“You want me to have cognitive empathy for Trump?!”: a talk with Yakov Hirsch

A talk about trying to understand Trump’s anger at the liberal-leaning news media and how that relates to American polarization. This is from a video talk I had with Yakov Hirsch ( in November of 2023 (the first part of this talk is here). A transcript is below.

Other topics discussed include: Trump-Russia media coverage; Americans’ polarized views of Trump; the importance of trying to understand others’ views, even people we perceive as very wrong and dangerous; the importance of cognitive empathy; the seemingly widespread lack of empathy these days; and American polarization and conflict dynamics.

Episode links:

Resources related to or mentioned in this talk:


Zach Elwood: Hello, and welcome to the People Who Read People podcast. I’m Zachary Elwood. This is a podcast aimed at better understanding other people, and better understanding ourselves. You can learn more about it at What you’re watching now is a second part of a talk I had with Yakov Hirsch in late November of 2023. I separated that talk into three parts. The first one was focused on the Middle East conflict and anti-Semitism and I’ve already shared that episode. The one you’re watching now is about Trump and American polarization. In this talk, we mostly focus on Trump and his high animosity relationship with the media, and the divergent polarized views that Americans can have of Trump. 

If you’re listening to this on audio, just note that this was a talk Yakov and I had on video. So if you want to watch the video, head over to my YouTube channel. That will also help explain why it seems a bit more rough and informal than usual. I didn’t edit our talk as I usually do for the audio episodes. As you’ll see, Yakov is someone like myself who tries his best to get into the heads of other people to understand what the reasons are for their actions. He attempts to have empathy for them. And he’s committed to doing this even for people he very much disagrees with, or even for people he thinks are doing harm and are dangerous. This is a similar underlying thread in both Yakov and I’s work, the idea that you can try to understand the more rational and understandable and human reasons for people’s behaviors, even while thinking they’re very wrong. And I think for many people, there can be a perception that trying to reach those understandings and having an empathy is naivete and weakness, whereas I see doing such things as a great strength. When you try to do such things, you’ll be less likely to amplify a conflict and make it worse. And I think taking such approaches less obviously makes it more likely you’ll actually be able to achieve your own goals. 

This talk may be a challenging one for some people. There can be a feeling like you’re asking me to try to have empathy for Trump. He’s nuts and dangerous. And I get that, it’s a challenging thing for me too. I sometimes have those feelings, too. It’s like, am I being the sucker here. But I think there’s something very important in that difficulty. All around us, we can see how conflict grows worse by people giving up on understanding other people’s narratives and views. They write those people off, they see them as objects or as evil. People cease to care how their own actions and ways of speaking can help drive other people’s aggressive and divisive behaviors. For example, in this specific case, it’s important to see how aggressive and biased responses to Trump and Trump voters are a big part of what drives support for Trump. 

If we want things to get better, we must be willing to try to understand other people, even when that’s painful and challenging, and even when it makes us feel kind of gross inside. If you’d like to learn more about the American polarization problem, you might check out my book, “Defusing American Anger.” You can learn more about that at or you can sign up for my Substack newsletter about polarization. You can find that link linked to that on my site, also at I also have an excerpt from my book “Defusing American Anger” on there that’s specifically about our distorted and polarized perceptions of Trump. You can find that in the book excerpts section on the site. Okay, here’s the talk with Yakov Hirsch. Note that this video starts out with Yakov and I in the middle of talking about the Middle East conflict, and that’s because this is the second part of the talk we had leading into us talking about Trump.

Yakov Hirsch: You have to think of Israel’s perspective because what happened to them is the most terrible thing that can happen to a country. If it happens to any other country, they would do the same thing as Israel. But here’s the issue. They are living every day with the story, whereas the rest of the world, they saw the story and most people said, “Oh my God, that’s so horrible.” But at some point, they are on to the new story. And the new story is every day innocents dying and Israel doing what they’re doing. Meanwhile, in Israel, when they look at their world, they say, “Didn’t you see what happened to us?” That’s what Bari Weiss said at some point. The people are celebrating Jewish death. Right? Anyone who’s demonstrating against the war is celebrating Jewish death. Because don’t you remember what happened to us? That you don’t empathize with what happened to us and the whole narrative that they have— their whole ideology— if you don’t agree that ideology is the real world, that makes you on the side of Hamas. Right? That’s our situation and everyone chooses to fight it differently. I mean, you have all these depolarization things, but look what you’re up against— people who have ideologies, and they’re saying it’s political science. They’re not saying this is my politics, they’re saying this is the truth about the world, and more evidence and more evidence and more evidence. Right?

Zach: Yeah, and maybe that’s a good point to segue because yeah, the more I’ve looked into the liberal academic work around the claims of high amounts of racism amongst conservatives and Trump voters, a lot of that work is just so weak to me. And I’m not the only person that says that. Musa al-Gharbi, an academic, wrote a great paper called “Race and the Race for the White House” that examined some of the really bad, and frankly, just kind of amazingly bad to me academic work that was used to take the worst possible framing of what this data says about what Conservatives and what Trump voters believe. And I was actually kind of astounded because those are the things that were used to then paint this picture. They were like the foundation of what journalists would point to or pundits would point to or Democrat politicians would point to build their case of like, this is the horrible White supremacist and bigots that we’re up against, you know? It was almost just taken as a fact in some very influential quarters that these things were true. But then you go look at the data that the things are built on and it’s just such bad academic work. For example, the book that got a lot of attention was “Strangers in Their Own Land” which was kind of the sociological examination of Louisiana Trump voters or Conservatives in general. But as Musa al-Gharbi pointed out in his work, people held this up as like saying a lot of significant things about Conservatives in general, whereas, actually, it was just examining a few people in the most deep red place in America, so, of course, you’re going to find the more extreme narratives there. And then, even within that, it seemed like the author, Hochschild– I think was the name– was taking the most pessimistic interpretations even within that framing just to say but these are the pieces of workbooks or academic work that are used to build this narrative that these people are basically evil, you know, in a similar way that I would say that happens in other conflicts or happens with Palestinians or… I don’t know if you have any thoughts on that.

Yakov: Yes. I mean, this is… Again, its ideology. This quote ‘academic’, it’s an ideology. Meaning that he has this idea and he could muster whatever evidence he wants and then he writes this thing. And the people with this ideology of Whites are racist, you just keep on accumulating to people who are receptive for whatever victimhood or whatever it is. For whatever reason that you’re receptive to this, you are masking this data. And everyone’s like, “Yeah, of course, it’s obvious already.” Right? It’s obvious. Now, think about the people who do the depolarization work. What do they do? They bring people and human beings together. Ideologies are about ideas. Ideology says, “You see those people? This is what they believe.” Depolarization is you put people together and they like, “Oh, you have twins too? Oh, my God, I have twins! What is—” It’s human beings, right? They’re not ideological. But these people are telling you, “No, everyone’s ideological. All the White people out there.” Each side is saying the other side is the one that’s ideological. But basically, everyone is less ideological than the people who are saying.

Zach: Right. Exactly.

Yakov: They’re the ones who are ideological, not the people they’re talking about.

Zach: Yeah, and what comes to mind there… I actually wanted to write a piece about the complex narratives that people on both sides of the American polarization, the complex pessimistic narratives that people build. For example, you have Christopher Rufo who wrote this book about the creeping malicious Marxism that was on the Left. He painted this portrait of “Oh, this stuff comes from these very bad people back in the day, and it’s all just this narrative that’s come forward into our time, you know? In the same way that some liberals do with the more pessimistic White supremacist framings. But Rufo and other people are building this narrative of those people that you see who have those beliefs on the college campuses, deep in their heart, they want to destroy tradition and they want to create this Marxist wonderland or whatever he says. I haven’t read his book but I just read the summaries, but it’s the same kind of trying to reach for this most pessimistic narrative about who these people on this other side is. And that’s just the nature of what conflict does to people. It makes us uncurious, it makes us unempathetic, and it makes us filter for the reality that we want to see about the other side. Yeah.

Yakov: Now think of Bernie Sanders when he ran in 2016. Bernie Sanders, this is very interesting, because Bernie Sanders is not ideological. Right? He doesn’t go with it giving speeches about this side. No. He’s saying, “All the people are in this together. Right? Your problem, you have nothing to do with this person across the country, but you’re both American and we should cut tack.” Whatever his solution is, he wasn’t ideological. And someone like him is the solution. Some magnetic politician. Because if you look at the people who tried to destroy Bernie Sanders, I’m not talking about… I’m talking to the idea people. The people who are the most ideological and need these ideological battles, right? This is how Conservatives got into MSNBC because they’re very good at waging ideological war. They wage. And if you look at those people, look at what they wrote about Bernie Sanders. The venom, the hatred, it’s because he’s not fighting the fight that they think needs to be fought. So these ideas are very, very important when you’re trying to make sense of politics.

Zach: You’ll now be hearing an ad. I don’t endorse these ads, and I encourage you to remain skeptical of all ads.

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Zach: Yeah. And interestingly from the depolarization angle too, a point I often bring up is a lot of liberals don’t know that Bernie Sanders was very anti-immigration for most of his career up until recently. He called illegal immigration like lax immigration laws a Koch brothers scheme because he thought that using cheap labor were ways that people with money got more money. And and a lot of liberals don’t know that, but I like to reference it as an argument to say well, you presumably don’t think Bernie Sanders is racist for his… You know, he has a very liberal background for his stances on immigration. And I’d like to make that point to say, well, if you can see how that doesn’t require racism to have those views, maybe you can be a little bit more empathetic to the Conservatives who have those views.

Yakov: Again, no hate. Think about that. Every politician. But Biden’s talking about hate. Hate, hate, hate. Every politician is hate! Bernie Sanders, no hate. Right?

Zach: I did really like him the more I’ve read about him and learned about him. Yeah, I like his approach and his way of disagreeing with people basically. So yeah, maybe we can switch to Trump himself. Because one of the things I wanted to talk to you about, the main thing was your thoughts, you know, basically having cognitive empathy for Trump even as– I’ll give the usual disclaimer– I think he’s a very narcissistic and dangerous person in his narcissism. And I thought that since I read an early book, “Trumped!” which is about his Atlantic City days written by a high-level casino executive that showcased Trump’s personality flaws being present way back in the ’80s and being responsible for his Atlantic City casino failures. But all that said, I think he’s very badly narcissistic. But I also agree with some of the things you and I have talked about, which was there are some really understandable reasons for why Trump behaved as he did, including having legitimate grievances with how the media treated him. Maybe you can talk a little bit about that.

Yakov: Yes. In February 2017, Trump gave a news conference, which I believe any historian who wants to really understand what happened here, if they were to watch that news conference, it would be eye-opening. Because in this news conference, Trump was totally authentic, was being himself, and if you’re able to get by the judging and if you’re able to look at Trump and be a political scientist, if you could imagine being Trump to really understand what’s happening, our journalists, their job should be to look at that and say, “Oh, this is what Trump thinks. This is what Trump feels about that. He got worked up when he was talking about that,” so people understand what’s going on in Trump’s head. But the audience that wasn’t, they don’t even think their job was that. Their job was to condemn and to say how awful he was, right? So, the whole media attitude towards Trump, whatever he is, we’re not judging. Right? Whatever. He could be the worst person in the world we’re trying to understand. So this news conference is so easy to see what Trump is saying. We’re getting his opinion. And when you listen to his opinion, and that’s when we both saw this, it was like Trump knows he’s nothing to Russia. You just look at him and it’s so obvious that he’s telling the quote, truth. Right? And we’ve all become so ideological that when you look at Trump, you can’t even… It’s just like, “Trump, I hate you!” You can’t even think of his perspective. But then you understand the whole world. If we can see that image, right?

Zach: I want to play a few minutes of that because you drawing attention to that, I honestly had not watched much long-form press conferences. Most of my awareness of that was in short forms, but you got me to watch most of this, which is like a pretty long thing. It was an hour and a half or something. And some of the things that stood out to me were, A, I’ve written about the bad and irresponsible press coverage of the Trump-Russia stuff. And people who are curious about that, I’ll put links in the description for this. But there’s many even progressive people that have written about the quite bad press coverage and the way politicians spoke as if it was like a certainty that Trump had colluded with Russia and these kinds of things. And Glenn Greenwald wrote a good article. No matter what you think of Glenn Greenwald, I’m not a big fan because I find him very polarizing, but he had written a really good examination of just really bad Trump-Russia mainstream press coverage. So you drew my attention to this press conference, which I agree was very interesting.

A quick note here, I was initially thinking of adding in some footage from the 2017 press conference that we were referencing here. Instead, I’m just going to include some links to that video in the entry for this episode on my site, I think Yakov is right in that that was one of the more interesting press conferences from Trump’s administration, and seeing how he talked about the Trump Russia coverage and understanding his relationship with the media. Okay, back to the talk.

The things that stood out to me were he was much more eloquent than I remember him being and I think part of that is, you know, my perception of that whole relationship him with the press or him with liberals in general was that he became increasingly both angry and mad, and I think, too, by the interaction. It was like a mutually rage-amplifying relationship, I felt like. Because, as you say, Matt Taibbi wrote a book, “Hate Inc”, which examined some of the liberal inclinations to push back on. They were like, “We’re not going to take this. We’ve got to be even more aggressive with our approach, you know? That was our failure or something.” But this kind of mutual radicalization, that struck me. Because, as you say, he struck me as… Even with some of the insults he would throw, he struck me as somebody trying to reach out to them and say, “Look, you’re being very unfair to me. If you did a better job, I would be your biggest fan.”

Yakov: He says let’s not fight. I just want to bring up one of the things we’re trying to… Think about what he said. He said Hillary got questions before one of the debates. Right? And he hit the press. “Can you imagine if I would have gotten questions before the debate?” If let’s say it turns out Trump got it and somehow some guy gave him the result, and think about how he sees the world, nothing happened. It wasn’t even a story. Right? So when he presents that, he doesn’t get an answer. And it’s true he’s right about it. So he keeps on making this argument to show that his view of the world is the accurate one. And it is. One of the things he said is accurate.

Zach: Yeah, it’s understandable. And I think it’s very important to see that.

Yakov: You can’t understand Trump. Sorry, you can’t understand Trump without understanding all the things he knows to be true. And now we have a very different Trump from the one that’s 2016. That’s a very big problem.

Zach: Right. He’s gone down this path, which I think to your point, it’s like you have to be willing to examine how he went down that path. It’s important to understand that too. And I think what the us-versus-them feelings or narratives do to us is like… I mean, you talk about this stuff to some liberal people and they just have no curiosity about any of that aspect. It’s just like, “We know he’s bad. The voters are dangerous, we know January 6th happened. We’re not curious about this interplay and the relationship of how these things play out.” And it’s really the lack of curiosity about the dynamics that gets me.

Yakov: So if we’re trying to understand truth, again, we would go to the Trump voters and we’d interview all of them. “What do you like how he’s on trial? What do you think of that?” And we would be able to come up with an explanation. These are the main reasons why Trump voters still like Trump. And what I believe is it would be very different from the people who are saying this is what they believe. And we have to– just from what we’re speaking about here– imagine those Trump voters who are watching that video which we both watched and they’re like, “Yeah, look, he’s making sense. He doesn’t… Look, it’s the media!” Everything Trump says is quote, true. And they’re not even responding. And as we both know, some Columbia journalism reviewed this big project, which was an ex-New York Times journalist who wrote the war against the war against Trump, which compiles all this misinformation. So this happened in the real world, and you didn’t have big discussions in magazines saying let’s talk about this. They ignored it. So what does this mean? The media is playing politics, but they’re claiming their political science. In other words, they’re talking to a Trump voter, “How could you vote for someone…” You know, these moral arguments. But no, you’re political. You have your own reasons. Whatever it is, you’re not objective. And they see that. So of course, it’s totally understandable to be like, “Yeah, I don’t care. Of course, I’m on Trump’s side in this fight.”

Zach: Yeah, exactly. I think that’s the really important thing. In conflict, such an important thing is understanding how so much of support for Trump or support for a leader in a conflict is about your anger at the other side. It’s not necessarily or not even often probably about really liking that person, it’s more like that person represents the fight against what you dislike on the other side. And the case of the pretty bad coverage and framings and punditry around Trump Russia stuff or Trump’s racism or his voters’ racism, all that stuff is sufficient to me to understand what bothers people. You can understand the animosity, to me, just based on those things, like examining those things and seeing why people are so angry. And for people curious about this, I will include, like a lot of resources, including resources by progressives or people that are not fans of Trump– like, they were very much scared of Trump, but who have examined these issues. But I think for a lot of people, that’s hard to… They don’t really want to see those things.

Yakov: Let me give you an example of the right way to cover Trump, the responsible way which should have been done in 2016. At some point, Trump said– I forgot what court case it was, but it was a Mexican judge. And he said that Mexican judge can’t be honest or something like that, he’s going to be biased. Now, if you want to make a case against Trump, if you want to make a case to the American people, you’d say, “Hey, don’t you understand that we can’t have a president who says this person is not fair because of the race?” Imagine everyone listening to him, they go to court, they don’t like the… It’s like, no, he believes that because of… So, no matter what we think of Trump, we cannot have a president who says this judge is not fair because he’s a Mexican. Right? That should be enough. Whatever the opposition is to this President, this is what… That eliminates—

Zach: There’s plenty of legitimate things to focus on without taking the worst possible interpretation of everything.

Yakov: It’s just making fun of ridiculing him. I mean, it’s just absurd what’s happening.

Zach: Or things like him telling Congress people born in this country to go back to their countries. That’s objectively bad. We don’t need to reach for all these other interpretations. Maybe I’ll just put in a video clip of the Trump conference later just so people can see a little bit of it. I don’t think we need to play it. But I’ll just play a little bit and if people are interested, I think they’ll watch more. So yeah, we can skip that. But let’s see, I’m going to get my notes here.

Yakov: I mean, think about what we’re facing, the challenge we’re facing. On the one side, the media or however you want to call them, Washington or whatever, I don’t know the right words, they see Trump is being put on trial, he’s the most popular, it looks like he’s going to be the nominee, right? And all of these people believe that this is the end of democracy, and therefore, their reporting and their takes on everything is it’s the end of democracy. And the other side Trump’s going to be taunting the media. “Haha, you know what I’m going to do when I become President? I’m going to put you all in jail. Haha.”

Zach: This just ramps up more and more. Yeah.

Yakov: So, like I said, they’re experiencing the world in different ways. And who’s supposed to be the responsible one? The media is supposed to be the responsible one. Instead, they’re more ideological than Trump. That’s the secret. In 2016, Trump didn’t come here white nationalist. He was not ideological. When you listen to him when he got to work, he really wanted to quote, “Make America great.” Right? He was proud. If you look at his interaction, think about every day he’d go to work, get things done, he’d go home, he’d go to his bedroom, he’d turn on CNN and be like, “No, that’s not what happened. That’s a lie.” Right? And he’d throw the remote at the TV.

Zach: Yeah. Speaking of worst-case interpretations, like the whole thing about interpreting ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan as an obviously racist slogan, yet when you look into that history, it’s like both Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton used it at least once in some of their campaigns. There’s examples of that. And it’s a very easy-to-understand slogan because most people would interpret it, or I think most Trump voters are interpreting it as like, “There was a time when we had many more jobs and the main streets weren’t decimated and small towns were decimated.” But to reach for this ultra-pessimistic interpretation of like, “Oh, they just want a time when White people had more control.” And that’s the very pessimistic—

Yakov: As soon as this became the approach to Trump in 2016 by the media, what we have now became inevitable. Inevitable. Because you have each side interpreting the weight differently, and it keeps adding up. And here we are. Right?

Zach: The very nature of conflict. Yeah. It ramps up insults, leads to insults, threats, perceived threats—

Yakov: That’s the thing. Each side becomes more ideological. They keep on collecting more things that they’re right about.

Zach: Right. Yeah, that’s what led to things like people writing as if the January 6th event was a White supremacist event. People would write about it as if it was clearly evidently just about a White supremacist overthrow of the government, when you can look at the pictures of the people there and there’s clearly a significant number of racial minority Trump voters, and all it takes to be at that event is a belief that the election is being stolen. And if the President is telling you the election is stolen, a lot of people are going to believe that. It doesn’t require any more—

Yakov: January 6th is a perfect example because it’s a fight about meaning. What does this event mean? And one side tells you what it means and they didn’t stop telling you what it means. Right? But I don’t think political science, if they were to interview every person and find out why you would want to hurt anyone, the report they’d come back with is very different from the report of the media. In fact, Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, he spoke to someone on that march, and what did this person tell him? What did he quote? He said this person said the worst White nationalist things imaginable. That’s the thing. These people, ideologues, this is to help their interpretation. So it’s a big problem to understand reality.

Zach: We live in a big country. That’s what I often emphasize. It’s like, you know we have 330 million people in this country, you can’t just pick out pieces of information and build a simplistic narrative in such a complex world, you know? Yeah. Okay. Getting back to one thing you and I talked about was both you and I had an early read in 2017 that the Trump Russia stuff wasn’t going to amount to stuff. And I didn’t go on record on that but it was something that was early in my mind and it was based on the fact that… It kind of relates to the poker tells stuff where one of the most reliable tells in poker is if somebody’s making a big bet and they’re just very relaxed and don’t have anything to and they’re just very effusive and are willing to talk about the hand and they’re willing to talk about what they have, those are all really good signs that they’re relaxed and are value betting. They’re not bluffing, right? In a similar way, not to say that this is a hundred percent or anything, but when I saw Trump talking about the Trump Russia stuff in such an effusive way and just went on for long stretches of time about it, even like him saying that thing of in 2016 before he was elected where he’s kind of kidding around things where he’s like, “Russia, if you have those Hillary Clinton emails…” I think he initially said, “Russia or China or anybody, if you have the emails, send them to me,” kind of in a mocking way. And then he later repeated, like, “Russia, if you have them, I’d like to get them.” That read to me like the other behaviors as this is not a guy who was trying to hide associations with Russia. Because even if you think Trump’s a lunatic, it just would be very unusual, in my opinion, for somebody to be completely relaxed talking about Russia. And including in the press conference that we were referencing earlier, he just seemed very genuine to me about talking about Russia talking about, “Hey, I have no involvement over there, I own no businesses blah, blah, blah.” When people would talk about, “Oh, this Trump Russia thing is going to expose so many things,” I was like, “I really don’t think that’s going to happen.” Sure, maybe I could be wrong. Obviously, these things aren’t foolproof, but that was my read of the situation.

Yakov: The question is, what is he… We’re curious about what is he thinking. What was he thinking when he said that? And if you just open your eyes, you see he’s thinking it. He’s making a joke. He’s ridiculing the whole thing. That’s all we need to know. You can’t have a take, “No, he’s sending messages.” No, you just look at him. For instance, I’ll give an example that the audience should understand. In an interrogation when police interrogate suspects, if you have 20 years of interrogation, and if a woman gets killed and you bring the husband there and you start asking the husband questions, if the husband acts a certain way when you ask him where he was that morning and starts going off, “At 20 minutes, I went there and stopped and it was 7-Eleven,” they know from experience, people who do that are 98.7% guilty. Because a normal person would be like, “Why… You think I did it?” All of that. So, think about that as a tell. If you’re paying attention, you’ll say no, this person wouldn’t do that if this was the case. So poker, when you’re sitting and playing hundreds of hours on you see the same thing over and over and over, you can’t help but say, oh, when someone does that, it means that.” Now, of course, you have to correct it. Anyhow…

Zach: Yeah, a great example that was, you know, these are all just anecdotal but the real power is in the patterns of them. But like Chris Watts, you know, he killed his wife and children and you watch that footage of him interacting with the cops and he’s just really cagey and doesn’t say much because he’s afraid of, you know, how can my words be interpreted? But somebody who isn’t afraid of being caught in anything, they’ll talk about anything. And people have disagreed with me about this. I had someone I know write to me and say, “But Trump’s a sociopath. He’s an extreme narcissist. You can’t take those normal things.” And I’m like, “I think you can, actually.” Because it wasn’t like… Maybe if Trump was already charged in a court of law or something and had nothing to lose, he would behave abnormally. But everybody has something to lose. That’s the nature of bluffing too. You have something to lose so it kind of exerts an influence to act in certain ways. So if Trump had been colluding with Russia, it’s pretty unlikely to me that he would be able to speak so freely about these things, because he had to be worrying about like, “Well, how are people going to interpret this? What are they going to find? What information are they going to find in how I word this?” But the fact that he just spoke so loosely and the fact that with him doing the thing about like, “Hey, Russia, if you have Hillary Clinton’s emails…” some people interpret that as if he’s making a message to them. Like, if you were colluding with Russia, you wouldn’t have to put it on live TV for everyone to see. That’d be the last thing you would want to do if you were colluding with Russia because you wouldn’t want to draw attention to the fact that you were colluding with Russia, right? You would do it with a back channel. To me, it was the complete opposite of what people were filtering it through their lens of how can I make this fit my view of Trump and my extremely negative view of Trump.

Yakov: Here’s the secret, Trump is transparent. Every other president you ever interviewed, you didn’t know what they were thinking. Basically, if you pay attention, Trump is transparent. Just look at him, and he tells you what’s going on.

Zach: Another example– and for people interested in this, I have a whole chapter in my book where I go through the extremely pessimistic interpretations of things that are top of people’s mind for the horrible things Trump has said like Mexicans rapists thing, or the other example was in one of the debates with Biden. He said something like… They were like, “What do you think of the Proud Boys?” And he was like, “Proud Boys stand by.” But to me, I spent a lot of time interpreting people’s language and I wrote a whole book on verbal poker tells. To me, that stood out as no, he was basically just trying to not give points to people who want to paint Proud Boys as a significant problem and he’s basically trying to say, “Proud Boys, let the police do their work.” He was basically trying to… The more important part of his statement was stand back or whatever and then he just said stand by, but people interpret that as if he was sending some military command to them. And I’m like that’s the most pessimistic way to interpret what happened, as if Trump is some great communicator that he planned ahead to send this secret message to these people, when we know he just speaks off the cuff and speaks really loosely.

Yakov: Think about what he said. “I am the least racist and anti-Semitic person in the world.” Right? So he said those things. Now, let’s imagine what did Trump mean when he said that. In his mind, there’s this African American who brings his car in a certain time, he gives him this amount of money for it. Basically, he doesn’t see someone and think negative thoughts because of their race. This is the same thing with Jews. He doesn’t think like that. So this is the way he says it. Like, “What are you talking about?” Right? And the responses, what do you mean that…

Zach: I won’t go that far. I think he—

Yakov: Listen, I said what he said about the Mexican.

Zach: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Yakov: That’s the most racist thing in the world. I’m just saying to think what he… Of course, he’s not right. But when he says it, what does he mean? You have to understand is he just crazy? [inaudible]

Zach: I don’t want to defend him too much because I do think he is, in some sense, a bit crazy. Because you read this book “Trumped!” and it’s like he didn’t have any memory about things he would do because I think he’s just such a narcissist. And there was a valid thing in there about him making that statement about Black people being lazy, which I think was a valid thing. But to the point that we’re making, though, it’s like you can believe all those things and still think that a lot of stuff— [crosstalk]

Yakov: I have no idea whatever the evidence is about him, I have no idea how racist he is. I’m just saying—

Zach: Yeah, we’re more focused… The thing I focus on is the way people, no matter what they think of Trump, is the way they try to act as if like, “Well, clearly, Trump voters must see the horrible things that I see about him too.” That’s the other very bad conflict thing where people assume that because I think this person is horrible or whatever I think of them, then therefore, I can judge these people. Whereas those people have a completely different view of that person and just do not see the same world, you know?

Yakov: If you look at which journalists are popular, they are the ones who are condemning and judging and having a moral crusade, right? And your side, you love moral crusades. It’s very good to indict the other side. But that’s the end of the world, right? Because this is not what’s really happening, but every day, it’s like, “Oh, my—” Think about, just as an example, Republican politicians and how they should behave towards Trump. So, you have these journalists saying, “Oh, my God, this person. If he doesn’t do this, he has to…” You have to think about their perspective, even if they don’t like Trump and they’re forced and whatever, right? But there’s nothing like that.

Zach: Yeah, totally. That’s hugely important, too. It’s like people interpreting, you know, Republicans not speaking up in the worst possible ways. It’s like, “They must be fully on board with everything he’s saying,” or the worst possible interpretations. Whereas there’s much more mundane explanations in the same way you can imagine if there was a Democrat who was doing extreme things, Democrats wouldn’t want to talk about that because they wouldn’t want to give points to the other side and these kinds of things. And also, some Republicans are presumably waiting for the madness to die down and they don’t want to get involved in it, and maybe they’re like, “Some of this will go away, hopefully.” So that there’s more generous interpretations of it. Yeah.

Yakov: Right, because they’re about ideas. And they match up human behavior and say, “Oh, you see?” So when you think about people as people, you try to—

Zach: Figure them out. Yeah.

Yakov: Different story, right? This is going to be a problem.

Zach: Yeah, for sure. It’s getting worse. Seems like it’s getting worse on social media.

Yakov: I don’t know how we’re going to survive the next year.

Zach: Honestly, people think I’m very pessimistic, but I don’t think humanity will survive for a couple more decades or three. Because we’re going to have bigger and bigger weapons, it seems like all the countries are becoming more polarized. The polarization, to me, is the existential threat because we’re going to have people that can make manmade diseases in their basements and stuff, you know? This kind of stuff. So I just think people that act like this is some side problem, to me, it’s like this failure of empathy, and how we behave in conflicts is the main course to me.

Yakov: Because think about what the media is telling every US citizen. “Which side are you on?” This is what they’re presenting to every American. Whose side are you on? So, this has been presented. They’re not interested. They just want to bring home food for their family. “No, which side are you on? Are you going to vote for a president who did this?” This is a big problem.

Zach: That was the second part of a talk that I had with Yakov Hirsch in November of 2023. One thing I meant to talk about in this talk but didn’t get around to was something that I think is very important for understanding Trump’s personality and the way he behaves. Trump simply doesn’t want to do what other people want to tell him to do. If someone tells him you should do this or you must do this, he won’t want to do it. I think that personality trait alone helps account for so many of the interactions he’s had with the press and other people where people pressure him and he acts avoidant and stubborn. For people who’d like to understand Trump’s personality, I highly recommend the 1991 book, “Trumped!” which was written by John O’Donnell. It’s a very good book for understanding long-term personality aspects of Trump that go back to his Atlantic City casino days. For example, the book talks about his extremely poor memory, his narcissistic traits, his unreasonable fits of rage, his tendency to pit his underlings against each other to make them try to win his favor, and other things. It’s just a very good and well-written book, and it was written by one of Trump’s high-level casino executives. John O’Donnell said he wrote that book out of a desire to let other people know what Trump was really like.

This has been the People Who Read People podcast with me, Zachary Elwood. You can learn more about it at If you’d like to learn more about American polarization, check out my site, which includes information about my book and about my Substack newsletter. Thanks for listening.