Is Mitt Romney Unable to Experience Empathy?


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Romney with caption "I (cannot) feel your pain"

Robot, space alien -- or just a human unable to discern how others are affected by his actions?

Why do people keep on comparing the now-all-but-inevitable Republican nominee Mitt Romney to a robot or a space alien?  (For the record, I don’t think he is either — at least he’s not a robot.)

George W. Bush got compared to a chimpanzee and a frightened child and a carny (that’s “carnival worker,” schooled in scams, to the uninitiated).  Barack Obama gets impaired, in my opinion far less plausibly, to a Russian Communist or a Kenyan tribesman or a pimp.  (He also gets compared, somewhat less plausibly, to an Eisenhower Republican, but that’s not my topic today.)  What candidates are derisively compared to gives us some insight into their perceived flaws.  And, with Romney, the verdict is in — has been in for a long time:  he’s like something other than an adult human being.

But what’s this trope about?

It’s not about his being a flip-flopper, which is probably the negative notion most often aimed at Romney.  Lots of politicians are flip-floppers.  Reagan flip-flopped; Clinton did too — not being held to every single statement you’ve ever said is probably part of being a successful politicians.  Neither engaged in the sort of wholesale, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, “now I’m a liberal and now I’m a conservative” flip-floppery of Romney, but they certainly at times acted in ways opposite from what one would expect.  (Reagan’s talking tough and then “cutting and running” from Beirut after the embassy bombing there is one prominent example — somewhat diluted from his then quickly beating up on tiny Grenada to get his rep back.)

John Kerry is the recent Presidential candidate who got most thoroughly saddled with the reputation for flip-floppery, largely for his statement about funding for the troops in Iraq: “I actually did vote for the $87 billion, before I voted against it.”  (The statement, by the way, was perfectly justifiable and substantially true — one can support something in one context but not a later one.  In this case, he was willing to support the expenditure if it was paid for by rolling back the Bush Tax Cuts, but not if it just added to the deficit.   By his own admission, though, he was inarticulate in explaining it.)

For Kerry, though, the flip-flop charge was that he was an ambitious politician who was aware he was being inconsistent but lied for political gain.  You could say the same thing about the attacks on Romney, but they’re subtly different — and that’s why people didn’t compare Kerry to a robot.

One key is self-awareness.  Another key is what we could call “other-awareness” — or empathy.

Kerry was (and is) almost the prototype of the self-regarding stentorian Senator, but he always seemed to be made of flesh and blood — as much so as was Richard Nixon and is Bill Clinton.  The attack on Kerry was that he was scheming — realizing that he was in trouble and then trying desperately to come up with a way out of it.  Romney, from his “who let the dogs out?” explosion to his “corporations are people, my friend” to his “I’m running for President, for Pete’s sake” to much more — doesn’t seem like he’s scheming.  He seems like he is, very forthrightly, responding to the world in ways that others of us do not.

This, I think, accounts for the persistence of perhaps his most famous “real people just don’t act that way” story — his strapping his dog onto his roof for as 12-hour trip to Canada.  The problem is not merely that he did something stupid and clung to it stubbornly – we’ve all done stupid and stubborn things.  It’s not merely that he didn’t get seem to get beforehand that his dog might freak out at 12-hours of life on a flying saucer with scenery whizzing by and that he didn’t even give poor Seamus a break when he has literally had the poop scared out of him — though that lack of empathy with the dog (and with his now-complicit kids) hits closer to the mark.  It’s that he’s still defending it! He still doesn’t see what’s wrong with it!

I suggested to some people recently that it might be interesting to see how people would react if one even threatened to place a dog in a kennel on top of a car for a 12-hour ride — something I’d never actually do, because I’d be afraid of others hating me for it, because they’d be right to hate me for it, and because I’d just feel so sorry for the dog — and I was told be various people that you couldn’t do it in their states because it would constitute animal cruelty.  (One told me that someone in Colorado had tried to re-enact it — with a stuffed animal, not a dog — and had been stopped by the police.)  Romney seems to share with me some dim awareness, at least sometimes, of the problem of not doing or saying things that would bring on the wrath and disgust of others.  But he doesn’t seem to consider whether they might be right, and he sure doesn’t seem to consider things from the perspective of the dog — or other victims of his policy.

Who is like that?  Nothing human, most of us would say.  (Well, a child, perhaps.  Not an adult human, though.  Romney was 36 at the time of Seamus’s Wild Ride.)

Romney is not a sadist, like George W. Bush (who supposedly tortured animals as a youth) was described as being.  He doesn’t take pleasure in the ability to cause other people pain — when he said “I like to fire people” it was not a matter of enjoying crushing their spirit and dignity, but a matter of promoting economic efficiency.  He doesn’t even seem to sense other people’s pain.  It’s not a part of the calculation.  It’s not a measured input.

Much of my moral understanding of the crazy personality types of the universe stems  from Joseph Heller’s classic novel, Catch-22, which everyone who hasn’t read must read immediately.  (Come back to this post once you’re done.)  Heller describes some real sadistic bastards, like Captain Black, Colonel Cathcart, and even on one occasion General Dreedle.  To detractors of Bush 43, he falls into this group.

But Heller also describes some people who were no less destructive, but almost completely un-self-aware about it: Milo Minderbinder, Captain Aardvark, and to some extent Schiesskopf.  These people are a different sort of threat, because one cannot appeal to their humanity.  They fundamentally haven’t got any.  They no more can take your own legitimate perspective and needs into consideration than can an advancing bear or a tornado or a punch press in which you somehow got entangled or — a killer robot.  They’re going to do what they’re going to do.

And that’s Romney.  He is the anti-Bill Clinton — not only in the sense of (presumed) sexual probity.  He cannot “feel your pain.”  And he cannot or will not, unlike Spock of Star Trek, compensate for this lack of emotion with dedicated compassion.  He is programmed to make money and acquire power — and damn the consequences to those who could not foresee, for example, that someone like him could suck the juice out of the company they worked for or invested in and spit out the husk for everyone else to deal with.  He is, like Homer Simpson in the “all-you-can-eat” line, a remorseless machine.

His thought process (or programming, whichever) appears to generate this result: He succeeded (from some imagined ancestral poverty) — so why can’t you?  He doesn’t get it.  He can’t get it.  The capacity is not within him.

That’s the slam on him, anyway.  Is it true?  Apparently, we will find out.  As with Sarah Palin and basic knowledge of the political world, a fluent understanding of how other people feel and think is awfully hard to fake.


About Greg Diamond

Worker's rights attorney now moving into "good governance" litigation. North Vice Chair of Democratic Party of Orange County and occasional candidate. Proud to be prolix. Unless otherwise specifically stated, his writings never speak for the Democratic Party at the local, county, state, national, or galactic level. He tries to either suppress or openly acknowledge his partisan, issue, ideological, and "good government" biases in most of his writing here. If you have a question about any particular writing, just ask him about it and (unless you are an pseudonymous troll) he will probably answer you at painful length. He lives in Brea but generally doesn't blog about it. A family member works as a campaign treasurer for Wendy Gabriella in AD-73; he doesn't directly profit from that relatively small compensation and it doesn't affect his coverage. He does advise some campaigns informally and without compensation, although in 2014 he may receive some compensation for campaign consulting and fundraising for the campaign of Jorge Lopez for Orange County Assessor.