OPED: Trump's emotional maturity falls short again
Last week a National Public Radio reporter interviewed a woman whose sister's family — as well as her home — had been destroyed by the recent wildfires in northern California.
It's a devastating story, hard to listen to: The Shepherds lived in Redwood Valley, deep in the forest. They had built their dream home and hoped to raise their children in a natural setting, away from the city. When the fire swept through with almost no warning, they tried to escape on a long, unimproved road but were overtaken by the flames. The parents were badly burned, and their son, Kai, 14, was killed.
Their 17-year-old daughter, Kressa, was burned so badly that her legs have been amputated below the knee. At the time of the interview she was only marginally conscious and suffering from severe lung damage.
Kressa's aunt, the interviewee, was struggling with her emotions. The NPR interviewer, Robin Young, was professional, but more than once her own emotions were evident as she expressed her condolences to the Shephard family. Her questions for the aunt were thoughtful and sympathetic.
But here's a question that she didn't ask: Why the Shepherds chose to reside deep in a forest in an area prone to wildfires, a location so remote that they weren't even able to purchase fire insurance. Shouldn't they have known better?
It's a reasonable question. We might also ask why Texans and Floridians continue to build homes in areas that are subject to devastating floods like those produced by Harvey and Irma.
But Young didn't ask that question because she has the same emotional maturity that most of us have, the wisdom to understand that we don't remark on the extent to which suffering victims are responsible for their own misfortunes.
This interview reminded me of President Donald Trump's awkward phone call with Myeshia Johnson, widow of La David Johnson, one of four American soldiers killed recently in Niger. Trump reportedly told Ms. Johnson that her husband "knew what he signed up for." She and others who heard the exchange took offense.
In fairness, it's hard to know precisely how to take Trump's comment. His chief of staff, Gen. John Kelly, tried to spin it, comparing it to what he was told by military officials when he was informed that his own son had been killed in action. He said that his son "knew what he was getting into by joining that 1 percent. He knew what the possibilities were because we were at war."
This may be a reasonable way to read Trump's comment. He isn't known for his emotional warmth, but it's difficult to believe that he would maliciously suggest that Johnson was responsible for his own death.
The problem is that Trump could have explained this himself or he might have found a better way to express his sympathies. Even he recognizes that the remark was a misstep, which explains why he later denied that he ever made it at all.
Unfortunately, Trump's natural instinct is to assign blame to others. His world is occupied by winners and losers, and the losers are usually responsible for their own failures.
We could probably think of other examples — the media, the Mexicans, the Chinese — but Puerto Rico is a good one. When his administration's response to the crisis after Hurricane Maria was called into question, he pushed responsibility in the direction of the island itself, which was "in very poor shape before the hurricanes ever hit." Puerto Rico's electrical grid was "destroyed before the hurricanes got there." He claims that massive amounts of food and water have been delivered, but the Puerto Ricans have failed to distribute it.
Empathy isn't instinctual with Trump. His emotional maturity isn't as well developed as the NPR reporter's or probably yours or mine. At the least Trump failed at an essential presidential responsibility, feeling and expressing sympathy in the face of a tragic loss in war.
That is a worrisome failure in the man with the power to send American troops into harm's way all over the world.
— John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, lives in Georgetown, Texas, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.