Compassion and Politics: An Oxymoron?

Annamaria Sauer’s recent article “The Trumps Have a Big Heart” may tug at the heartstrings, but it does so through deception.  Either Ms. Sauer was fooled or she thinks the Union’s readers fools.  The events she claims were witnessed and described by Peggy Noonan — the Trumps interacting with the poor and homeless – never happened.  As Ms. Noonan wrote, “I should note—this part is true—that I saw much of it while anesthetized for a minor surgical procedure. For an hour afterward, even knowing it was either a fantasy or a dream, I felt so . . . hopeful.”.  

As much as one wants to believe that Melania would give a street person the boots off her feet or that Donald would stoop to comfort a wheel-chair-bound woman with a discussion of hairstyles, reality is otherwise. None of it happened. It was an anesthetic-induced dream Ms. Noonan used to make a point, nothing more.  For an actual dose of reality, one need only recall Donald’s entertaining the Halloween-costumed children of the White House press corps to understand his level of empathy and caring.  As he cooed over the children he could not help himself: throwing out spurious jabs at the children’s parents, he asked the children what they thought of the press.  It was, as usual, all about Donald, and the children stood uncomfortably mute.

Feel good stories about politicians abound.  Ronald Reagan’s friends described him as a man who would give the shirt off his back to someone down on his luck. I am convinced that the Trumps, like Reagan before them, feel compassion for the disadvantaged, and joy in the innocence of children.  That much said, politicians, and particularly Donald Trump, appear able to separate feelings of compassion and empathy on the personal level from the effects of their decisions on the political level. Yes, Reagan might have given the shirt off his back to a homeless person, only to then walk into the Oval office to sign legislation that cut funding for the poor. Trump may coo about children but does not hesitate deporting innocent dreamers whose only fault was being brought to this country as children, or denying healthcare to millions of Americans.

Politicians like Trump are split personalities. They compartmentalize their feelings.  On a personal level they may care, and care deeply; but in the political arena they care not a whit for the damage their expedient political decisions have on ordinary Americans.

Today we face the disturbing question whether our politicians are capable of genuine compassion and caring in their public actions. They doubtless find joy in their families. We need look no further than the White House to see President Trump’s relatives ensconced in positions of power. The problem is not that politicians like Trump do not care.  The problem is that politicians care too much about themselves and too little for the citizens. Politicians, particularly crass power-hungry types like Donald Trump, are entrenched in a structure of power and privilege that insulates them from ordinary people. As a result, they routinely make decisions not from a sense of compassion for others, but from a desire to insure their continued access to power and privilege. Photo ops of Trump and his family mixing briefly with the masses, particularly when they did not happen, are no substitute for meaningful compassion for ordinary citizens.

Simply put, our politicians are caring people on the personal level and power-addicted narcissists on the political level. Perhaps I misjudge them, but that is because I have no meaningful access to politicians.  I can only judge them by what they do and how they act as politicians. Thus I am convinced that “feel good” stories about the Trumps or any politician only serve to mask the very real harm done to the citizenry by our elected leaders’ selfish pursuit of vainglory.

Our task as citizens is to elect people who do not leave their compassion for others at the door of public office.  One often hears that Americans want their political leaders to be role models who would not distinguish between the personal and the political.  If politicians tout giving homeless people the shirts off their backs or the boots off their feet, how much better that they fight for programs that insure no one needs a handout –neither a shirt nor a pair of boots — in the first place.  

It is as simple as that.

By Richard Sciaroni

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