The one vital quality that Donald Trump and Boris Johnson lack – Susan Dalgety

Donald Trump and Boris Johnson seem to view democracy as a game of winners and losers. A true leader needs to have enough empathy to realise that everyone’s views matter, writes Susan Dalgety.

Donald Trump is entirely lacking in empathy, a quality that all good leaders should possess, says Susan Dalgety (Picture: Doug MIlls-Pool/Getty Images)

Donald Trump has none. Joe Biden has it in spades. Boris Johnson, like his doppelgänger across the Atlantic, doesn’t know the meaning of the word. By all accounts, Nicola Sturgeon has it, but is too introverted to display it often.

“It” is empathy. The ability to imagine what someone else, a stranger even, is thinking or feeling. To be able to put yourself in another’s shoes, to emotionally connect with another human being, to care.

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Until recently empathy was not considered an essential attribute for a political leader. Mainstream political systems, whether here in the UK or in the USA, have always been based on conflict.

Every aspect of governing is aggressive. Parties compete with each other for power, then the winning side introduces new laws, often in the face of fierce opposition from the losers. Remember those long, divisive parliamentary debates over Brexit?

Social media has become the place where propaganda battles between parties are played out, with truth often being the first casualty.

And election campaigns are battlegrounds for nerds. Parties fight each other for seats. The victor defeats the loser to become Prime Minister. Politics is war.

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This way of doing politics is, according to Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, an expert in developmental psychopathology, based on “systemising”. “First you analyse the most effective form of combat (itself a system) to win.

“If we do X, then we will obtain outcome Y. Then you adjust the legal code (another system). If we pass law A, we will obtain outcome B.”

Men are generally better at “systemising”, he suggests, while women empathise, so given the preponderance of men in politics, “it may be no coincidence that we have ended up with political chambers that are built on the principles of systemising”.

But has coronavirus shown us a better way of doing politics ­– a political system based on empathy rather than conflict?

On Wednesday evening, the United States of America reached a grim milestone: 100,000 people dead from coronavirus.

It took President Trump 15 hours to respond to the tragic news. Even then, he did what Trump does. He tweeted. In a tweet, likely written by a staffer as it had no spelling mistakes and contained no lies, he extended his “heartfelt sympathy & love for everything that these great people stood for & represent. God be with you”.

Contrast Trump’s cursory attempt at sympathy with Joe Biden’s eulogy. The former Vice-President, now the Democrats’ candidate against Trump in the November presidential election, is renowned for his empathy.

Uncle Joe, as strangers and friends alike call him, cries easily. He hugs a lot – too much some say. He quotes poetry during speeches. And he shares his personal stories of loss and grief, love and redemption, without embarrassment.

On Wednesday evening, only a few hours after the terrible news had been released, Biden sat in the Delaware basement where he has sheltered for much of the last two months and spoke directly to the grieving families of the 100,000 dead.

“I know there is nothing I or anyone else can say or do to dull the sharpness of the pain right now,” he said, adding that a day will come when a loved one’s memory “will bring a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eyes”.

Powerful stuff, but political empathy is much more than the ability to turn a phrase. Whoever wins the presidential election in November will have to connect with the 40 million Americans who have lost their jobs in the last three months.

The winner will have to understand what it means to be an innocent black man pursued by white police officers, running in fear of his life. To care about the millions of American children who go hungry every day in the country that exports £113 billion of food each year.

Trump or Biden? Narcissist or empath? That is America’s political choice come November.

Our current Prime Minister appears to be on the narcissistic spectrum. Witness his handling of the Dominic Cummings scandal, where he chose to support his special adviser after it was revealed he had brazenly broken the lockdown rules.

Johnson dismissed the righteous anger of a population under house arrest for two months, appearing not to care what the voters think or, crucially, how they feel.

He chose to protect one of his generals, the brains behind his Brexit victory, oblivious to how people would react to his decision to put one of his own before the majority.

The polls this week suggest that he has made a huge political blunder, with his approval ratings plunging. A coronavirus data tracker by Savanta shows that Johnson’s popularity has fallen by 20 points in one week and is now at minus one per cent.

Is it possible that, in our new post-viral world, the politicians that will fare the best are those who can connect with people, who are sensitive to their hopes and fears, rather than constantly urging them into battle, whether against the EU, England or a deadly coronavirus?

Opinion polls suggest our First Minister has had a better pandemic than Johnson or Trump, and she has, up to a point.

But if she were to lower her defences a little, behave more like Uncle Joe than a Victorian nanny, perhaps she would find she is a better leader.

Instead of bristling when asked why the Nike outbreak was hidden from the public, she should acknowledge her Government made a major mistake.

She may have brushed away a tear in Holyrood recently when asked about care home deaths, but did she let her hard head rule her heart when her Government agreed with NHS managers that their need for beds was worth risking the lives of 920 frail elders?

And could she consider setting aside the divisive rhetoric of independence, which has divided us for a decade, for the language of solidarity?

Is she willing to respect those who do not share her political ambition for Scotland to be a separate state, at any price?

Our priority over the next decade will be to rebuild our society, changed utterly by the pandemic. Perhaps it is time to set aside the battles of old, and focus on a new, more empathetic future, where everyone’s views matter, not just those of the current victor.

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