For the past several months, I’ve been playing a parlor game with my mostly liberal friends and family. If you had 15 minutes alone with Donald Trump, what would you say or do?
Some people reply that they’d try to persuade him to alter his political positions on immigration, abortion or the environment. Others would ask him about the Russia investigation, perhaps to catch him in some kind of admission of guilt. Still others would simply tell him to be fruitful and multiply — just not in those words.
But I’d take a very different tack. “Mr. President,” I’d ask, “who was your first childhood friend? And what did the two of you do together?”
That’s because I want to confirm that he is a real human being, with real human emotions and experiences. When Donald Trump was a kid, did he climb on jungle-gyms and see-saws? Did he play tag? And did he laugh and cry, just like the rest of us?
It’s hard to imagine because Mr. Trump has suppressed or disguised his humanity. He rarely displays empathy or compassion. He won’t show any vulnerability. And he never admits an error, which is why persuading him to change his mind would be a fool’s errand.
That’s precisely what so many of his supporters love about him, of course. He’s not just another political phony, they say; he’s the real deal. He won’t pretend to be anything other than what he is. But they’re wrong. Nobody — really, nobody — is as grimly narcissistic and sadistic as Mr. Trump appears. There is decency and compassion inside all of us, even Donald Trump. He just acts like there isn’t.
And that brings to mind Richard Nixon, the only president in recent memory who has rivaled Mr. Trump in heartlessness and vindictiveness. Nixon kept a lot of that under wraps, but it was exposed when the Watergate tapes were released. There, in reel time, we heard the real Richard Nixon: bigoted, callous, paranoid and ruthless.
In 1970, after National Guardsmen opened fire on antiwar protesters at Kent State University, folk-rock star Neil Young had composed the most famous musical rebuke of Nixon:
Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
We’re finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio.
But six years later, watching television in his hotel room, Mr. Young reportedly saw a news bulletin that Nixon’s wife Pat had suffered a stroke and, later, footage of a visibly distraught Richard Nixon, moving through the revolving doors of the hospital where Pat was being treated.
Mr. Young is said to then have gone down to his tour bus in the hotel parking lot and composed “Campaigner,” which he played in concert a few hours later:
Hospitals have made him cry,
But there’s always a freeway in his eye.
Though his beach got too crowded for a stroll,
Roads stretch out like healthy veins.
And a wild gift horse strain the reins,
Where even Richard Nixon has got soul.
Mr. Young told the legendary rock journalist Cameron Crowe that he felt sorry for the disgraced ex-president.
Everyone loves and is loved. Everyone feels pain. Everyone has got soul. Even Richard Nixon.
And, we should add, even Donald Trump. Yes, Mr. Trump has told lie after lie. But his biggest fabrication is his public persona of incessant spite, malice and cruelty. He is all that, but he is not only that. Nobody is.
So in my imaginary 15 minutes with Donald Trump, I will find ways to bring out something else. I’ll ask him about his childhood, his family, his friends. I’ll ask him about his favorite pop songs and movies and athletes. I’ll ask him to tell me what made him happy and sad. I’ll ask him about the first time he was scared.
I won’t tell anyone what he says. Mr. Trump doesn’t want you to know, because then his cover will be blown. But he’s a human being, just like everyone else.
Over the years, Neil Young has occasionally substituted Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush for Richard Nixon when he performs “Campaigner.” Perhaps he’ll brush off the song once more and add our current president:
Though I campaigned all my life towards that goal,
I hardly slept the night you wept.
Our secret’s safe and still well kept,
Where even Donald Trump has got soul
Jonathan Zimmerman (email@example.com) teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author (with Emily Robertson) of “The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools” (University of Chicago Press).