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Decency and Democracy: Responding to political sycophants who designate empathy as a disability

Sympathy is the ability to put yourself in the place of another and understand someone else’s feelings by identifying with them. With empathy, you put yourself in another’s shoes, often feeling things more deeply than if you just felt sympathy.

For about a minute today I found myself feeling sorry for Donald Trump. The poor man is now “battling” COVID-19, the pugilistic verb is showing up all over the news. He is in the hospital. He is out of shape. He is 74 years old. His chief of staff reportedly says his symptoms are “very concerning.”

Joe Biden is praying for him. Kamala Harris sends him heartfelt wishes. President Obama reminds us we’re all in this together and we want to make sure everyone is healthy.

But hold on: why should we feel empathy for one of the most unempathetic people in the world?

One reason is out of respect. He is a human being. He is our president.

Yet there is an asymmetry here. While the Biden campaign has taken down all negative television advertising, the Trump campaign’s negative ads continue non-stop.

And at almost the same time that Biden, Harris, and Obama offered prayers and consoling words, the Trump campaign blasted “Lyin’ Obama and Phony Kamala Harris” and charged that “Sleepy Joe is not fit to be YOUR President.”

Can you imagine if Biden had contracted the coronavirus rather than Trump? Trump would be all over him. He would attack Biden as weak, feeble, and old. He would mock Biden’s mask-wearing – “See, masks don’t work!” – and lampoon his unwillingness to hold live rallies: “Guess he got COVID in his basement!”

How can we even be sure Trump has the disease? He has lied about everything else. Maybe he will reappear in a day or two, refreshed and relaxed, saying “COVID is no big deal.” He will claim he took hydroxychloroquine, and it cured him. He will boast that he won the “battle” with COVID because he was strong and powerful, without crediting the best medical care money can buy.

Meanwhile, his “battle” has distracted the nation from revelations that he is a tax cheat who paid only $750 in taxes his first year in office, and barely anything for 15 years before that; and that he is a failed businessman who is still losing money.

And from his cringeworthy debate performance last week, in which he did not want to condemn white supremacists. It even takes our mind off the major reason COVID-19 is out of control in America: because Trump blew it.

He downplayed it, pushed responsibility on to governors, and then demanded they allow businesses to reopen – too early – in order to make the economy look good before the election. He has muzzled and disputed experts at the CDC, promoted crank cures, held maskless campaign events, and encouraged followers not to wear masks. All of this has contributed to tens of thousands of unnecessary American deaths.

Trump’s “battle” with COVID also diverts attention from his and Mitch McConnell’s perversions of American democracy.

This is where the asymmetry is deeper. McConnell is moving to confirm Trump’s supreme court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, after having prevented Obama’s nominee from getting a Senate vote for almost a year on the basis of a concocted “rule” that the next president should decide.

Yet Biden will not talk about increasing the size of the court in order to balance it, and Democratic leaders have shot down the idea.

Nor do Biden and top Democrats want to suggest making Washington DC and Puerto Rico into states – a step that would remedy the bizarre inequities in the Senate where a bare majority of Republicans representing 11 million fewer Americans than their Democratic counterparts are able to confirm a supreme court justice.

It would also help rebalance the electoral college, which made Trump president in 2016 despite losing the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by more than 3 million.

Democrats worry this would strike the public as unfair. Unfair, when Trump will not even commit to a peaceful transition of power and refuses to be bound by the results? When he is already claiming the election is rigged against him and will be fraudulent unless he wins?

When he is now readying slates of Trump electors to be certified in states he will allege he lost because of fraud? When he is urging his followers to intimidate Biden voters at the polls?

Whether responding to Trump’s hospitalization this weekend or to Trump’s larger political maneuvers, Democrats want to act decently and nicely, to take the high road and be fair. They want to protect democratic norms, values, and institutions.

This is admirable. It is also what Democrats say they stand for.

But the other side is not playing the same game. Trump and his enablers will do anything to retain and enlarge their power. It is possible to be sympathetic toward Trump during his illness while acknowledging that he is subjecting America to a moral test.

What kind of society does the nation want: one based on decency and democracy, or on viciousness and raw power?

Robert Reich

The White House / Shеаlаh Crаіghеаd, Tіа Dufоur, Аlеx Brаndоn, and Jаcquеlyn Mаrtіn

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About The Author

Robert Reich

Formerly the U.S. Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich is professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the FewThe Common Good, and The System: Who Rigged It, How We Fix It