Jun 8, 2020 | Politics

Jun 8, 2020 | Politics

Cummings and Trump

We have seen Cummings and Trump dominate the news and public discourse for two weeks, with both being accused of lacking empathy. Moreover, Piers Morgan recently suggested to the viewing public that President Trump, who he knows personally, has a “complete inability to show empathy”, and that he’d prefer Angela Merkel to be leading the US’ coronavirus response instead. The science concerning gender differences in empathic ability remains hazy. Some male subjects have managed to match female levels of empathy, but only when financially incentivised. It’s clear that women are expected to be more empathic than men and we tend to fulfil such expectations. Female leaders across the globe have done little during the pandemic to weaken this expectation; Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, Sanna Marin of Finland, Erna Solberg of Norway, Katrín Jakobsdóttir and Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan being fine examples.

A Lack of Empathy

The lack of empathy attributed to Trump seems focused on his individual skillset rather than him being a man. Morgan’s comment reminded me of when a renowned expert in empathy suggested to me that Trump’s success in getting elected was down to his empathy. This may have been true. Empathy for the electorate certainly provides crucial knowledge and therefore a pathway to success. It’s possible that Trump saw things less like the establishment politicians up against him and more like some voters. Yet a shared perspective on issues is not proof of empathy. As his Presidency has proceeded, it’s been a struggle to believe that Trump is particularly skilled in understanding or sharing the perspectives of others.

To understand and feel the way others do it helps if we have shared experiences. It’s no secret that Trump inherited significant wealth. His struggles are incomparable with most of his voters. They are predominantly from a very different demographic. Research tells us that in-group empathising is far more likely and achievable than empathising with someone in another group. When we consider other groups in society, like gender, cultural or racial groups, Trump is challenged further still.


If infidelity is indicative of a lack of empathy for partners, Trump, and Boris Johnson for that matter, tick the box. Trump’s infamous comments objectifying women fail to counter this. Should it come as a surprise then when he is accused of lacking empathy for people of a different colour skin? It’s argued that Trump’s empathic deficit was demonstrated during the protests and riots across America with his echoing of the words of late Miami police chief Walter Headley “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”. Headley, once bragged that he was one of the first to train black police officers, though he insisted they be labelled ‘patrolmen’; only white officers were allowed to be called ‘policemen’. After the backlash, Trump denied knowledge of this quote from 1967. It’s possible he didn’t hear it at the time. He was busy planning his medically deferment from a military draft. He was later reclassified as exempt for having bone spurs on a foot. Trump admitted this in 2015, yet was unable to remember which foot had been problematic. It’s possible that to Trump the draft was for other people, outside of his set.


Like Trump, the majority of our leaders in the UK come from a privileged background and attended private schools; and like Trump, many were sent away to board. In Nick Duffell’s excellent book Wounded Leaders, he argues that this experience impairs empathic development. Young children, struggling to cope with separation from their parents, shut down their emotions, and fail to develop bonds with others. Without close relationships we find it difficult to practice empathy. We are not born with empathy. We are born with a capacity for it that we develop through these close interactions, with our parents and close family in particular. This must have consequences for those in leadership positions. Lacking experiences that align with those being led may make leading difficult enough without being further handicapped by a lack of empathic ability. Without empathy they cannot feel into another’s perspective in order to gain understanding. The alternative of course is misunderstanding.

If we consider groups defined by schooling, privately educated UK politicians belong to a different group to 93% of the population. This may explain why the government so often misreads the mood of the nation, making what most of us see as blatantly obvious errors of judgement. Dominic Cummings could be guilty of this; rather than sheer arrogance. A man lauded for his ability to judge the nation’s mood when it came to Brexit, which he then utilised to help win an election, seemed to get it so wrong when it came to breaking lockdown rules. Could it be that he didn’t think the rules applied to his group? Maybe he thought the virus itself would appreciate his position and look instead to the less privileged masses.

Support for Cummings

MPs supporting Cummings appear to do so disingenuously or because they too struggle to understand the public’s perspective. If they belong to the same group as Cummings, they are more likely to empathise with him rather than the public. Despite thousands in far worse positions refraining from such rule breaking, one MP suggested that the public should have more empathy for Cummings. This requires imagining what one would do in his situation. It is clear that the public has been unable to place themselves in the shoes of Cummings and understand his actions. When people attempt this, they are possibly imagining themselves in his situation rather than imagining being Cummings for a moment. To achieve this you’d have to be more like Cummings, part of the same demographic, living within the same culture and having had the same life experiences.

Empathic Concern

Empathising doesn’t always lead to pro-social behaviour. The knowledge gained through empathy can be used to manipulate or take advantage. Batson’s empathy-altruism hypothesis suggests that when we empathise, we are motivated to act with care or compassion. This is often termed ‘empathic concern’. Occasionally there are empathic conflicts; those wishing to express empathic concern for others by social distancing may also wish to show empathic concern by attending Black Lives Matter protests. This must have been a difficult decision for some. The balance may have been tipped by the example set by Cummings. The social distancing cause certainly lost a little power through his actions.

To risk delivering the virus to people at a rural hospital, in a less afflicted part of the country, might indicate that Cummings has a lack of empathic concern for the wider public. Add to this the fact that the rules broken were ones Cummings expected this public to follow, together with an apparent inability to foresee the public’s reaction to him doing so, and the picture of an empathically deficient man becomes clearer. Empathy has certainly become a more familiar concept in the media and public discourse in recent times. The accusations that Cummings and Trump lack empathy confirm that there is now an expectation that people in such positions are evidently empathic.


Peter Sear, Founder, The Empathic Minds Organisation

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