On Sunday, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer appeared to suck back tears as he condemned Donald Trump’s travel ban. “This executive order … ,” he said, fading to a pause. The cameras zoomed on his face to capture the emotion as he choked out the rest: “… was mean spirited and un-American.”
The following day, Trump retaliated on Twitter, saying that the chaos that ensued at airports after the order was caused by “[the] Delta computer outage [on Sunday], protesters, and the tears of Senator Schumer.”
If this final clause was an own—an aggressive act that polarizes readers, some of whom yell “damn” out of superiority by proxy—then conflating compassion and weakness is the own du jour. It might be called tear mocking. A recurring exchange in comment threads is to boast about drinking or otherwise feasting on “liberal tears.” Dive into the gutters of most stories of recent political news—e.g. the travel ban, the Women’s March, the ascent of Steve Bannon into the inner circle of national-security advisers—and expect to find a tear feast, a celebration of the perceived misery of “the liberal.”
“I get all my strength from drinking the tears of liberals,” Meghan McCain said in January. “I love that everyone is having so much anxiety.”
Tear mocking is a mechanism of converting aggression into social-media praise and status. For people seeking praise, tear mocking rallies like-minded followers. For trolls who deal not in praise, tear mocking draws the ire of compassionate people. Either way, you get attention. Sometimes you don’t need to go all the way to the comments section to see it. A headline on Breitbart (formerly run by Bannon) reads “Trump Week One: Schumer Weeps.”
Though tear-mocking generates torrents of approval in certain circles, making fun of crying has no plausible basis as an innate human tendency. Among all but people deemed sociopaths, witnessing another human in anguish triggers a pained response. This is not liberalism or conservatism, but a simple fact of how a species evolved to thrive in groups.
According to psychologist and “tear researcher” Ad Vingerhoets, “Tears are of extreme relevance for human nature.” He has explained crying as an effective way to recover when experiencing strong emotions. The act is also a form of communication linked to social bonding, an element of humanity not exclusive to infants. As Vingerhoets put it, “We cry because we need other people.”
Though humans seem to have cried throughout history, the exact mechanism connecting emotions to lacrimal secretions is mysterious. A prevailing theory in the 1600s, according to the American Psychological Association, was that emotions like love “heated the heart, which generated water vapor in order to cool itself down. The heart vapor would then rise to the head, condense near the eyes and escape as tears.”
Today we know that it’s not simply that emotions make us cry, but the inverse as well: Seeing people cry can generate emotions. In Time last year, the neurologist Michael Trimble explained that the same areas of the brain are activated by seeing someone who is emotionally aroused as when we are emotionally aroused ourselves. “Being able to cry emotionally, and being able to respond to that, is a very important part of being human,” he said. Tears aid in the transmission of empathy and compassion from person to person. At University College London, Trimble is working on a study on whether people who never cry can lead rich emotional lives. He tells me the results aren’t in yet.
It’s simpler, though—instead of trying to understand this complex social phenomenon that can convey and result from a panoply of intense human experiences—to deride it. Tear mocking wins social capital. Schoolyard bullies have long known this, but the new feedback loop on social-media platforms is more quantifiable and insulated from consequences. Likes and hearts seep into the brain and become dopamine, and that feels good.
This neurochemical feedback trains people to see compassion and empathy as weakness. Strength, by contrast, seems to mean erecting a literal giant wall. When John McCain and Lindsey Graham spoke out in defiance of the travel ban, Trump wrote that the two “are sadly weak on immigration.” Last night he fired former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates for her principled stand over the morality and legality of the order, and the White House issued a statement calling her “weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration.”
The difference between borders and immigration is one I fail to appreciate, but Trump’s message is clear: Yates is double weak.
By contrast, America wants to be strong. To be tear-free, heavily armed, and vehemently territorial. This is an understanding of strength borne of the cultural obsession with masculinity that propelled Trump throughout his campaign. It equates aggression with success and detachment with confidence. It fetishizes impetuousness, pompousness, and brash egocentrism as alpha-manliness—the state that young men are taught to envy and all others to flock to.
It’s in this framework that devout Trump loyalists seem to appreciate that he says things boldly, but are less entangled with what he says. Threatening journalists at rallies drew applause as a convincing display of masculine dominance. Now loyalists appreciate that he is doing bold things—quickly and decisively, without hesitation or compromise, without nuance or emotion. The trappings of confidence can be intoxicating. This effect is difficult to counter with policy arguments.
But as my colleague McKay Coppins wrote earlier this week, Trump’s fuel seems rather to be insecurity. Like so many people in possession of great power and wealth who relentlessly seek more power and wealth, the president seems constantly pushing away an image he can’t escape. It’s that of a new-money Queens boy who compensates for lacking sophistication with gold-plated everything and huge numbers of everything. It culminates in his obsession over the size of the crowd at his inauguration, and with his fixation on losing the popular vote. He has lied to the American people about widespread voter fraud without evidence, undermining faith in American democracy, apparently to protect his ego.
The appearance of confidence comes from covering insecurity with aggressive masculinity. Just as he does not appear to laugh, and says he doesn’t cry. In a televised interview earlier this month, Trump was asked point blank if he had ever cried. From what I know of psychology, the most common answer from an honest, healthy human is yes. A manipulative politician might also answer yes, for a different reason—an opportunity to relate to the people. The politician could use the opportunity pander with some mention mention crying at the death of Ronald Reagan, or at the birth of his first child, or at watching the World Trade Center fall.
But even faced with an opportunity to appear patriotic and humane, Trump replied: “No, I’m not a big crier. I like to get things done,” as though the two were at odds. “I’m not a big crier,” he continued. “I’m not someone who goes around crying a lot.”