One of the most deeply frustrating—and inexplicable—aspects of the Covid-19 crisis has been the utter lack of empathy expressed by Donald Trump towards those stricken by the coronavirus. This week, we have passed the total number of US combat fatalities in the Vietnam War. It took two decades to accumulate those statistics; yet the coronavirus has killed almost 60,000, in less than three months.
The lack of compassion for these grieving souls expressed by the President is astonishing. Trump’s inability to be empathetic was first mentioned in this space almost two years ago in the aftermath of the horrific shootings at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. In a post entitled, Where Is the Empathizer-in-Chief? I wrote, “In times of tragedy, every President from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama offered words (and in Obama’s case, a hymn) of comfort and healing.
“Yet, in the aftermath of the shootings at the Tree of Life synagogue, the President held campaign-style rallies, offered partisan attacks, cast blame for violence on Democrats and the media and made lighthearted comments about his hair. The absence of a healing voice created a thunderous silence in our land and yet another missed opportunity to bring the American people together.”
Then I posed a question, as relevant now as then: “Ask yourself, ‘Is this who we are?’ If you are saddened or angry or ashamed by the answer that confronts you, it is time to expose the lack of empathy that spills down from the top and drenches us all in its tragic, toxic swill. And it is time for each of us to change our nation’s course.”
And more than a year later, we encounter the same lack of empathy from the President. Only this time, the coronavirus impacts us all and while it disproportionately impacts people of color and front-line workers, no one—not even the privileged—are immune. And we have the example of front-line health care workers doing battle with this virus day after day to remind us of the courage it takes to respond to a crisis. Yet, the Washington Post reports that in thirteen hours of coronavirus briefings in the past three weeks, he has spent only four and a half minutes talking about virus victims.
Examples of his lack of empathy abound. But let’s focus just on this week: In the face of the current pandemic, Donald Trump has issued an executive order, based on the Defense Production Act to keep meat processing plants open (must have those burgers!) without mandated safeguards for workers despite thousands of cases of infection and scores of deaths in the plants (and while refusing to invoke the same act to mandate ramped up production of PPE for health care workers); and Mike Pence went to the Mayo Clinic without a face mask to visit coronavirus patients. Both the optics and the policies of this administration illustrate deplorable arrogance and an unfathomable lack of empathy.
Where are the government-sponsored expressions of unity in this crisis? Where are the public rituals in solidarity with those in mourning? Americans of all stripes have been creative about using zoom and skype to gather virtually. Why can’t the federal government host a day to commemorate those who have passed? A day of gratitude for health care workers? The opportunities to console a hurting nation are legion, but our empathizer-in-chief is still MIA.
I am privileged. We live in Rockland County, just north of New York City, where more than 11,000 have been infected by the coronavirus and almost 500 have died. Yet, we had so far been spared the tragedies that have befallen so many. We know several who have been stricken by the virus—some hospitalized—and others who were quite ill in January who we now believe were infected. Then, yesterday I learned of the death from Covid complications of Dr. Gregg Mast, former President of New Brunswick Theological Seminary and a seminary classmate.
Each night at 7:00, my wife Blythe and I join countless others across the region, clap and shout “thank you.” But with distant neighbors, we’re not sure anyone hears. I am reminded of two philosophical questions: if a butterfly flaps her wings, does the earth shift just a bit? And, if a tree falls in the forest, does anyone hear it? But tonight, in our little ritual, I will think of Gregg—his life of service and his suffering at the end—convinced that we are heard and the earth will shift and “we will get through this together.”