Usually I am sickened by Donald Trump’s ignorance, or his bullying, or his predilection for lying. But last night, well I’d like to say he crossed the line, but there is no line anymore—just a few grains of chalk in the sand. Anything I say from this point will become a matter of whose side you’re on, but if you’re a Trump supporter, might as well pull the brim of your red cap over your eyes and read no further.
Trump’s comment at the end of the extended applause for Carryn Owens, wife of slain Navy Seal Ryan Owens killed in the recent Yemen raid, showed abysmally poor taste, even for Trump. “He’s very happy, because I think he just broke a record,” Trump said, staring heavenward. He smiled, as did Ms. Owens. What choice did she have? (Paul Ryan grinned; Mike Pence looked stunned.) To make light of Owens’s death, as if its only significance can be registered by the needle on an applause meter in some ancient talent show, displays how inborn and hardwired Trump’s lack of empathy really is. The comment was suitable for Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm, after which we’d have cringed.
Carryn Owens was a wreck…is a wreck. I don’t know how a wife and mother of three comes to grips with a world suddenly shattered and is then expected to move on. Providing her the opportunity to be recognized by a grateful nation was right and decent, but as the camera lingered on her, and lingered, and lingered, the scene deteriorated from a gesture of respect to an invasion of privacy. Was I the only one who wanted to look away? Of course I knew—we all knew—that part of this recognition was a reaction to Ryan Owens’s father’s refusal to meet the president when his son’s body was returned to Dover. The senior Owens has called for an investigation into the raid, and into Trump’s allegation that the generals wanted this offensive carried out and “they lost Ryan.” (Ted Lieu, an Air Force veteran and now a Democratic representative from California tweeted “Take some frickin’ responsibility. Stop making stuff up. They lost Ryan? No, you lost Ryan.”)
We have all heard presidents accept responsibility for soldiers’ deaths. It’s often symbolic, but the symbolism is important when one claims to be Commander-in-Chief. I don’t pretend to know what happened in the Yemen raid—it’s common knowledge that things went awry and that maybe an investigation would tell us what. But grown men wielding weapons invite trouble, and it may be that in the end nobody was negligent at all. Donald Trump would have better served the country and the Owens family had he asked for that investigation himself, instead of exploiting the pain of a distraught widow so that he could score ratings points on this current reality show of his.
We, all of us, have set the bar low enough so that today many are crowing about Trump’s appearing “presidential.” If by that we mean he was capable of reading a teleprompter and not wavering 90% of the time, then yes, he was presidential. But President Bush sought no punchlines after 9/11 or Katrina, nor did President Obama after Newtown or Orlando. Without empathy, Donald Trump will never measure up, nor will he ever understand why he doesn’t.