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The fall of empathy and rise of Donald Trump

By Alex Murphy     3/15/16 8:48pm

If you’re like me, you’ve watched with dismay over recent months as Donald Trump sped to the front of the pack of Republican presidential nominee hopefuls. If you’re like me, you’ve bemusedly asked yourself, “Who is voting for this guy?” I’ve spent much time thinking about politics in my political science coursework and during internships in Congress, the U.S. Department of Education and the White House. But it wasn’t until I set aside politics and began thinking about my hometown, a small municipality in upstate New York, that an answer emerged: Donald Trump is winning because his campaign is founded on false empathy.

This statement may seem ridiculous, even offensive. How could such a demeaning, demoralizing campaign be even fictitiously empathetic? But Trump speaks to the experiences of a particular type of American, a type of American found throughout my hometown. This type of American has undergone a decade of job loss, erosion of their Judeo-Christian-Capitalist-Nationalist values in mainstream culture and alienation from places of power — most prominently the university, the media and the government. I find it hard to believe Trump truly relates to most of his supporters; he was born sucking a silver spoon and will be buried in a 24-carat coffin. But his willingness to “tell it like it is” in their lives reflects the anger and fear of the Americans to whom I refer. Indeed, many so fear forever losing their 20th-century cultural dominance, and are so angry at the prospect, that they will embrace his bigoted rhetoric and policy proposals. For many, voting for Trump is the key to restoring their prominent place in our culture. Trump knows fear and anger drive his base, and he stirs up these emotions at every opportunity. His is false empathy, cunningly conceived.

University undergraduates, who wield more social influence than any preceding generation, have the unique power to stem this tide of anger and anxiety by exercising true empathy and respect. Anger cannot drive out anger, nor can derision drive out stupidity. But if we seek to understand and respect the perspectives of those whose views we could easily flick aside as bigoted, oppressive or otherwise ignorant, we can replace vitriol with kindness, and deafeningly silence the cacophony of hate stirred up by the Trump campaign. Implementing this practice around those with whom we disagree, let alone those who support Trump, is challenging. We live in a culture that derides and dismisses disagreeable arguments and the ones who make them. 140 characters leave room for little else. But true empathy and respect are the antidotes to anger.

I’m not asking anyone to equivocate their convictions or set aside their passion — just the opposite. Empathy and respect can open the door to conversations affording us the opportunity to actually persuade our fellow citizens, which we can all agree would be a welcome change from the verbal masturbation of the weekly presidential debates.

If we truly try to know the hearts and minds of those with whom we staunchly disagree, I believe we can immeasurably impact our culture. By engaging those whose views are currently unwelcome in the contemporary university, we could turn away the wrath that seeks out scapegoats and restore peace and rationality to our civic conversations. If we can muster the strength to choose empathy over derision, kindness over anger, I believe we could return to democracy’s highest ideals and truly make America great again.

The choice is yours and mine. No university program or policy will do this for us. Rather, it requires us making the difficult daily decisions to turn from derision to humility, and haste to patience. If we at Rice were to make this change in our own discussions, could we change the course of this campaign? No. But we could lead a cultural transformation that would end the ability of candidates like Donald Trump to stir up a sea of anger and sail to success on it. Making this change in our time at Rice and beyond could provide much needed relief to our angry, fearful world. So the next time you’re tempted to dish out an undoubtedly epic takedown on Facebook, pause, breathe and choose empathy. Choose respect. It’s the solution to the problem of Donald Trump.

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