But things hardly stop there. Trump has shown time and again that he delights in hurting those he deems to be threatening or insufficiently loyal to him. We saw that in the way he relentlessly humiliated former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the first senator to endorse him in the 2016 GOP primary. Trump has publicly mocked Sessions as “weak,” “disgraceful,” and “scared stiff”—and according to reports, he’s called Sessions “mentally retarded,” an “idiot,” a “dumb Southerner,” and “Mr. Magoo.” Why? Because Sessions rightly recused himself from a Department of Justice investigation into the 2016 campaign, which eventually led to the appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
Trump has used the unmatched influence of his office to advance a twisted understanding of manliness, confusing it with cruelty, lack of compassion, and mercilessness.
BIDEN IS CUT FROM a very different cloth. Perhaps that is in part due to his fundamentally different psychological makeup, parental attachments, and formative years—for example, Biden’s lifelong struggle with stuttering, for which he was at times fiercely mocked, even by a nun who was also his teacher.
But just as surely, Biden has been shaped by his well-documented encounters with great loss and suffering—the death of his first wife, Neilia, and his 13-month-old daughter, Naomi, in a 1972 car accident, when Biden was 30 years old, and the death of his oldest son, Beau, from brain cancer in 2015.
Biden’s wife, daughter, and son were, by all accounts, people whom he cherished; he delighted in their company, and their deaths were grievous blows. His Catholic faith started to buckle. (It eventually recovered, and is now a source of great comfort to him; these days, he is fond of quoting Kierkegaard, who said, “Faith sees best in the dark.”)
Franklin Foer: Biden has changed—for the better
After Biden’s wife and daughter were killed, he wrote, “The pain cut through like a shard of broken glass. I began to understand how despair led people to just cash it in; how suicide wasn’t just an option but a rational option.”
That tragedy became an inflection point. Biden could have been broken by these losses; instead, they deepened him. “One key to life is tying periods of suffering to a narrative of redemption,” a friend once told me. Biden, facing nearly unbearable losses, used them to find greater meaning in his life, to find a narrative of redemption.
“I wanted to give people hope,” Biden said in 2017, in talking about his book Promise Me, Dad. “That there is—through purpose, you can find your way through grief.”
Through that journey of grief, Biden not only found purpose; he also forged within himself greater empathy and compassion. He is a man acquainted with the night; his own wounds made him better able to identify with the affliction and agony caused by the wounds of others.