“It is what it is.”
There might not be a more inane phrase in the English language. The president uttered it in his interview with Axios. The line probably says more about the president than anything else he’s ever said. It probably gets to the heart of what I find most loathsome about this president. That’s saying something because it’s a pretty long list.
First, a history lesson. Like most of you, much of what I learned in politics came from my parents. My father in particular was a history teacher. He left the classroom when I came along, but our home was a classroom. One of the core lessons was that even though our family always supported Democrats, we came into any political discussion believing that the other side wanted what was best for America.
I know that notion seems silly now. We can’t have a lively discussion without someone being painted as something. Liberals are often painted as socialists, anarchists, communists, and now even fascists. Let’s ignore that you literally can’t be all of these things or even most of them at the same time. Conservatives are often painted as uncaring, cruel, or selfish. That has to sting just as much.
People would always make fun of me growing up because my liberal beliefs stood out. Most of the people I graduated with were not liberals. It’s part of growing up in a middle class suburb. Friends often call it “The Bubble.”
Most of the people I went to college with weren’t liberals either. Many of them I still count as my closest friends. The foundation of a functioning society and government is the ability to get along with people we disagree with. Political opponents famously went out and had a beer together after fighting it out in the battlefield. People love to retell history and leave out the disagreements. Our forefathers fought like cats and dogs over matters large and small. Somehow, we made it through.
Now, what does this have to do with empathy? Empathy is very simply the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Can you feel what they feel? Can you see the world as they see the world? When you have an absence of empathy it isn’t so much the inability to understand what is going on in someone else’s life. That’s bad enough. It is the inability or unwillingness to care
Watch past presidents and these moments are always when they are at their best. Whether it be Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, or Ronald Reagan, they all summoned something within themselves when there was suffering. Whether it was the Challenger Explosion, the Oklahoma City Bombing, 9/11, or Sandy Hook those presidents forgot about themselves for the moment and mustered whatever strength they had to ease the suffering of a grieving nation.
For whatever reason, the president is incapable of doing that. Maybe he is psychologically damaged as his niece has claimed. Maybe it’s just not the way he’s wired. Maybe he is too insecure not to take a moment and make it about himself. The whys and what fors don’t really matter. What matters is that when others are suffering it is always about him. Who isn’t giving him the credit he is due? Who is unfairly blaming him for the tragedy? Who is to blame for the tragedy other than him? It doesn’t matter what the tragedy is. The refrain is always the same.
In his first inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln said the following,
“The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
The better angels of our nature. There are those of us that can throw a few words together and there are those that can give us goosebumps. There isn’t a writer alive that doesn’t wish they had that power. Presidents and their team of ghost writers have that power. They have the power to unite a disparate group of citizens behind a common goal. They can summon our better natures to help us overcome that which threatens to tear us apart.
Or we can burn it all down. Great men and women know what divides us. They understand what each side believes and why they believe it. They hold the ability to find that common ground that unites all of us. Many have mistaken the evil in this world to be the side that believes the opposite as us. The evil of the world would rather play upon our disagreements, our fears, and our differences in order to obtain power. It is evil because it rarely accomplishes anything. For if you change it then you can no longer make people afraid of it.
So, we have an empathy gap. Sure, I’m troubled by our president’s ethical gap. I’m troubled by his lack of knowledge and lack of intellectual curiosity. I’m troubled by his lack of respect for our laws and norms. These are all troubling things. What troubles me more is the lack of caring. Over 150,000 people are dead and he tells us it is what it is.
Sure, he also said they were doing a really good job and it could have been much worse. He even tried to sound sympathetic for a moment, but that was fleeting. Most rational and normal people don’t want to hear you blame Obama or the governors in that moment. They don’t want to hear you say you did your best. They want to hear you say you’re doing your best and will continue to do your best. They want to know you feel some sense of loss outside of the loss of some stock values. They want to know you are capable of feeling anything that doesn’t involve yourself.
This isn’t a conservative or liberal issue. People can try to make it one, but it really isn’t. One can be a liberal or conservative and care about people. They can care about health care, helping the poor, the rights of oppressed people, and care about how the pandemic is affecting people. The difference comes not in the caring but in the suggestions of how to best alleviate their suffering. The difference comes in the views of the role of government at all three levels and the role of the private sector in these decisions.
The pandemic itself shouldn’t have been political. We managed to make it through World Wars, Great Depressions, and other crisis without our collective response becoming political. Citizens during World War II didn’t loudly proclaim that it violated their rights to ration goods. People didn’t loudly demand more during the Great Depression. We got simple requests to wear masks in public and you would think the Red Coats have returned to reclaim their country. General attitudes and behavior reflects leadership. When leaders don’t care about others or share in self-sacrifice, then those that follow the leader won’t either. They’ll bellow about how it infringes on them and inconveniences them. Lack of empathy. Maybe we’ve been treating the wrong virus all along.