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“What I’m saying is this is fresh,” quipped Stephen Colbert after Donald Trump's first solo press conference as president. “It must be fresh because you can smell it ... This press conference — it's still steaming. You can warm your hands over this pile.”
Colbert is hardly alone in his impulse to denigrate Trump. We are confronted with a president whose words and deeds leave many of us horrified, outraged, deeply frightened. What could seem more natural than to view the man as a monster, someone who has abandoned his humanity? Why not make full use of our arsenal for attacking and discrediting a lethal opponent who threatens values we hold as fundamental?
But these “natural” reactions to a dangerous adversary form a trap, locking us into Trump's formula for embroiling political discourse in a barrage of verbal violence. It likewise defeats the aims of resistance if they encompass respect for all people. Our net for “all people” needs to be broad enough to include Trump himself, his key allies such as Stephen Bannon, chief strategist, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, those affiliated with the alt-right and all purveyors of hatred. We can't afford to fall into the trap of counter-demonizing our demonizers. In the current toxic political environment, compassion and empathy become critical tools of resistance.
Viewing Trump as fractured, wounded, locked into a vicious cycle that perpetuates his own injuries, creates a foundation for compassion.
Trump consistently appeals to the worst selves of his supporters. From encouraging campaign audiences to rough up protesters to his statements about women, Muslims, Mexicans, reporters and political rivals, he has created a civic atmosphere that permits bullying, racism, misogyny, homophobia and so on. What may be less obvious: The president also appeals to the worst selves of his adversaries. He goads, he badgers, he offends, he provokes. He invites us to respond at his level of discourse. It's an invitation we must refuse.
The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn has observed that when we do violence to others, we do violence to ourselves. This is the cost of dehumanizing Trump. But it also offers a window into the injuries that Trump himself suffers from his attitudes and behavior. Each insult, each attack, each foray into winning at all costs rebounds onto his own psyche and further atrophies his capacity for human connection. He engages in a kind of self-degradation. This man who could boast of grabbing women's genitals inhabits a profoundly diminished self, cut off from his own emotional vulnerabilities, his potential to be a caring person. Viewing Trump as fractured, wounded, locked into a vicious cycle that perpetuates his own injuries creates a foundation for compassion.
Empathy for Trump does not in the least excuse his many abuses of power, any more than Martin Luther King's practice of nonviolence excused white supremacy or Gandhi excused British imperialism.
I'm reminded of a question I have posed to myself as a Jew born a few years after the Holocaust: If I had been in Europe during Hitler's reign, and if I imagine having a choice, would I choose to be a Nazi or a Jew? My unequivocal answer: I would choose to be a Jew. This is a way of evoking how much perpetrators of the most extreme abuses and violations suffer from their own actions.
But an even deeper question, one which charts a truer path toward empathy, is whether I can imagine being someone who would choose to be a Nazi? Or someone so crushed by his life's circumstances that he has lost the capacity to choose? Or whether, by the same extension of myself into another's life, I can imagine being Donald Trump. The honest answer is that I recoil from the notion that I could be a Nazi or a Trump. And the honest answer, for all my horror at it, is that I contain these possibilities within myself; they fall within the range of the human species, from which I can't remove myself. Occupying the space between the urge to recoil and the choice to acknowledge my own worst self is the work of empathizing with the current president.
Empathy for Trump does not in the least excuse his many abuses of power, any more than Martin Luther King's practice of nonviolence excused white supremacy or Gandhi excused British imperialism. Nor does it contradict doing everything we can to resist his regime. Empathy is an act of resistance; a way of safeguarding the humanity of those of us who resist; a way of making resistance to hatred an act of love.
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