The Road Less Traveled
On November 3, 2016, in a surreal, stranger than truth, a wackadoodle witches brew of the unexplained and the inexplicable, Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. It was an outcome nobody, certainly not even Donald Trump, had expected. It had been miracle enough how quickly he jumped to a lead early on the campaign trail; how effortlessly he had maintained it. Not since a young fiery Muhammad Ali has taken the sporting world by storm, had anyone toyed so brazenly with his opponents.
But Ali had a secret: he knew (and would shortly prove) what no one in the world except his legendary manager, Angelo Dundee knew: he was going to be one of the greatest fighters in history.
Trump had a secret, too. He was bluffing. Big time. He did not think he could win. He did not really want to win. He did not have a strategy, a plan for winning. He had never been in politics before. He had never been in public service before. He had no experience governing. He was a swashbuckling TV star, a New York celebrity, a billionaire real estate developer that answered to no one. But he would be awed, in the obligatory transfer of power when, for the first time, he would privately meet with the history-making predecessor Barack Obama; he had met kings and queens, shakers and movers, power brokers, business titans, political superstars, but he had never met anyone with such preternatural poise, such benign self-assurance, such high-minded singular purpose.
He was at a crossroad, a crossroad pregnant with possibility, a blank slate with no resume to defend. He would never be more free to choose the kind of president he would like to be. He could choose — in a daring act of free will — to take the road less traveled. What is the road less traveled in terms of a presidential election? It is to choose the path, the course of action that would best serve the pluralistic interests of the entire country. Which is? In Trump’s case, to recognize in just about every way, he was unfit to be President of the United States. He was too opportunistic, too self-absorbed, too indifferent to the needs of others, too obsessed with power. The simplest, and by far, the best thing he could have and should have done was — to immediately resign. All he had to do was tell the truth: he had unexpectedly made his point — that the country was deeply divided over the way things are going and was ready for a dramatic change. It was now up to someone else, someone with the necessary immense political skills and experience to carry the ball forward.
And that was all he had to do. When the shock waves wore off and the dust settled, he would have become an American icon and the chaos that followed would have been essentially about it. But Trump had already drunk the Kool-Aid, and one taste of the mind-blowing power and prestige adhering to the Oval Office — orders of magnitude greater than anything he had known — and he would be instantly hooked on presidential politics. The die (unfortunately) had been cast.
As I write this (on August 20, 2020) Joe Biden is getting ready to give what many are hoping will be “the speech of his life” as he accepts the democratic nomination for President of the United States.
In a compelling, perceptive article, The New York Times columnist, Jennifer Senior — (“Learning to Love Joe Biden”) — presents a nuanced profile of a “political lifer”. As a reference she leans heavily on Richard Ben Cramer’s “gonzo classic about the 1988 presidential primary, ‘What It Takes’ (disclosure, I haven’t read the book):
“Cramer followed just six candidates that season, seemingly with full-saturation access. One of them happened to be Joe Biden.”
“During this pandemic season, when the former Vice President only periodically heaves to the surface before sinking away from public view, it is awfully powerful to see him not just on the campaign trail, but also on the campaign trail while still in the prime of his life. There’s now a whole generation that looks at Biden and sees only a ragged lion in winter.
“It will also explain who Biden is — and why 33 years after his first presidential run and why, years after his debate in national politics, his moment may finally be now”.
“Much of what we see is pleasantly familiar — the doggedness, the sloppiness, the charm, the irrepressibility, the occasional gusts of temper. His handlers often had no idea what to do with him… ‘Even his own guys talked about him like a wild stallion who’d never felt the bridle.’”
“But what is no longer evident today, probably because Biden is 77 years old, is that the former vice president was once a furnace of ambitions. He was a young man in a hurry who very much saw himself in this way; his self image seemed to rest on the idea of being the whippersnapper in the room. “Joe could see it,” Cramer wrote, “How Joe would be, how he’d look: young, handsome, smart, self-assured…”
“But here’s the paradox about Biden… his youthful energy never came from his ideas… So what was Biden sure of in 1989? His decency… His identification with ordinary under appreciated Americans. His commitment to them… “He was so sure, he knew where the people stood.’ They were like him, he was like them”.
In other words, Joe Biden had the common touch. He did not put himself aboveanyone. He did not put anyone above him:
“I’m better than no one. No one is better than me.” He was proud of his hardscrabble background growing up in Scranton, Pennsylvania; proud of his ability to overcome adversity; to stand up to bullies; to fight for what he wanted; to not only feel your pain but to share it.
To a considerable extent, perhaps more than any other candidate in recent years, Joe Biden is running on his capacity for empathy; his ability to connect with the other person:
“I’m running because this election is for the soul of Americans. I’m running to stop Donald Trump, and his henchmen from destroying our democracy.”
I don’t doubt Joe Biden knows what it is like to experience great personal loss (his wife and daughter were killed in a car accident over forty years ago; his beloved son Beau, who pleaded with him to not give up on his plan for running for the presidency, died of brain cancer at the age of 46).
What I do doubt — as someone who has been a professional psychotherapist over the past thirty-five years, who has had connected with thousands of troubled minds; who has listened to tens of thousands of still searching, conflicted self narratives — is the extent to which Joe Biden understands what empathy really is.
So here is what empathy is not: it is not sitting by someone’s side and holding their hand. It is not giving out your cell phone (to strangers) and assuring them you are there if they ever need someone to talk to. It is not taking selfies with their family. It is not sharing your own pain with them. It is not crying with them. It is not being handsy with them:
Being empathetic is not a simple thing; it is not something you can learn how to do from reading a hallmark card or from listening to your pastor. Above all it is not about you, about your need to be empathic, about your need to feel good about being empathic. It is essentially about the other’s loss, not yours.
Joe Biden often looks (to me) as if he is on the verge of tears. I hope he can rise above his personal sorrow, and (if he wins) meet the country’s crisis head on: the road less traveled for Biden is, for once, to be a born leader (like Andrew Cuomo) and not a born politician (a political lifer).
The road less traveled for the country is for once to embrace a politics of meaning, not a politics of partisanship.
The road less traveled for me is writing this article: for summoning the resolve for the first time in the past four years to speak about the crisis our entire country is going through from a personal stance.
Is the author of
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Patient
Psychodynamic Studies of the Creative Personality
His new book is
God and Therapy
What We Believe
When No One is Watching