Columnist John Sheirer: Empathy can’t get past belief problems

John Sheirer

John Sheirer


Published: 03-10-2024 7:01 PM

My wife Betsy and I recently heard a CNN political commentator tell us for perhaps the hundredth time, “We have to understand Trump supporters.”

“Have you noticed that they never ask people to understand Biden supporters,” Betsy said. Her astute observation exposes a deep divide in politics. Biden supporters will vote for a decent person who enacts fact-based legislation to help Americans. We’re easy to understand. But Trump supporters frequently make no sense.

Trump supporters believe (1) a man historians rank as the worst president in American history should be in office again; (2) a man with scores of credible criminal charges should be given the power of the federal government; (3) Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden should be locked up despite no evidence of crimes; (4) a man adjudicated by the courts to be a rapist and fraud should be entrusted with leadership; (5) a man with multiple gaffs and lies in every speech is cognitively and morally superior; (6) a profane, boastful, mean-spirited man was chosen by God; (7) a man who sabotaged bipartisan border legislation cares about immigration reform; (8) a man with dictatorial tendencies will protect their rights; (9) a man who dodged the draft, incited an insurrection, belittles our military, steals classified information, panders to dictators, and abandons our allies is a great patriot.

How can any reasonable person “understand” these head-spinning beliefs?

The call to understand Trump supporters often masquerades as empathy, which is odd considering Trump’s obvious empathy impairment. As Adam Serwer noted in The Atlantic, “Trump and his supporters find community by rejoicing in the suffering of those they hate and fear.” Yet a recent opinion piece by Jack Horner (“Trump Backers Aren’t Somehow ‘Less Than’” Gazette, Jan. 31) states that critics of Trump supporters “lack empathy” and concludes that Trump supporters “deserve better than the criticism they have received.”

On the contrary, I criticize Trump supporters because I empathize with them. I feel for them partly because the policies Trump glorifies have actually hurt them. Their parents suffered decades ago from the Republican trickle-down war on the middle class. Their medical coverage falls short because Republicans reject good public health policies to cater to the insurance industry. Their children’s schools suffer because Republicans fight education funding. Trump’s beloved corporations have contributed far more to inflation than any Biden policies. They pay more for gas and eggs because of corporate greed from the fossil fuel and agribusiness industries.

My empathy for Trump supporters leads me to ask them to examine their political views. For example, a guy I went to high school with recently posted on Facebook that anyone who supports “Bidenomics” is “stupid.” I ignored the insult and provided nonpartisan sources showing how Biden’s policies have spurred job and wage growth while keeping inflation lower here than in other countries.

I asked my friend to name specific Biden policies that he disliked. He could only come up with an obscure Department of Energy regulation that required pool filters to be more efficient, making them more expensive. I don’t have a pool, but five minutes of research revealed that more efficient filters last longer, need less maintenance, and use less electricity, saving pool owners money. In response, he told me that the government can’t tell him what to do and that he didn’t need to be fact-checked.

Trump supporters react to fact-checking like a vampire to holy water. One of my Trump-supporting coworkers recently complained that his students fact-check him in class. My colleagues responded, “Good! That’s critical thinking!” The guy looked horrified that we didn’t advocate expelling them.

On the other hand, I welcome fact-checking. Colleagues, friends, students, readers — if you have empathy for me, please fact-check me! Don’t let me live in ignorance, delusion, and error. But please do it without calling me “stupid” or substituting half-baked opinions for reliable sources and verifiable facts.

As Jeffrey Fishman eloquently noted in his response to Horner’s piece (“Less than informed, in denial of facts” Feb. 4, 2024), “Empathy is universal. Respect is earned.” I empathize with my high school friend, but I lose respect when he calls me “stupid,” mischaracterizes policies, and rejects facts.

Trump supporters’ lack of empathy is clear. In discussions of abortion, for example, they call me “baby killer” because I believe women should be in charge of their pregnancies, not politicians. I don’t call them “forced birthers” because they want to outlaw choice, “baby starvers” because they want to cut social programs, or “baby shooters” because they support laws making it easier for killers to get guns.

Instead, I empathize and acknowledge that they care about human beings. I ask why they’re anti-choice and describe real-world cases when women might choose abortion and ask them to empathize. I point out the implications of their position, such as the recent ruling that jeopardizes IVF. I come to these discussions with empathy. But Trump supporters never ask me why I’m pro-choice. Literally never. To them, I’m reduced to “baby killer,” unworthy of empathy.

Betsy and I will probably hear many more pundits imploring us to understand Trump voters. They absolutely have our understanding and empathy. But how can we respect supporting a candidate who so clearly rejects facts and empathy?

John Sheirer is an author and teacher from Florence. His most recent book is, “For Now: One Hundred 100-Word Stories.” Find him at