Open to Sorrow vs. Open for Business

Empathy in Presidents Bush and Obama but not Trump

First, the overwhelming statistic: an American died from Covid-19 every 42 seconds in April. Now for the underwhelming statistic: over the course of three weeks of daily coronavirus press briefings in April, only four minutes of Donald Trump’s 13 hours of remarks directly acknowledged the pandemic’s victims. In other words, verbal mourning only took up about 0.05% of Trump’s time and even less of his emotional energy.  Note his smirking smile as he uses the daily briefing to preen and joust with reporters.

 Contrast that lack of empathy with this photo of George W. Bush offering somebody a consoling hug after 9/11 and of Barack Obama openly weeping after the school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. Reliable signs of sadness are that a wince creases our cheeks and our inner eyebrows rise, creating a puddle of wrinkles across our foreheads. The difference between Trump fervently wanting America “open for business again” while being so un-open to the sufferings of anybody other than himself couldn’t be greater. We’re enduring a marathon of unknown length with a leader who, in terms of compassion, has barely crossed the starting line.

The Low-Down on the Trump-Acosta News Conference Duel

It’s now been a week since the mid-term elections and, a few recounts aside, the dust has largely settled. What I can’t get out of my mind, however, is the confrontation between the President and CNN’s Jim Acosta during a rare formal East Room news conference the day after the voting. If Rembrandt, that master of depicting emotions, were alive today, what rich material he would have to work from!

Given that Acosta had his press pass to the White House suspended afterwards, the first question has to be: is Acosta really guilty of “placing his hands on” the female intern seeking to take the microphone away from him? That charge is, after all, the basis for press secretary Sarah Huckabee denying Acosta access to doing his job. While video shows Acosta’s outstretched left arm appearing to press down enough on the intern’s own outstretched arm for her arm to momentarily bend and give way, Acosta is at the same time saying “Pardon me, ma’am,” hardly the makings of Huckabee decrying CNN’s “outrageous disregard” for everyone working in the Trump administration.

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Is the young intern angry with Acosta after failing to retrieve the mic from him? Absolutely; notice her taut, lower eyelids and grimacing mouth.

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Is Acosta on edge himself? Absolutely; notice his grimacing gulp as Trump alternatively mocks and lambasts him.

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The fellow reporter who stands up for Acosta isn’t any more at ease himself. Notice his starkly open eyes and raised eyebrows, indicating fear.

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Trump himself winds up jabbing finger at Acosta, berating Acosta for being a “rude, terrible person” and CNN for again being the “enemy of the people” whenever it reports “fake news, which CNN does a lot.”

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But actually, Trump is fearful as well. Notice how his mouth pulls wide just when Acosta starts in with “I’d like to challenge you on one of the statements you made.”

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With the news conference broadcast live worldwide, there’s also the rich emotional theater of how the other media figures in the East Room were reacting. There we’re really in Rembrandt territory. The Dutch artist’s famous Nightwatch painting meets its contemporary rival in scenes like these:

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For Trump, raised on the mantra of “Be a killer, be a winner” by his aggressive real estate kingpin of a father, ugly emotional territory feels like home. But for many others along for the bumpy ride, unease rules the day.