At a recent White House event, as small business owners poured out their anguish about the economic devastation of the coronavirus shutdown, President Donald Trump made his boredom plain. He scrolled through his phone and posted on Twitter about an unrelated controversy. Yet this was just a particularly obvious display of Trump’s lack of concern for the travails of his constituents. The president has shown almost no compassion for — or interest in — the over 125,000 American’s who have died from COVID-19 or the 21 million newly unemployed. And he all but ignored the pain and anger of millions protesting in nearly every American city against systemic racism and police violence.

This extreme lack of empathy — combined with his fumbling and erratic response to a cascading series of crises — has made it easy for Joe Biden to tag Trump with the label that Franklin Roosevelt, running in a similar moment of economic disaster, so deftly applied to Herbert Hoover: “The Man Who Doesn’t Care.”

Hoover's aloofness

In the 1932 race, President Hoover should have been a much tougher target for this attack. After all, Hoover had risen to fame on his nearly miraculous works of charitable logistics. Hoover helped America feed Belgium and northern France during the German occupation of World War I, saving 9 million people from starvation. Throughout the US involvement in the war, he led the efforts to keep food flowing to those desperately in need.

By 1922, Hoover, a strong anti-Bolshevik, nevertheless was helping to feed 18 million Russians. Later, author Maxim Gorky wrote to Hoover: “In all the history of human suffering, I know of … no accomplishment which in terms of magnitude and generosity can be compared to the relief that you have actually accomplished.”

Yet despite Hoover’s incredible philanthropic record, Roosevelt’s campaign was able to paint the president as heartless, aloof from the misery all around him, and unequal to the task of rescuing the nation from the Great Depression. Hoover himself opened the door to this charge. He acted callously, sending the Army to violently disperse Great War veterans camping out in Washington and demanding their bonus payments. He was paranoid, railing about conspiracy theories and pushing the Senate to investigate Wall Street firms for intentionally driving down the stock market in an effort to hurt him politically. And he was willfully blind, refusing to believe his own experts about the scale of the economic devastation.

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As historian William Leuchtenberg has noted, by the summer of 1932, this was all coming to a head. Acting erratically and offering policies that were woefully insufficient, “the country was convinced that Hoover … was a cold-hearted man, indifferent to suffering.”
Trump's similarity to Hoover

In the summer of 2020, that should sound hauntingly familiar. Our current president is callous, using force to remove peaceful protesters outside the White House to clear the way for a bizarre photo-op outside a church. He is paranoid, spewing nonsense about plots hatched against him by former President Obama, Twitter, and, apparently, anyone who mails in their election ballot. And he is out of touch with reality, insisting — against all evidence — that his administration had “met the moment and prevailed,” that the COVID-19 death rates are inflated, that miracle cures exist, and that a vaccine is around the corner.

Most of all, Trump is the man who doesn’t care. He doesn’t feel your pain. He doesn’t mourn the dead, comfort the grieving, or support the struggling. He doesn’t consider his words or worry that they could have consequences. He doesn’t listen to experts or ponder his options.

He takes “no responsibility at all.”

The COVID crisis has ensured that this election — like its 1932 predecessor — will be a referendum on the president. Rather than making a choice between two competing visions, voters in 2020 mostly will decide whether they want more of what they’ve been getting from Donald Trump.

There are two sides to that coin. Voters will make an intellectual decision, weighing actions and policy. Did Trump move against the virus quickly enough? Was his response big enough? Has he handled the police violence protests appropriately?

But they also will make an emotional decision. They know that whoever they choose will impact their psyches for four years. In making that choice, voters should be reminded to weigh whether they believe that Trump has any real investment in them. Does he understand their lives, their struggles, and their fears? Does he think deeply and care passionately about people like them?

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In a recent speech — amplified in an ad — Joe Biden noted: “That’s what the presidency is. The duty to care. To care for all of us. Not just those who vote for us…not just our donors, but for all of us.”

In 1932, FDR was able to convince voters that Herbert Hoover, a famed humanitarian, simply didn’t care about the ravages of the Depression on ordinary Americans. Surely in 2020, Biden can make such a charge stick to Donald Trump, a man who proves every day that he cares only about himself.

Matt Bennett is executive vice president and Josh Freed is senior vice president of Third Way. Follow Matt on Twitter: @ThirdWayMattB