Donald Trump is no professional politician, that's for sure. Because if he were, he'd understand that even if you're incapable of anything resembling human empathy, at least you have to fake it.
Perhaps I'm being unfair. Perhaps he really does care for the welfare of others, and it's just a little hard for those of us without access to his private thoughts to tell. But Trump's squabble with the parents of a soldier who was killed in Iraq will certainly live on as one of the strangest and most memorable episodes in an already bizarre campaign.
You've no doubt already heard about the parents of Captain Humayun Khan, who was killed in Iraq; they appeared at the Democratic convention to criticize Trump for the things he has said about Muslims and immigrants like themselves and their son. Had Trump been an ordinary politician—or an ordinary person—he would have said the same thing in response that any of us would: something like, "Of course it's terrible that they lost their son, and I'm sorry they disagree with me. But here's why I take the position I do." Instead, Trump attacked them, implying that Ghazala Khan let her husband do the talking because as a Muslim woman she was forbidden to speak (not true) and saying that Khizr Khan "had no right to stand in front of millions of people and claim I have never read the Constitution."
The irony of that assertion was no doubt lost on him, but had Trump responded to the Khans with a little more humanity, the story surely wouldn't be on front pages all across America, the Khans wouldn't be on Meet the Press and writing op-eds for The Washington Post. But he responded the way he did because that's who he is.
There are things everyone familiar with Trump understood before this campaign began—that he's uncommonly vulgar, that he's desperate for media attention, that he's either a bigot himself or sees stoking bigotry as a path to political renown (his birther crusade made that obvious). But there are other things that the campaign itself has revealed, including his absolute inability to let any slight go.
As Trump wrote in one of his books, "When someone crosses you, my advice is 'Get Even!' That is not typical advice, but it is real life advice. If you do not get even, you are just a schmuck! When people wrong you, go after those people because it is a good feeling and because other people will see you doing it. I love getting even." I've quoted this passage before, because I think that unlike most of the drivel in Trump's books, it contains an important truth about him. It shows that his impulse to counter every criticism with an attack is nothing new for him. And it's looking less like a strategy and more like a deep-seated need, something Trump couldn't stop himself from doing if he tried.
I'm not going to try to determine where in Trump's development this need arose, but it's far too obvious to deny. It has a flip side as well: Just as anyone who has criticized him must be attacked, anyone who has praised him must be a terrific, top-notch person, really grade A, believe me. Just look at how Trump responds when people question his admiration for Vladimir Putin. Again and again, he justifies it by saying that Putin "called me a genius," (even though he didn't), as though that settles the question of Putin's virtue. OK, so he's a dictator, presiding over a kleptocracy, who has journalists murdered. But how could he be bad if he thinks highly of me? If Jeffrey Dahmer had said he enjoyed The Apprentice, Trump would call him misunderstood.
Trump's fight with the Khans has gotten him condemnation not just from liberals, but from Republicans as well (though they're still supporting his candidacy). But it would be a mistake to think this will hurt Trump among his most ardent supporters—in fact, to them this controversy won't look that different from the many others that Trump has left in his wake.
You or I might find Trump's need to lash out at anybody who isn't nice to him to be pathological, but to many of his voters it's one of the things they like about him. Going after a Gold Star Mother, or saying a judge can't be impartial if he has Mexican heritage, is just one more way to not be "politically correct." Just as Trump has spent decades enacting a comically garish version of what wealth is supposed to look like, he now enacts a version of existence in which he gets back at anyone and everyone, without the faintest regard for social and political norms or even common decency.
You can see how there would be something almost intoxicating about that for a certain kind of white man. He keeps hearing about "privilege" but he doesn't feel privileged. His hometown is becoming diverse in a way he's not too pleased with—but he's not supposed to say it's a bad thing. His job isn't great and his boss is kind of a jerk—but the last thing he's allowed to do is act like Donald Trump and tell the boss where to shove it.
So to him, Trump looks like the one liberated man, who can say anything, insult anyone, and get away with it. Trump is the only one who "tells it like it is." The more offensive Trump is, the more it reinforces that voter's belief that he's the only one willing to speak the truth.
And now, Trump is making that voter feel like he can do a little bit of that in his own life (even if he still can't tell off his boss). If you talk to people from various parts of the country, you may have heard this kind of report: Something different is in the air in places where there are lots of conservative whites. People are expressing anger and contempt in language they've been afraid to use in recent years—at African Americans, at Latinos, at Muslims, at immigrants. And they're doing it almost gleefully, with the electric thrill you get from violating a taboo.
At the moment those reports are anecdotal—it's a difficult thing to quantify in a survey. But Trump is giving people something very important: permission. Permission to let some powerful feelings see the light of day, without worrying about whether some liberal will call you a racist because of what you said. "Donald Trump is freeing people," says Samantha Bee, "from the cruel shackles of empathy and mutual respect."
How did he do it, when people like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly have been saying the same things for years, both about minorities and about "political correctness"? Maybe it's because Trump's platform is bigger and wider than even they ever had. No matter how many millions Limbaugh or O'Reilly speak to, their audiences know it's a semi-private conversation, one meant mostly for those who are already in agreement with each other. Trump, on the other hand, is on the front page of every newspaper every day and the lead story of the TV news every night. He's right there speaking to the whole country, saying what they've only been thinking. And no matter how much he's criticized for it, he's managed to win until now, first by beating his primary opponents and then by making almost the whole Republican Party line up behind him, no matter how much they hate themselves for it.
Trump's fight with Humayun Khan's parents is, like the man himself, crass and thoughtless and either indifferent to giving offense or purposely designed to offend. The rest of us may see it as both an outrage against decency and a political mistake. But it's one of the Trumpiest things Trump has done.