A psychologist explains how a nationwide ‘breakdown of empathy’ has created today’s toxic GOP
How did we get to the point where a conspiracy-spouting birther could win the presidency by appealing to primal rage?
Psychologist Michael Bader writes in Psychology Today that a paper published all the way back in 1978 by developmental psychologist Edward Tronick may offer some disturbing clues.
Tronick’s paper, which was published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry, examines the importance of early interactions between a mother and her baby. In particular, the paper cites a study showing that mothers can instill cases of extreme anxiety and distress in their infants if they responded to them by keeping their faces perfectly still and expressionless.
What does this have to do with contemporary American politics? Bader believes that modern society serves us poorly when it comes to giving us regular empathetic feedback, which in turn makes us feel equal parts angry and helpless.
“The ‘still face’ paradigm — the helplessness intrinsic to it and the breakdown of empathy that lies at its foundation — aptly describes the experience of many people as they interact with the most important institutions in their lives, including government,” he writes. “And, as with Tronick’s babies and their mothers, when our social milieu is indifferent to our needs and inattentive to our suffering, widespread damage is done to our psyches, causing distress, anger, and hopelessness.”
Bader says several regular occurrences in modern life have contributed to a nationwide “breakdown of empathy” that leave us feeling helpless and alone. Among other things, he cites students being forced into large-sized classes where they get little personal attention; long and stressful commutes that have no meaningful human interaction; and “waiting for hours on the phone for technical support.”
“This pain is increasingly prevalent among working and middle-class Americans who have seen their jobs lost to technology and globalization, their incomes stagnate, and the promise of a better life for their children appear increasingly unlikely,” he writes. “Their interactions with their doctors, pharmacists, bankers, landlords, state and federal tax collectors, social service agencies, auto dealers, and cable providers are too often marked by frustration and feelings of dehumanization.”
From this perspective, Bader thinks the rise of Donald Trump makes perfect sense — even though its end result is the stoking of a toxic tribalism that sets Americans against one another.
“Donald Trump clearly spoke to this pain,” he writes. “He empathized with the traumatic losses and helplessness of the white middle and working classes. He helped them feel part of something bigger than themselves, a ‘movement,’ which combated their isolation.”