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.

Monetizing the Presidency

Tump Store cherry blossom White House

Last spring, Donald Trump launched his “Cherry Blossom Collection” available online at his Trump Store, complete with images of The White House appearing below the branding: Trump Hotels. Now for his encore performance, Trump has delayed the release of the Covid-19 economic stimulus checks so that his name can be added to the checks’ memo section. This break in protocol led me to imagine he might want a currency bill of his own. Which national leaders featured on U.S. paper bills would most compete with the highly-emotive Trump? There are two.

Jackson and Franklin on currency with facial coding

First, Trump’s favorite president, Andrew Jackson ($20) wins the sadness sweepstakes with eyebrows both raised and pinched together, creating waves of wrinkles across his forehead. Jackson’s mouth also shows sadness with left corner of his puckered mouth drooping. Second, Benjamin Franklin ($100) wins the defiantly on-guard award. His eyebrows are arched, his eyes wide, and his drawn-up chin collides with firmly pressed lips that hint at a smile while a smirk crowns the left corner of his mouth. It’s quite the feat: surprise in Franklin’s upper face, while his lower faces mixes together anger, disgust, and a hint of a smile overshadowed by contempt (i.e., the smirk).

Let’s imagine Trump really, really, really wants to win re-election. What might that take? My suggestion is that he substitute his characteristically angry, sad and disgust-ridden face for Woodrow Wilson’s tight-lipped look, and re-release the $100,000 gold certificate that was briefly in circulation amid the Great Depression. As unemployment skyrockets, I can’t think of more apt symbolism than that right now.

041620-03 100k Bill

Trump Is Predominantly Fearful? Fuhgeddaboudit!

trump-blog-photo-resize

Most times, I find plenty of merit in the viewpoints expressed by David Brooks, The New York Times columnist and PBS and NPR contributor. But I found myself less on-board recently when I read his comparison of Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump: If Reagan’s dominant emotional note was optimism, Trump’s is fear.  If Reagan’s optimism was expansive, Trump’s fear propels him to close in. Then after a few of Trump’s foreign policy positions get mentioned, Brooks adds:  It’s not a cowering, timid fear; it’s more a dark, resentful porcupine fear.

Like Brooks, I’ve been watching Trump closely for a while now, partly as concerned citizen, partly as a pundit for CNN and Thompson-Reuters during the bizarre 2016 presidential race. Moreover, I’m finishing up my most recent book. This one has involved facial coding numerous photographs to arrive at the emotional profiles of over 150 famous people, including Trump. So I have a comparative benchmark.  Emotion by emotion I know when Trump’s amount of emoting is at, above or below the average of my 150+-person sample. In other words, which emotions characterize Trump and which don’t stand out in the mix? To keep it simple, let’s go emotion by emotion through what’s essential to understanding Trump’s personality, starting with where I’m in the most agreement with Brooks.

Anger:  If Trump were an animal, resentful porcupine would fit the bill nicely.  Anger is about wanting control, and hitting out to ensure it happens. Trump’s provocative tweets become Exhibit A here. But compared to other 150+ famous people analyzed for my latest book, Trump’s volume of emoting devoted to anger is actually no more than average. That’s because other negative emotions define Trump’s personality even more so. What’s unique about Trump is instead that, when angry, he’s very angry. Watch the way his lower lip bulges when he fumes or starts ranting.

Happiness: Just before the Reagan/Trump comparison, Brooks writes of Trump that he seems to suffer from an angry form of anhedonia, the inability to experience happiness. Bingo. Our new president is, indeed, notably lacking in happiness. Compared to the other 150+ famous people I studied, including past presidents, Trump barely registers on the scale at all. Thomas Jefferson’s phrase, “the pursuit of happiness,” appears to be in the Donald’s case a matter entirely of “pursuit” – with little in the way of “happiness” other than pleasure apparently taken in groping women.

Fear: While Brooks qualifies his statement that fear is Trump’s dominant emotional note by saying Trump’s fear isn’t of a cowering, timid nature, I still take issue with that premise. And here’s why. For starters, Trump exhibits only a very average amount of fear compared to the other 150+ famous people I studied. Second, fear means you sense a threat, to which most people’s natural reaction is to freeze. In Trump’s case, however, he’s compulsive and hyper-active.  Sweeping executive orders and provocative tweets show Trump so opposite to cowering that the notion of him as predominantly fearful becomes a non-starter, a definite no. Or as they say in Trump’s native New York City, fuhgeddaboudit!

Trump may very well be a fear-mongerer to attract support, but he’s not a fearful guy.  You can mock Trump, but a coward he isn’t.

Trump may very well be a fear-mongerer to attract support, but he’s not a fearful guy.

One striking autobiographical detail about Trump is that, as a boy, he would accompany his dad, Fred Trump, when Fred was making the rounds to connect rent from tenants in Brooklyn and Queens. Fred’s advice to the young Donald: always stand to one side of the door, never squarely in the doorway, just in case a bullet comes whistling by. Somebody with a different temperament (perhaps Donald’s own son, Barron), might have responded to Fred’s advice by becoming fearful. But not Trump, who’s notable for showing larger than usual amounts of two other emotions instead: disgust and sadness.

Disgust: Missing from Brooks’ characterization of Trump is another key, negative emotion that brings America’s 45th president into focus. Neither anger, nor fear but, rather, disgust begins to explain Trump better. Trump is both a germaphobe averse to anything “poisonous” (like booze) and “fed up” with most everything in the world. Disgust explains Brooks’ basic misstep here: Trump’s tendency isn’t to close in (fear style); he’s pulling back (disgust style). Trump scores higher than usual for disgust in comparison to the other 150+ famous people I studied. When disgusted, people’s noses wrinkle because they metaphorically can’t stand the smell of, for example, Washington, D.C., and so they want to “drain the swamp.”

Sadness: Finally, to truly understand Trump and his lack of happiness, we need to go to its opposite. Sadness is about the absence or loss of fulfillment, and a Trump specialty way beyond the average amount the 150+ famous people show. Anger has become so common in politics that it’s a commodity. Disgust combined with sadness is unique, and emotionally the combination helps to explain Trump’s victory. Sadness equates to pain, which many despairing citizens feel but they’re fed up with, disgust style, and don’t want to tolerate anymore. Make America Great Again is a cry for hope.

Time in the White House will tell whether Trump’s brand of sadness delivers on a promise of patriotic empathy by lifting the lives of economically-challenged citizens. If so, that goal will have to share air time with what I suspect really most actively drives Trump’s outsized sadness: thin-skinned narcissism involving the disappointment that others don’t applaud you enough.