show, “You’re fired!?”
Unfortunately, aside from the quotes above of his father being tough on him and urging him to dominate, I couldn’t find much about how Trump’s parents treated him. We know, however, how Donald and his father treated his older brother, Fred, Jr. And it’s likely that the father was consistent and treated Donald similarly until Donald submitted to what seems his father’s essentially anti-social way of thinking about relationships.
There are faint traces of the use of condemnation in the story of Fred, Jr.. He died of complications of alcoholism in 1981 at the age of 43, and that’s a clue – only a clue – that this father wasn’t, to put it mildly, supportive. Moreover, Donald perhaps was representing his father’s way of influencing his kids. He admitted did sometimes shaming Fred for being too irresponsible, not serious enough about following in their father’s footsteps into the real estate business. And he did that intensely. A friend of Donald’s said that Donald tended to pick fights with Fred Jr and storm out.
Donald also had some tender feelings for Fred, Jr. After Fred, Jr.’s death, he empathically explained that the pressure on Fred, Jr. to be in the family business missed the point that he wasn’t suited to be an assertive real estate dealer, that he was a peace loving person who might have been successful as a peace maker. Although it seems that Donald was intensely condemning against his brother and that his father likely was too – for example, his father did cut Fred, Jr. out of his will – this tragic death is difficult to understand without much more specific information. But other similar but less public cases do make the point that condemnation of an offspring can and often does have tragic consequences. Some kids react by capitulating to the demands backed up by intense punishment, and others rebel but ineffectively and without the ability to find their way to an alternative fulfilling life.
Although the following conclusions are highly speculative, they have the advantage of fitting an emerging explanation of similar people I know much about. If you accept my general empathic/compassionate view of people who behave destructively, then the speculations that come after the next paragraph can seem at least intriguing hypotheses that might be followed up by in-depth conversation with Donald.
Is it ridiculous to expect that he might submit to an interview based on this article’s point of view? Most likely, but perhaps a family member or friend might think such an interview would be helpful. A admittedly not on the nose analogy here is that, when some wives who’ve sought help from me complain that their husbands are totally unwilling to come to therapy, I’ve written letters to the husbands and been successful in making them feel safe and encouraged enough to come see me. I imagine that Donald does know some sympathetic people he might talk with about these matters. And he did express understanding and sympathy for his older brother, despite how usually condemning of Fred, Jr. he was. Perhaps, like many people who seem unequivocally invulnerable, a crack in their facade makes it possible to engage them in sensitive conversation.
I’ve read a fair amount about and by Trump, and one sentence sticks out as a clue to a sensible empathic explanation of his verbal assaultiveness and drive to dominate people. Donald said, “I wound people to unwound myself.” [Emphasis added.] This is an example of a general sensible empathic explanation. In attacking and dominating people without regard to their sensitivities, he’s acting out a hidden inner drama hinted at by this quote. The drama that likely was implanted in him is that his father’s and our culture’s degrading view of “weak” people was not lost on Donald. It’s inevitable that a father with his father’s attitudes toward people he dominates would at least imply to Donald, that whenever he’s ordinarily vulnerable, as all children blatantly are, he is a ridiculous, totally unworthy human being. Apparently Benito Mussolini’s father did the same to him, as did Koch brothers’ dad supposedly did to his sons, especially Charles.
I owe all of what I’m reporting here about Mussolini to Beth Caunce’s article, “Benito Mussolini: The Dictator’s Childhood.” Mussolini was the brutal Italian dictator who, during World War II, led Italians in this totalitarian’s efforts to dominate. Mussolini and his mother were frequently brutalized by his often drunken father. Despite the horrendous beatings, Benito greatly admired his father partly because his father believed in the need to dominate. Here’s how that belief in domination was formed. At age seven, a boy punched Benito in the face, and, he ran home to his mother, crying. His father ridiculed him for being unmanly. The father reportedly admonished, “…go back and teach him never to dare lay a hand on anyone with the name of Mussolini.” Benito used a sharp rock as a weapon to savage the other boy. After reporting that to his father, his father provided perspective, saying, “Now you’ve learned the first lesson of a man, my son. If you listen to the priests and turn the other cheek, you’ll get a slam on that one, too. To win respect always carry a sharp knife and use it when you must.” Subtract much of Mussolini’s father’s horrendous brutality, and you’re left with Trump’s father’s likely verbal cruelty and the belief that domination of others is what’s required to feel at all like a worthwhile person. I’ll explain.
“To win respect,” is the motivating principle for Benito’s father and, in turn, his son. In the view of many psychotherapists, that means to ward off the cause of the woundedness, the feeling of self-hate for being a coward and a loser, somebody one’s own father cannot love and admire. To ward off this inner assault, you must devastate whoever hurts you. The point of destructive behavior is not to satisfy an uncaused, innate will to dominate, or evil urges as Freud’s early theory taught and as many people still believe. Rather, as his “late Freud” view, Ego Analysis, suggests, the motive for dominating is to ward off the indoctrinated self-hate, to dramatize in dominating behavior, “It’s not me that’s unmanly and therefore totally unworthy of respect – it’s you.” Shifting the wounding, the hateful disrespect, to another person or group “unwounds” Trump.
It will be difficult for both Trump’s supporters and detractors to take seriously this sensible empathic explanation of his assaultiveness. That’s partly because, there’s too little in the public record that would account for him being so wounded that he makes desperate, often absurd attacks against people. If you think he’s only referring to wounds caused by his current political opponents, his wholesale attacking style doesn’t make much sense. You have to know what made the man, but not just in the form of a dry historical report. To evoke compassion for anybody, what’s often required is being there, actually seeing the father’s cruelty and other pressure to be dominating. Words fail us, but there are more and less evocative attempts in writing to help put us in a position to have the longed for emotion.
Consider little known facts of Hitler’s life. The background of my empathic explanation of Hitler is that it is well established that, somewhat like both Mussolini and Stalin, he was brutalized by a drunken father during a four year period beginning before he became a teenager. What’s lessor known is that his mother tried mightily to protect her son, once actually taking the blows for him. That scene in the attic with Hitler prostrate, his mother laying face down on his back, and his raging, incoherent father beating her hard…. Now consider Hitler’s much later experience of his mother’s painful illness and death. Jump into his skin to grasp what for most people is completely unimaginable: that at least some genocidal murderers are capable of compassion. During his mother’s terminal illness, Adolf constantly attended to her. Adolf, according to the well regarded World History Project, “anguished over every moment of her suffering” and was “devastated” by her death. The attending physician said that “he had never seen anyone so overcome with grief as Adolf Hitler at the loss of his mother.” See that there was a strong flame of compassion in him.
The point? That however narrowly expressed, compassion could have been capitalized on as a beachhead for beginning to reach him. And his capacity for compassion encourages us to look for expressions of it in similar kinds of people. Perhaps we can learn from this kind of psychological history to appreciate that at least some people we can’t stand are reachable by sensitive rather than confrontational, morally outraged means.
The very least that’s seems needed in efforts to stop Trump perhaps is that his supporters be empathically understood. They too are warding off upsetting feelings about themselves, as I believe is true of most people. And the Left’s current degrading view of Trump unfortunately throws gas on his supporters inner fire. It “wounds” them. As Trump is degraded by his critics, his supporters are degraded in the bargain. The standard, condescending view of him and them too is likely only to alienate them and make them as desperately angry and ridiculing as Donald. Better to understand and encourage whatever entirely legitimate grievances they have.
One of his supporters, captured one of their most understandable grievances. Dale Berry, who is just a voter, not a part of Trump’s organization, said, “On a general level, one of the biggest problems we have is this PC culture where people are afraid to say things.” In the 1960s and ever since then, the Left has been morally outraged against the Right for being hostile and judgmental toward women, minorities, and many more people. This attack against the Right is reified in the Politically Correct movement. And for many on the Right, Hillary personifies this hostile attitude, although she expresses it in detached, wonky terms for the most part. I understand that fury at the Right for being grossly prejudice is perfectly reasonable in light of how terribly, sometimes murderously the objects of prejudice have been treated. But so is the Right’s reaction to the humiliation heaped on them beginning in the 1960s. To say that the PC movement is justified misses the point that, however understandable, the pain and marginalization perpetrated on the Right is no less real and motivating. I encourage people to try not to be thrown off by these people’s aura of awfulness and appreciate that every person’s behavior has a hidden rationality with which we can identify and appeal to.
Just as a teaser for a strategy that would help our cause, here’s something perhaps unthinkable Hillary could say. I want her to say something like,
As a woman, I think it’s important for me to forgive Donald for trashing women. And I don’t mean to sound condescending. By “forgive,” I only mean the first dictionary definition of that word, to stop blaming and shaming him. In my view, everyone deserves empathic understanding, not condemnation, regardless how much harm I think they are causing. I have hopefully constructive and enlightening criticisms of him to make, but I can express them without doing to him what I’ve accused him of doing to women and minorities. Donald and his supporters are angry and aren’t going to take it anymore, and I think they should be like that. We on the Left have been grossly judgmental against them. I will increasingly make their case by showing how we on the Left have been grossly judgmental and, more importantly, just plain wrong in our characterizations of our political opponents. We progressives argue for reconciliation, for uniting the country, but we may never do that until we begin consistently regarding our political opponents with respect.
The least that would result from the above kind of speech is that more people would be talking about whether condemning or empathic understandings are the most effective ways of pursuing one’s political aims. Not a bad result for a one minute speech.
In December of last year, Hillary already publicly touted the use of empathy in international relations. She was shot down for being an appeaser. That’s the familiar attack against sensitive methods, and she hasn’t talked about empathy since. But because or her stated interest, it’s possible that she would at least be interested in exploring further this alternative method for exerting influence. And there’s a remarkable precedent for doing this.
The main successful use of this strategy I know of is Obama’s speech during his first campaign in Philadelphia. His campaign was reeling from attacks against him for being associated with the black racist minister, Rev. Wright. In the speech, he genuinely empathically explained blue collar workers’ anger against affirmative action and other upsetting policies and pronouncements. Most commentators agreed that this speech saved his candidacy in Pennsylvania. It would help to find other precedents to examine as a basis for taking the risk of empathically understanding and appealing to one’s opponents.
John McFadden is an ordained Presbyterian minister, a former general hospital/mental hospital/prison chaplain, and a CA State Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. This article was excerpted from his forthcoming book, entitled, For They Know Not What They Do: A Sensible Empathic Explanation (SEE) Initiative to Help Save the World, accepted for publication by Dignity Press. Late drafts available to some readers willing to give feedbac