There’s a multitude of reasons that Donald Trump is not qualified to be president: He has zero foreign policy experience; he has repeatedly been accused of sexual assault; he has countless failed businesses and questionable business practices, and the temperament of an indignant 8-year-old. The list is endless. But for me, the reason is much more fundamental: He lacks empathy.
This fact became abundantly clear—and as a secularist, it stopped me in my tracks. Now, I know—secularists and atheists don’t have the warmest reputations. Empathy and secularism, for most people, go together like cats and dogs—not inconceivable, but also not the most natural fusion. I believe the opposite is true.
Reason is fundamental to a secular view of the world. And for me, empathy is the connection between reason and compassion for the sake of our shared humanity. It is an openness to the experience of others, and a critical element for moving through the deep social tensions our country faces. Trump’s relationship with reason is tenuous at best, but I’ll never forget the moment I realized he lacked the capacity for empathy.
Just over a year ago, I tuned in to see him in his trademark red power tie, standing in front of a crowd at a rally in South Carolina … doing what appeared to be a crude impersonation of a disabled person. I was stunned. Surely, this couldn’t be—but it was. Donald Trump—not a fifth-grade bully on a playground, but then-presidential candidate of the United States—was on national television, mimicking a disabled reporter by awkwardly flopping around onstage.
As it turned out, that man’s only crime was pointing out that Trump had lied. It was the end of November 2015, shortly after a series of terrorist attacks in Paris. Trump, then full-bore on the campaign trail, had seized the opportunity to recount a completely falsified personal memory of post-9/11 New York, where crowds of Muslims cheered in the streets as the twin towers crumbled. He was trying to pour gasoline on the American Islamophobia fire—but it was a complete fabrication—and Trump made the mistake of citing an article by Serge Kovaleski in the process.
Kovaleski, a professional journalist with the New York Times, immediately set him straight—and Trump, in full bully fashion, went for the cheapest attack that his sophisticated defenses could muster: a public imitation of Kovaleski’s disability. Serge Kovaleski has arthrogryposis, a condition that constricts the movements of his joints and particularly affects his right hand and arm, which hang at an acute angle at his side.
This incident hit me squarely in the gut because I, too, have a disability. I have a speech impediment, which means that sometimes when I speak, my voice halts as my words form and they freeze for a moment—or two—or three—before tumbling out. The effect is like a stuck record, or a drumroll, perhaps. As I’ve gotten older and worked through various speech therapies, it has improved and I’ve made peace with the rest.
But getting here was a hard road filled with taunting from bullies who saw me as an easy target for “cool” points from the crowd. Even today, as a college student, I’m not immune to jokes and judgment from colleagues or strangers. And when a person preys on weaknesses like mine for cheap thrills or to reinforce his or her own fragile sense of self, it speaks to the caliber of human being that person is. And Donald Trump is the weakest kind.
This episode spoke to me most about his character because of my personal experience. For many women, it was his shocking misogynistic remarks; for Muslims, his fierce Islamophobia; for immigrants, his harshly anti-immigrant rhetoric; and the list goes on. What spoke to me then and what speaks vividly through all of Trump’s rhetoric is his profound lack of empathy for others.
This resonates for me deeply as a secularist. Empathy is fundamental to secular values because it bridges our shared humanity—and it’s critical for finding cohesion in a country as diverse as ours. People believe that secularists are cold and judgmental, but the opposite is true. Rather than judging others based on preconceived notions or fear, secularists rely on evidence. We judge people based on what we know of them—and that means getting to know people before making judgements. Empathy is a precursor to this process. It is an openness to others and a willingness to learn that are hallmarks not just of secular thinking but also of building community, peace and progress.
Maya Angelou once wisely said, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” I believed Donald Trump a year ago, and I’ll never forget. His moral compass is jammed.
I am a black, secular teenager with a minor disability. I know that facing hardship and overcoming challenges has a way of cracking a person open. It can reveal vulnerability, deepen connection to others and lead to a greater sense of humility. It’s an experience that fosters empathy in a way that private jets, golden bathroom fixtures and celebrity status may not.
And if empathy is out of reach for our president, then scores of people in America will feel the consequences of his callousness. That’s what motivates me today: to fight for my own rights and the rights of my brothers and sisters—black and brown people, immigrants, the LGBTQ community, Muslims, women and everyone whose experience is in danger under a Trump presidency.
My activism is rooted in secularism; evidence-based, rational ideology has led me to the most fulfilling relationships and an openness to others that I believe will move our country forward. It’s why I’ve decided to found the first Secular Student Alliance chapter at my school. Reason stands on its own, and it stands to reason that openness and empathy for others’ experiences is a bridge between the deep divides that our nation faces today. Taking that path is up to us.
Aidan Marshall-Cort is a sophomore biology major at Bowie State University, where he is founding the campus’s first Secular Student Alliance chapter. African Americans are starkly underrepresented within the secular community, a dynamic that the SSA aims to shift by focusing on creating communities on HBCU campuses. Marshall-Cort is a recent SSA scholarship recipient.