The point of town hall debates is that regular voters get to ask questions. In every town hall I’ve seen, the candidate turns to the voter, listens attentively and directs the answer at least partially back to that person.
The candidates do that because it’s polite, because it looks good to be seen taking others seriously and because most of us instinctively want to make some connection with the people we are talking to.
Hillary Clinton, not exactly a paragon of intimacy, behaved in the normal manner Sunday night. But Donald Trump did not. Trump treated his questioners as unrelatable automatons and delivered his answers to the void, even when he had the chance to seem sympathetic to an appealing young Islamic woman.
That underlines the essential loneliness of Donald Trump.
Politics is an effort to make human connection, but Trump seems incapable of that. He is essentially adviser-less, friendless. His campaign team is made up of cold mercenaries at best and Roger Ailes at worst. His party treats him as a stench it can’t yet remove.
He was a germophobe through most of his life and cut off contact with others, and now I just picture him alone in the middle of the night, tweeting out hatred.
Trump breaks his own world record for being appalling on a weekly basis, but as the campaign sinks to new low after new low, I find myself experiencing feelings of deep sadness and pity.
Imagine if you had to go through a single day without sharing kind little moments with strangers and friends.
Imagine if you had to endure a single week in a hate-filled world, crowded with enemies of your own making, the object of disgust and derision.
You would be a twisted, tortured shrivel, too, and maybe you’d lash out and try to take cruel revenge on the universe. For Trump this is his whole life.
Trump continues to display the symptoms of narcissistic alexithymia, the inability to understand or describe the emotions in the self. Unable to know themselves, sufferers are unable to understand, relate or attach to others.
To prove their own existence, they hunger for endless attention from outside. Lacking internal measures of their own worth, they rely on external but insecure criteria such as wealth, beauty, fame and others’ submission.
In this way, Trump seems to be denied all the pleasures that go with friendship and cooperation. Women could be sources of love and affection, but in his disordered state, he can only hate and demean them. His attempts at intimacy are gruesome parodies, lunging at women as if they were pieces of meat.
Most of us derive a warm satisfaction when we feel our lives are aligned with ultimate values. But Trump lives in an alternative, amoral Howard Stern universe where he cannot enjoy the sweetness that altruism and community service can occasionally bring.
Bullies only experience peace when they are cruel. Their blood pressure drops the moment they beat the kid on the playground.
Imagine you are Trump. You are trying to bluff your way through a debate. You’re running for an office you’re completely unqualified for. You are chasing some glimmer of validation that recedes ever further from view.
Your only rest comes when you are insulting somebody, when you are threatening to throw your opponent in jail, when you are looming over her menacingly like a mafioso thug on the precipice of a hit, when you are bellowing that she has “tremendous hate in her heart” when it is clear to everyone you are only projecting what is in your own.
Trump’s emotional makeup means he can hit only a few notes: fury and aggression. In some ways, his debate performances look like primate dominance displays – filled with chest beating and looming growls. But at least primates have bands to connect with, whereas Trump is so alone, if a tree fell in his emotional forest, it would not make a sound.
It’s all so pathetic.
On Monday, one of Trump’s conservative critics, Erick Erickson, published a moving essay called “If I Die Before You Wake… .” Erickson has been the object of vicious assaults by Trump supporters. He and his wife are both facing serious health ailments and may pass before their children are grown. Yet as the essay makes clear, both are living lives of love, faith, devotion and service. Both have an ultimate confidence in the goodness of creation and their grace-filled place in it.
You may share that faith or not, but Erickson is living an attached life – emotionally, spiritually, morally and communally. Donald Trump’s life, by contrast, looks superficially successful and profoundly miserable. None of us would want to live in the howling wilderness of his own solitude, no matter how thick the gilding.
On Nov. 9, the day after Trump loses, there won’t be solidarity and howls of outrage. Everyone will just walk away.
David Brooks is a New York Times columnist.