John McCain. Elizabeth Warren. Megyn Kelly. Carly Fiorina. A New York Times reporter with a muscular disorder. The 12 million Mexicans living in the United States. The 1.6 billion Muslims around the world. These are just a few examples of the many people Donald Trump has offended over the past year ― and still managed to walk away politically unscathed.
But in his latest public relations disaster, maligning the parents of fallen soldier, political strategists say Trump may have gone too far. That’s because his words offended many people’s sense of decency ― something deeply ingrained in the psychology of humans, no matter which political party they ascribe to.
Trump responded to a speech by a Muslim man whose son was killed while serving in Iraq by making disparaging comments about the soldier’s mother, Ghazala Khan, suggesting she was silent because she “wasn’t allowed to have anything to say.” In an op-ed in the Washington Post, Ghazala Khan wrote that she was too overwhelmed with emotions to speak under the towering picture of her fallen son.
So why is this situation different from Trump’s prior offenses? Because we’re hard-wired to care when someone crosses a moral line. Research suggests our brains are equipped with some sense of right or wrong early on. Infants as young as 3 months of age are able to evaluate others based on their prosocial and antisocial behaviors, and are attracted to prosocial individuals, according to a 2011 study. Another study dealing with 8-month-olds found that they like to see do-gooders rewarded, but prefer punishing antisocial characters who act against the unspoken rules of “being nice to people.”
What should Trump do now? Apologizing is a universal social behavior that has developed to remedy these situations, and often, a wrongdoer’s chances of being re-admitted to the community hinge on showing sincere remorse and offering restitution. Thanks to our seemingly intrinsic morality, knowing which situations require an apology usually comes fairly easy to humans.
In the 1960s, sociologist Erving Goffman examined apologizing behavior. He concluded that a successful apology needs several elements: Apologizers experience embarrassment, acknowledge violating the rules, ask for forgiveness and express willingness to take a punishment.
But Donald Trump can’t be sorry, because he’s never wrong. That’s what he told Jimmy Fallon September last year. Sure, apologizing is a great thing, he said, but you have to be wrong. And he can’t even remember the last time he was.
In general, research has suggested that all things being equal, people show different degrees of ability to understand their wrongdoing and the need to apologize. Men, for example, apologize less than women and report that they have committed fewer offenses, a 2010 study showed. This suggested that “men apologize less frequently than women because they have a higher threshold for what constitutes offensive behavior,” the researchers wrote.
What does research say about a person who never apologizes? Although understanding of moral trespassing appears to be a basic cognitive skill, for some people, an inability to apologize is evidence of a deeper issue. Psychiatrists have generally refrained from diagnosing Trump from afar, under ethical rules devised by the American Psychiatric Association following a similar case in 1964 that ended poorly. Nevertheless, perhaps considering Trump is running for the highest office in the country, some therapists have weighed in, finding his public behavior to be classically narcissistic and devoid of empathy.
If he really doesn’t feel sorry, there’s another option that could work for Trump in the case of the Khan family: offer a fake apology. Such a utilitarian approach has been observed in many a politician before, said Edwin Battistella, a linguist who wrote a book exploring the success and failure of public apologies, from Bill Clinton to Jane Fonda. But Trump can’t seem to do it.
“I thought of adding Trump to the paperback version, but realized there wasn’t much to say,” Battistella said, considering the dearth of public apologies from the GOP candidate.
Trump may hope that standing his ground is a sign of strength. American culture has embraced this idea, especially for men. And people sometimes find rule-breakers attractive ― something Trump has capitalized on throughout his campaign by presenting himself as an outsider who’s not afraid to say what people are really thinking. But in this case, it’s unlikely most people will see attacking a military family as a sign of strength or power.
At the end of the day, the best way to remedy the situation is an apology. “A personal apology says that I’m a different person, I’m not going to behave this way in the future,” Battistella said.
But for Trump, that concept may be too difficult to grasp. “I don’t regret anything,” he said in response to the Khan family’s pain over his remarks.
Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims ― 1.6 billion members of an entire religion ― from entering the U.S.