Column: Is Trump missing the thing that makes people human?
“My beautiful 4-year-old daughter, Dayla …”
Almost as soon as the woman started to speak, Andrew Yang flinched. He inhaled sharply.
Along with other Democratic candidates, Yang was speaking at a gun safety forum in Des Moines on Saturday. He seemed to sense what was coming. His right fist rose to cover his mouth, a cross-cultural reflex of the shaken.
“... was struck by a stray bullet in March 2011.”
The woman, later identified as Stephanie Pizzoferrato of Las Vegas, solemnly chronicled the accidental shooting of her daughter — and the way her son, her daughter’s twin brother, had witnessed it.
“She died two days later.”
Yang rose and approached the woman. He offered her a hug, and she accepted. The embrace was neither untoward nor patronizing.
But Yang was still undone, blinking as if to stave off tears. He told the crowd in choked tones that he’d been imagining that one of his own young sons had been shot in view of the other. He shielded his whole face from the audience, his body quaking.
“I’m so sorry,” he said to Pizzoferrato. Later he said this again: “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”
The video circulated widely. Something in Yang’s vulnerability to Pizzoferrato’s suffering brought into relief our shared humanity. Of all things.
We will all die; our children will die; we only have this short time together. In public discourse, we repress such baseline truths until we almost forget them. It is far too dangerous to let our guard down in a social and political realm that has become a tinderbox.
I realized, watching the Yang video, that I hadn’t been able to cry in a long time. Not for those dead in mass murders; not for the victims of sex trafficking and child rape; not for the human beings caged at the southern border. I was numb. But watching what happened in that Iowa video, my emotions were suddenly irrepressible.
Yang’s gasp, his tears, may have been a function of “mirror neurons,” which fire both when animals perform a specific action and when they see another animal perform the same action.
Mirror neurons have been directly observed only in monkeys, though there is evidence they exist in humans, too. And in 2013, the neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran went so far as to claim that mirror neurons are what make us human and civilize us, helping us to imagine, and even experience, other people’s interior states.
Thus the notion of “empathy” as a quality available only to refined souls has given way in recent years to a more workaday idea that most people reflexively attune to others, even if it’s just by wincing when someone stubs her toe or by picking up a contagious yawn.
But perhaps neural attunement is not available to everyone.
President Trump, for example, has a personal affect that stands in stark contrast to Yang’s. When Trump as president has extended condolences, he can hardly manage even pro forma words of comfort. Instead, he unaccountably turns hostile. It’s as if his mirror neurons were shrouded in blackout blinds.
In 2015, Trump expressed disdain for Sen. John McCain because McCain had been captured by the North Vietnamese in 1967 and endured six years of torture.
In 2017, he snapped at Myeshia Johnson, saying that her husband, Army Sgt. La David Johnson, who had just been killed in combat, knew what he was getting into. Johnson said later that Trump’s tone — and his inability to recall La David Johnson’s name — made her “cry even more.”
When Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico that same year, Trump withheld U.S. support and told the afflicted that they “want everything done for them.”
And then, of course, there’s the latest obscenity: the gruesome pose Trump struck in El Paso, where his wife awkwardly clutched a baby whose parents had just been killed in a mass shooting incident.
It’s hard to imagine any flesh-and-blood person, of any political sensibility, being hard-hearted when meeting a newly orphaned infant. But there was Trump: thumbs-up, signature grimace-as-smile, with eyes only for the camera.
The photo op seemed to strike him as a cruel victory over the other hospitalized victims who’d refused to meet with him; he’d corralled a baby, too helpless to refuse him, for a marketing set piece.
Repellent. The stretch of the baby, away from the president and toward his aunt, is the only action in it I feel impelled to mirror.
Trump cannot attune himself to suffering or to merriment. As writer Leslie Savan pointed out in the Nation in 2016, Trump never — or almost never — laughs. At one rally, where he was described as having laughed at the prospect of shooting immigrants, he did something closer to snorting through a smile.
Scientists don’t know enough about human mirror neurons to speculate about whether some people lack these exact cells. But an inability to be respectful or joyful in the presence of strong emotional stimuli would suggest something amiss in a brain’s wiring — say, Trump’s wiring.
By contrast, Yang’s ability to tune in wholeheartedly to Pizzoferrato’s grief seems to point to something robust in his mental and emotional makeup. Or at least something human. And, among public figures in Trump times, we’ve been missing mere humanness for too long.
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