That was the message sprawled across First Lady Melania Trump’s jacket as she boarded her plane at Joint Base Andrews on Thursday, headed to a shelter for immigrant children in a Texas border town. As the controversy surrounding the undeniably high-profile former supermodel’s controversial choice of attire trends internationally, and her communications team claims ignorance, I find it increasingly hard to ignore a certain time-worn, yet sadly applicable, cliché: there are no coincidences.
President Trump, who is ostentatious at best, and naive at worst, predictably came to Mrs. Trump’s defense via social media, insinuating that her jacket’s message was intentional, although targeted not at displaced children, but the “Fake News Media.” It all comes on the heels of Trump’s so-called “starburst outburst” at the recent G7 summit: a meeting with America’s closest allies. Amidst heated negotiations over an eventually scrapped communiqué, the President reportedly pulled two Starburst candies out of his pocket, threw them on the table in front of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and said, “don’t say I never gave you anything.”
Today’s “zero tolerance” world, a world in which the unapologetic separation of immigrant families is commonplace, has been led astray by leaders attempting to govern in service of themselves. As a result, our country has forgotten how to utilize the most essential leadership tool in existence: empathy.
In 2013, former President Barack Obama predicted that the implications of America’s “empathy deficit” would prove far more lasting than the ever-looming federal deficit. President Donald Trump’s hesitant submission, by executive order, to mounting scrutiny from his constituents, lawmakers, and the media over his interpretation of decades-old immigration policy illustrates our country’s need for a crash course in compassion.
Empathy is defined as the “action of understanding, being aware of, and being sensitive to the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of others.” Admittedly, as one of three, my own perception of empathy stems from a unique vantage point, but in my 17 years, I’ve made sense of what it’s not. It’s not sitting down to dinner at a Mexican restaurant, as the Secretary of Homeland Security, following a hard day’s work defending your own oversight of the separation of hundreds of Latino families. Following Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen’s latest optic blunder, CBS This Morning anchor Gayle King wondered if the Trump-appointee was “giving a middle finger to the situation,” or if she was just “tone deaf.”
Sarada Peri, a former senior presidential speechwriter under Barack Obama admits that “empathy is dead in American politics.” She makes the case that not only is empathy no longer the cornerstone of presidential success, but the practice of which is a guarantee of political failure. Empathy is a dangerous tool, to be employed exclusively, and very carefully, towards a singular demographic, because when politicians empathize with everyone, they risk losing the support of their base. According to a November 2016 article from the Washington Post, Latinos voted “overwhelmingly against Trump” in the last presidential election. In contrast to the chaotic communication strategies the current occupant of the Oval Office has implemented thus far, his message to Hispanic Americans is clear: get on the Trump train or get out of the country.
The words of renowned social theorist Jeremy Rifkin still ring true today, that “empathy is the soul of democracy.”
In Yale psychologist Paul Bloom’s book, Against Empathy, he argues that empathy clouds our judgement to make informed decisions that better the world. I argue that without any sort of emotional investment in America’s border belligerence, indecisiveness has set in, as it inevitably will due to empathetic absence. While it has taken President Trump almost two years and of governing, and an exorbitant amount of bipartisan political pressure, to effectuate any sort of empathy in the immigration debate, legislators on Capitol Hill continue to view talking about comprehensive immigration reform as equivalent to tangible, legislative action. If our representatives choose to do nothing to remedy such widespread political paralysis and apathy, then we must. Although we can’t craft bills or sign legislation, we can put an end to the empathy deficit.
We can heed the advice of the next President of the United States of America: Oprah Winfrey. In her 2013 Harvard commencement address, the master empathizer explained that all communication takes place within the scope of the same three basic questions: “Did you hear me? Did you see me? Did what I say mean anything to you?” Empathy starts with effective communication, so making a conscious effort to answer these questions in our daily conversations will allow empathy to come naturally, and action to follow. President Trump will continue to push for a wall to keep out the desperate and inconvenient, but whether that wall is six feet or six hundred feet high, it’s the walls we build around ourselves that will truly cast the darkest shadows.