Trevor Noah, Donald Trump, and Radical Empathy

Radical Empathy to understand Donald Trump supporters
I love the Daily Show – always have. In the 12 years since I have let go of my a cable subscription (and any other broadcast television) it is the TV show I have followed most consistently. Rarely have I seen a program that is so funny and entertaining and, at the same time, mindful and thought provoking. When clips of Trevor Noah flash across my social media feeds I can hardly resist.

So it was no surprise to me that when the Daily Show “correspondent” Jordan Klepper conducted a mockumentary style focus group with a group of Donald Trump supporters I was all over it. I mean, come on, who can resist a good Donald Trump joke?

But halfway through the video, I realized something that stopped me in my tracks… I started to empathize with the Trump supporters.

You see, I gave a talk at TEDx Fulton Street on a concept I call Radical Empathy. Essentially, Radical Empathy is a tool that allows people who are presented with sudden and difficult conflict to effectively respond and avoid the pitfalls inherent in the more more natural flight or fight based reactions to conflict. Radical Empathy operates on the assumption that we humans, in our natural state, are profoundly connected. So, when someone presents behavior to the contrary, like we do when in conflict, we are called to assume that something has gone wrong and pulled this person out of the normal state of being related. So when we respond to conflict from a place of curiosity and an assumption of relation, we are able to transcend the initial conflict.

With my newly acquired understanding of Radical Empathy, watching Mr. Klepper started to make me curious. At first, I started to feel sorry for the Trump Supporters – they came across as so unintelligent (as well as racist and anti-semitic) and Klepper was having a field day. So I started to get curious. The point of the focus group was to find out what motivated people to support someone like Trump in the first place. What kept coming to my attention were the frequent comments about how Trump speaks his mind “…He has no filter!”

And then it hit me:

When you have been lied to constantly, encountering someone who seems incapable of keeping careful control over what comes out of their mouth seems like a godsend.

As Americans, are accustomed to politicians saying one thing and doing the exact opposite. Perhaps that is what makes Trump attractive to his supporters. Perhaps his popularity is a result of people being tired of being lied to by political leaders. By all accounts Trump’s positions are far from conservative – and his multiple divorces and other behavior are not quite representational of an evangelical lifestyle. Could it be that people are recognizing that they want a change from the GOP’s plutocratic tendencies?

If so, could Trump’s ascendancy be a sign of a positive shift in American politics? Perhaps the next step would be for our political parties to focus on a government for, by and of the people. A novel concept, but I am hopeful. Even if Trump doesn’t get the nomination (and I don’t think he will) his success will cause some soul searching.

So why do we care about the core concerns of The Donald’s supporters? Truth be told, I really don’t. BUT – In life and business when I am faced with a confounding problem or position, I find it useful to be able to understand and see the root of the concern that is the cause of that position. For example, if you look at the wide acceptance of Trump’s xenophobic proposal on immigration as a reaction to the culture of fear that has been propagated by our politicians, there exists a course of action to address the fear. I have no idea how to address the issue of xenophobia but I can think of things we can do to increase our sense of security and a realistic understanding of the risks we face. If we utilize the concepts of Radical Empathy when faced with complex problems we can come up with solutions that addresses the core of the issue.

Personally, I think that beats the heck out of throwing my hands up in disgust.

In the meantime, I am viewing Trump’s popularity as a sign of great and positive change. Perhaps the next chapter of American Politics will have have a significant focus on serving a more diverse set of American goals.